Although the snow leopard (Uncia uncia) inhabits some of the world’s most remote and rugged landscapes, by the end of the 1970s the species was seriously at risk of extinction. Degradation of the leopards’ habitat, human population growth and, in particular, poaching for their beautiful and valuable fur had driven them almost out of existence. The big cats, standing 60 centimetres at the shoulder and weighing up to 55 kilograms, retreated to remote and sparsely populated terrain where the remaining numbers — probably fewer than 7,000 — are struggling to survive.
An Elusive Animal
When Rodney Jackson started his research work nearly 20 years ago, there was no real evidence that any snow leopards were to be found in Nepal’s three mountain national parks. It was not until 1972 that the animals were even photographed. Expeditions had been organized to study the snow leopard but without great success.
For South African-born Jackson, a British wildlife biologist who studied zoology and botany in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and at the University of California at Berkeley, it was clear that a strategy for survival of the snow leopard required a thorough understanding of its movements, home range, food habits, hunting behaviour and social organisation. But information was limited by the animal’s secretive and largely nocturnal habits, its inaccessible habitat, low numbers, and sparse distribution.
Visiting the Himalayas in 1976-1977 to survey the snow leopard population, Jackson came to the conclusion that the only answer was radio-telemetry. This would entail live-capturing a small number of the animals, fitting them with radio-collars and then releasing them once more in order to track their movements by following the radio signals.
Jackson drew up a project to trap and radio-collar five snow leopards in the Kanjiroba Himal area of West Nepal near the Tibetan border and to track them over at least eight consecutive months. The radio-telemetry data would be supplemented by visual tracking. The plan was to trap the animals in winter, when their range is most constricted. The trapped leopards would be tranquillized using a blow-pipe projected syringe, then measured, weighed and fitted with the specially designed radio-collar before being released back into the wild. The innovative nature of the project won him a 1981 Rolex Award for Enterprise.
On the Right Track
Later that year in November, Jackson set up camp in the Langu Gorge in western Nepal to begin the first of four seasons of field study. He was accompanied by his partner, Darla Hillard, who subsequently committed their numerous adventures to paper in her book Vanishing Tracks — Four Years among the Snow Leopards of Nepal. Gary Ahlborn joined them in 1983 as research associate.
"The nearest store was at Nepalganj, 160 miles (250 km) south by foot," Jackson recalls. "At least 30 porters were needed to carry our supplies and equipment. We learned to accept the Langu’s weather extremes, the monotonous diet, backbreaking terrain, and isolation." Moreover their quarry was frustratingly elusive. "The Langu’s leopards uphold their species’ reputation as shy and secretive," Jackson observed. "They are easily concealed, and we have spent many hours — the radio giving us the cat’s exact location — looking in vain for a glimpse of sinuous tail or two revealing black ear flags."
Climate and Other Challenges
The team experienced the worst winter in living memory in Nepal. Monsoon rains set off landslides through their tracking area. With the base camp a two-week march from the nearest airfield, self-sufficiency was essential. When Jackson was bitten by one of the leopards he had trapped, they had to postpone research work for a month so that he could seek treatment in Kathmandu. Ironically, the accident happened with a leopard that had been captured four times before.
Despite these difficulties, the expedition provided the data to build up an extensive and detailed picture of the life and behaviour of the snow leopard. It also gave the background needed to prepare a conservation plan for Nepal and for other countries where the animal lives (its range covers some 12 countries of Central Asia). Most importantly, it stimulated interest among other researchers in this and similar species and placed pressure on national and regional authorities to take action to prevent poaching.
Recognized for Results
The project also brought Jackson considerable fame. This included an article in National Geographic magazine, which was to become a major supporter. As Jackson explains: "My project was the first successful attempt at radio-collaring and studying snow leopards in the wild. Our work is still by far the most detailed study of the species. It is routinely cited by professional biologists as an example of how field studies should be undertaken. It exemplifies how the myriad logistical, physical, political and other obstacles can be overcome through careful planning, team-work, perseverance, and a willingness to adapt to the rugged, remote terrain and local culture."
Data from Jackson’s snow leopard project has built a sound basis upon which the species can be protected and managed, especially within national parks and wildlife sanctuaries where its numbers are higher and habitat conditions generally more suitable. Jackson’s information also provides a basis for determining the minimum and ideal sizes and locations for reserves.
Cat Populations Fluctuate
Jackson admits it is difficult to assess the impact of his work on the number of snow leopards in the wild, since population trends are difficult to establish. The animals occupy a huge area — computer mapping indicates that their range could be as much as three million square kilometres — often in areas that are difficult to reach and are sparsely populated by humans. Moreover, until Jackson himself initiated special field training workshops, few local biologists were able to distinguish snow leopard signs from those of other large cats. Thus, it is hardly surprising that much of the available information is relatively recent, making it harder to detect trends over the past 20 years. However, the evidence Jackson has collected suggests that numbers have declined in many areas as a result of poaching, depletion of prey species and military activity.
Jackson sees clear evidence of leopard population decline in Afghanistan and all of the newly independent Central Asian republics — Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China is the largest country to harbour snow leopards, but numbers have declined sharply in most provinces such as Gansu, Qinhai and Xinjiang. They have stayed relatively unchanged in parts of Tibet and the adjacent mountain areas. On the other hand, snow leopard populations may have increased in parts of Nepal, India and Mongolia, judging by the number of local reports of livestock killings. The total population is estimated at 4,500-7,500. "However," says Jackson, "being an optimist and having travelled widely in Nepal, India, Pakistan, China and Mongolia, I tend towards the upper figure."
Becoming a World Expert
Jackson sees his Rolex Award as the event that launched his career in defence of the snow leopard and helped him become the world authority on the subject that he is today. "The Rolex Award made my proposed project possible," he remarks. "It provided me with recognition and exposure and seed-money to prove that a rare animal like the snow leopard could be radio-tagged and tracked in the rugged Himalayan environment. This was especially critical after the world’s leading expert, Dr. (George) Schaller, had failed to live-trap them in Pakistan a decade earlier because they had been hunted almost to extinction."
"The media exposure that accompanied the Rolex Award," says Jackson, "convinced the Nepalese Government to issue all necessary permits for the project, despite the fact that it was being undertaken in an area closed to foreigners. Exposure also attracted the interest of the National Geographic Society, which became the leading sponsor of my work. It enabled me to meet and exchange ideas with people like Himalayan expert Lord Hunt, a member of the Selection Committee for the 1981 Rolex Awards, as well as government leaders, photographers and other explorers.”
"By the mid-1980s our project led directly to the establishment of the Shey-Phoksundo national park, Nepal’s largest protected area, which provides a suitable habitat for snow leopards," he says.
Since winning his Award, Jackson has expanded his activities in many different directions. He is closely involved in the Seattle-based International Snow Leopard Trust which was founded in 1981. The Trust has some 500 members and is largely responsible for organising the International Snow Leopard Symposium, held every three years, which offers a forum to bring together government officials, scientists and interested parties who rarely have the opportunity of sharing ideas and whose countries might be hostile toward one another.
Jackson himself is leading a project sponsored by the Snow Leopard Trust and targeted at reducing conflict due to livestock predation by snow leopards in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Local shepherds will be offered incentives to protect wildlife, while learning how to guard their flocks better. Similarly, he is involved in an information management system for snow leopards, has developed a low-technology technique for detecting the presence of the leopards and is spearheading the mapping of potential snow leopard range.
"In recent years my work has increasingly focused on the interactions of people and wildlife, including indigenous cultures, traditional livelihoods and proven avenues of participatory resource management," he notes. "These are being blended with the latest in technology, from computer mapping and integrating satellite images providing range and habitat maps of previously unexplored parts of Central Asia."
Published in 1996