Protecting snow leopards
By Emily Charrier-Botts INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 5, 2011 – 02:25 PM
More has been done to protect snow leopards, one of the most elusive creatures on the planet, by a tiny organization in a small house in Boyes Hot Springs than by almost anyone else in the world. The Snow Leopard Conservancy, founded by Sonoma resident Dr. Rodney Jackson, marks its 10th year of defending the endangered species across the 10 countries it inhabits with a fundraising party on Saturday, May 22.
“We’ve been really focused on mobilizing local people as the stewards of their environment,” Jackson said. “It’s really starting to pay off.”
Jackson said during his 10 years of working to protect snow leopards, he has recently seen an increase in the number of cats spotted, a sign that the overall population has increased. But despite specific gains in the number of sightings, particularly in India, Northern Pakistan and Mongolia, Jackson said there is still much work to be done. Numerous camera traps set up across Eastern Russia, where snow leopards are known to roam, failed to capture a single image of any cats.
“We would not expect that to be the case,” Jackson said.
So how does one organization with just three employees protect an endangered species half a world away? Jackson said it all comes down to working with the tiny mountain communities where the leopards live.
“The best guardians are the local people,” Jackson said, explaining the conservancy’s job is to work collaboratively with communities to change residents’ perspective from viewing the leopards as a pest to an asset. “We want to create a direct link between the presence of the cat and the economics of their community. We make sure the community’s ideas, interests and concerns are incorporated.”
Despite being an endangered species protected in all countries, snow leopards are heavily hunted, not just for their exquisite fur but also because many natives see them as a dangerous nuisance that preys on their livestock. Jackson goes into these communities and teaches the residents not only how to protect their livestock from snow leopards, but also how to profit from the leopards by leading tourist treks to try to spot the animals.
“We let them see for themselves what the value of these animals are,” he said.
During his most recent trip, he traveled to the Khumbu area of Nepal surrounding Mount Everest, where snow leopards have only recently reestablished a habitat after decades of poaching that drove them completely out of the region. Jackson worked with a small community there to create an innovative micro-loan program that will help boost the economy of the community while also protecting snow leopards.
Under the newly-established Savings and Credit Act, the Conservancy deposited $1,200 into a savings account. Jackson then got dozens of households in the town to buy a share of the money by committing to continue adding to the account at a rate of 100 rupees ($1.30) a month. In exchange, the families can get loans from the savings account at an interest rate of 18 percent, when the average loan rate in Nepal is 30 percent.
“If the local people want to get money to build a house or fix their roof or buy supplies for their store, they had to go to the village lender … And these guys are notorious,” Jackson said.
Instead, the villagers can now control their own finances as a community. In exchange for the start-up capital, the account sharers agreed to spend a portion of the loan interest earned on snow leopard conservation, including educational activities to spread awareness to children and reimbursing those who lose livestock to the cats.
They also promise to report poachers. Jackson said the community has enthusiastically embraced the program, even throwing a cultural festival where they raised $800 for their account.
“This community has been doing (the program) for 10 months and they have already doubled their account,” Jackson said, adding that he hopes to implement similar programs in other communities and countries.
Working with Texas A&M University, Jackson has also helped develop new technology to help track snow leopards using satellite images that can pinpoint the locations where the cats are most likely to live. Jackson then takes a team into those locations and collects leopard skat, which is analyzed to tell researchers the gender of the animal and how many cats have passed through that area.
“That helps us determine where we’ll target our community efforts,” he said.
For his innovative conservation efforts, Jackson has been nominated for the Indianapolis Prize for the third time in the past five years. The $100,000 grant is considered the most prestigious award for conservation and wildlife protection. He will find out at the end of the year if the third time is the charm for winning the grant.
With an annual budget of just $300,000, Jackson has successfully implemented some degree of snow leopard protection in almost all of the countries the animal inhabits, which often means cutting through difficult political red tape. But Jackson said more funds are needed to continue spreading awareness and protecting the leopards so their numbers can increase to the level once seen across the Himalayas.
“It’s such a huge area we have to cover, how do we scale up? That’s where people in Sonoma can help. Small amounts of dollars can go a long way over there,” he said.
On Saturday, May 22, the conservancy will host the Snow Leopard Gala, a 10-year retrospective, at the Janet Pomeroy Center in San Francisco. The event includes a Himalayan-style bazaar, wildlife encounters with a bactrian camel and a feline ambassador, and a silent auction that includes mini safaris, behind-the-scenes tours of the San Francisco Zoo and a special package from the San Francisco Giants. Jackson will also speak, explaining the extensive work the Snow Leopard Conservancy has done during the past 10 years. Tickets are $75 and can be purchased by calling 935-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To donate to the conservancy or learn more about Jackson’s work, visit www.snowleopardconservancy.org.