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Snow leopard ‘power couple’ Rodney Jackson and Darla Hillard

Rodney Jackson Snow Leopard Conservancy

Rodney and Darla with their car, registration plate “Unica”, latin for snow leopard.

I’ve been so lucky to spend the last two days with snow leopard ‘power couple’ Rodney Jackson and Darla Hillard at their home and the home of the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California.

Rodney and Darla are just fabulous – charming, friendly and incredibly hardworking.  They’ve been studying snow leopards for thirty years.

“In that time I’ve seen thirty cats” laughed Rodney. “One for each year!”

Yes, one for each year of walking through boot leather in dangerous high altitudes, gasping for breath in thin air, eating meager rations and sleeping in freezing tents, I thought with admiration.

During those 30 years Darla and Rodney raised money for vital research projects and established ground breaking community conservation efforts in India and 5 other countries to help villagers and snow leopards live in harmony. They would have saved countless cats’ lives in that time by changing villagers attitudes and behavior.

Sibylle and Rodney Jackson fromSnow Leopard Conservancy

Sibylle with Rodney Jackson at his home and the office of Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California

For two days I hung out with Darla and Rodney, talking almost nonstop about their work and the driving need to continue. “Sometimes I feel time is running out, but I also know if we preserve habitat in the right places the cats can come back” said Rodney.

Darla is the author of ‘Vanishing Tracks: Four Years Among the Snow Leopards of Nepal’ about their work in that country. She is a powerhouse of energy. She  promotes the Conservancy’s work, publishes books and other materials, engages supporters, and more. She loves the arts and crafts of the people who live in snow leopard territory and the house is full of paintings and textiles with snow leopard motifs. “Count how many snow leopards you can see in this house” she laughs.

While I was with Rodney and Darla a huge box of camera traps arrived in a Fedex parcel. We unpacked them and one was tested that night – on Smudge the cat, as she went in and out of her cat door. The camera trap worked, not only did we see Smudge coming and going but also a cheeky raccoon trying to get into the kitchen to eat her leftover food.

Rodney pioneered the use of non-invasive, remote camera traps for photographically “capturing” snow leopards and using the data to identify resident cats and to track them over time. He’s become such an authority that he’s been invited to Saudi Arabia next week to train people in the use of the camera traps. “We’re hoping to get film of the critically endangered Arabian leopard which hasn’t been seen in 8 years.”

Snow leopard camera trap

The camouflaged camera trap on the left. The small black reader unit on the right allows researchers to see the pictures immediately in the field rather than waiting to download them later.

Consulting work like this just fuels Rodneys motivation to continue work on the magical snow leopards. He recently made contact in the Altai Mountains in Russia with people honoring the cats as sacred. “Now Darla and I want to explore merging the world of facts with the spirit world, as well as continuing our science.”

Regular readers of the this blog will know that Rodney was again recognized by the prestigious wildlife conservation prize, the Indianapolis Prize, for his incredible snow leopard conservation work when he was nominated as a finalist this year.

He and Darla are going to be busy for a long time time. But I knew too, as I farewelled them, that if snow leopards do continue to survive in the wild long term, the cats (and the rest of the world) can give a big thanks to Rodney and Darla.

Blog readers can support Rodney and Darla’s fabulous work by learning more about it, buying books and other items and donating to their community and research projects on their website.

This famous photo is one of Rodney’s from a camera trap. It’s become one of the world’s iconic wild snow leopard photos.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Rex October 10, 2010, 7:38 pm

    We all owe a debt of gratitude to Rodney and Darla.
    And thanks for shining a light on their work Sibylle.

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