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Rodney Jackson dances with snow leopards

The world-renowned biologist is entirely devoted to the preservation of these rare felines, whose territory covers 12 countries. A life’s work that combines scientific discoveries and cooperation with the peoples of the mountains.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in March 2021icon-clockTime to read: 2min 58s

At 77, Rodney Jackson recalls that his father, an electrical engineer responsible for powering the Kariba hydroelectric dam, then under construction in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at that time), did not want him to become a biologist. No, he should have followed in the footsteps of the head of the family. But nothing can withstand the power of a calling and above all a deep love of nature. So the well-behaved child who loved to track animals in the African bush where he lived in South Africa would stubbornly follow his own path. In 1966, he went to study zoology and botany at the University of London. Determined to work under the supervision of Aldo Starker Leopold, a professor of zoology at Berkeley, California, he successfully gained admission into his Master’s programme. Much later, Jackson would obtain his PhD from the University of London. Meanwhile, the 1970s would be a prolific time for the biologist in the making. As well as graduating, he met Dana Hillard, a young woman who wanted to get involved in the environmental cause. The fate of the couple would become inseparable from that of the snow leopard.

As Rodney Jackson was preparing to return to Africa in 1976, he came across an issue of National Geographic dedicated to this mythical animal and decided to travel to Nepal, where he was welcomed by one of his conservationist friends, to go and try to take photographs of this feline. On this first trip, he saw many traces of it, but not the leopard itself – at least not alive. Ranging over a territory of 12 countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and particularly elusive, the leopard is never easy for anyone to see. In fact, in four decades of his life devoted to the animal, during which he made at least one trip a year to these remote areas, Rodney Jackson can claim to have crossed its path only 50 or so times.

This trip showed me what I had to do.Rodney Jackson

Snow leopards live in inhospitable mountain areas covering no less than 12 countries.

A shocking sight

During this first adventure in Nepal, he took part in a winter hunt during which villagers hunt a certain species of deer whose glands produce a kind of oil that is so precious that they can live for a whole year on the proceeds of its sale. But what he discovered was the corpse of a snow leopard killed by a poisoned spear: a shocking sight that sealed Rodney Jackson’s future. “This trip showed me what I had to do,” he said. The biologist then decided to dedicate his life to gathering knowledge about and protecting this magnificent species, whose existence is threatened by mankind. He committed himself to a mission that has lasted for more than four decades. Jackson began by sending his Sherpa to find the guilty hunter and buy the skin from him for 70 dollars. Back in Kathmandu, he put the skin under the noses of the local authorities to prove that the animal was being poached despite the international bans, and produced a paper on the subject in Oryx, an academic journal published by Cambridge University.

In 1981, Rodney Jackson formed a large-scale project to scientifically study snow leopards by attaching a transmitter collar around their necks. Many of his colleagues discouraged him, given that Dr George Schaller, considered one of the most important animal biologists in the world, had failed in a similar attempt in Pakistan in 1973-1975. But the latter encouraged him. Funded by the Rolex Award that he received in the same year and sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Rodney Jackson, accompanied by his wife Dana Hillard, succeeded in his mission, collecting an impressive and unprecedented amount of data. He thus laid down the foundations for acquiring greater knowledge of this elusive feline. “My study on radio tracking in Nepal was the first and remained a fundamental study for almost twenty years, until the advent of satellite collars,” the biologist was happy to say.

International scientific recognition

Strengthened in his convictions, with visibility in the media and supported by prestigious sponsors, over the years, Rodney Jackson gradually became the undisputed worldwide specialist on the snow leopard. This focus proved to be an innovative professional breeding ground. In collaboration with Dr Jan Janecka, a geneticist, he published scientific papers in prestigious journals that revealed knowledge about the animal’s genetic make-up, its diet, its ability to adapt to its environment, and even the existence of subspecies. Four times between 2008 and 2018, Rodney Jackson was a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, an illustrious award attributed once every two years by the Indianapolis Zoo to people for “extraordinary contributions to conservation efforts” affecting one or more animal species. But, in competition with other renowned scientists, he has never been the overall winner of the $250,000 prize, which is a noticeable regret. Even if his specialisation is primarily an expression of a fascination: “Because of their rarity, their incredible elusiveness and their rugged mountain habitat, you need to be totally dedicated and passionate about the cause. It is like studying a ghost, even today with all modern tools like camera traps, drones and artificial-intelligence devices!” Rodney Jackson acknowledges.

In 2000, the biologist and his wife created the NGO Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), based in Sonoma, California, where they live. After all these years of roaming the hard-to-access areas that are the snow leopard’s hunting ground, the couple has a good understanding of the rural communities that occupy them, their concerns, and the best ways to reconcile humans and animals. Since the main cause of leopard mortality is its ferocious appetite for livestock. When the large bharal, otherwise known as the blue sheep, becomes scarce on the high mountain plateaus, the leopard hunts in the villages, which can result in significant damage for the inhabitants. A study in Nepal estimated an average loss at two heads of cattle (mostly yaks) per year per household, which represents a loss of $50-$300 for people whose annual per capita income is between $250 and $400.

Our task is to help local communities maintain depredation of livestock by snow leopards at a manageable level while increasing revenues and strengthening the management of mountain.Rodney Jackson

More valuable alive than dead

“Our task is to help local communities maintain depredation of livestock by snow leopards at a manageable level while increasing revenues and strengthening the management of mountain ecosystems,” the biologist explains. Currently, the NGO and its six employees are actively working in partnership with local communities in Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Russia and India. From the construction of corrals to protect livestock from predators and insurance in the event of attacks on herds to homestays by tourists, photographic treks to try to spot the animal and, of course, the training of monitors and awareness-raising activities to educate local people (16,000 pupils involved), every effort is made to ensure that Asian livestock farmers consider the snow leopard to be of greater value alive than dead. Until about 2011, Rodney Jackson spent between three and five months a year working in the field. As it became increasingly difficult to obtain crossing permits, he has gradually moved into mentoring to organise a handover to local people. “Promoting bottom-up rather than top-down conservation is a long-term solution,” the SLC founder says. But the task remains as urgent and difficult as ever.

In 2013, the 12 countries concerned signed a joint text recognising that “the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of the natural and cultural heritage of our nations and an indicator of the health and sustainability of the mountain ecosystems,” thus committing to protecting it and “its fragile habitats”. SLC’s president notes, however, that “the challenge is to connect local actors and these governments, and to reconcile very different visions of conservation, from traditional knowledge to current economic and scientific approaches.” Consideration must also be given to the sanctity of the animal in some of these countries, the incarnation of traditions and legends. “In some provinces of the former USSR, the leopard is a totem species: killing it is deemed to plunge the families concerned into misfortune,” the biologist says.

Jackson worked hard to ensure that the animal acquired “vulnerable” status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list in 2017. It is believed that between 4,000 and 7,000 individuals remain scattered over a huge, multi-border area. The female gives birth once a year to two or three cubs that only become independent at between 18 and 22 months old. In addition to retaliation by farmers, they are also threatened by poaching, mining and the invasive development of human activities in their territory.

Through the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Rodney Jackson thus brings technical solutions and money to people or entities deemed trustworthy to act on the ground to set up conservation programmes. Eight countries are involved, often with major political difficulties to overcome. “In Russia, for example,” he says, “we cannot currently transfer money to our relays, because they would then be considered agents of a foreign government. In Nepal, there is a lot of bureaucracy, and a new constitution that decentralises powers to the regional level has just been put in place. In China, there is considerable suspicion of foreign, and even Chinese NGOs. So it is also difficult for them to receive funds from foreign organisations, with the possible exception of the United Nations. But the Chinese are very open to research programmes. And so, we work with relays via universities to study the snow leopard, and its genetic make-up in particular.” Undaunted, Rodney Jackson is continuing on his quest by defending a certain idea of harmony on Earth.

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