Local doctor inspired by snow leopards

February 29, 2008 7:47:48 PM PST
The Indianapolis Prize is rapidly becoming as important to animal preservation as the Nobel Prize is to peace or medicine. Every two years, it gives one winner $100,000 dollars as recognition for their work. One of this year's finalists lives in Sonoma and his name is Dr. Rodney Jackson.

It's one of those weird license plates that you probably can't decipher.

"UNCIA is the scientific name for snow leopard," says Jackson.

For half the year, Dr. Rodney Jackson lives and works in Sonoma, but his commute takes him to the other side of the world, 12,000 miles away -- to the high mountains of Tibet in central Asia, the domain of an endangered creature that is one of the rarest, most elusive cats in the world -- the snow leopard.

"Its eyes are just this sort of embodiment of an animal that is superbly adapted to an extremely harsh environment," says Jackson.

Jackson showed us the photograph that changed his life, 30 years ago. A dedication he shares with his partner, Darla Hillard. Together, they created, and run the Snow Leopard Conservancy, dedicated to studying the cats and saving them.

"Well we want to know about the behavior and the ecology of the cat," says Jackson.

It's all quite fascinating, in theory, but a bit esoteric from Sonoma County, so...

Jackson arranged to show us Asha Koran. She was born in captivity, belongs to Rob Nicely, who raised her with his wife, and keeps several cats in Occidental for educational purposes.

"They're just an unbelievably powerful animal. When I get to touch it it's so soft but I can just feel the power," says Nicely.

There is something you can't quite explain about the stare of a snow leopard. There's intelligence behind those eyes, but not a lot of compassion.

In the wild, one would never get this close to a snow leopard and survive, so Dr. Jackson and his team use remote, infrared cameras for much of their observing. They shoot anything passing by. Occasionally, they get a money shot.

"One of my dreams is to give remote cameras to villagers. They would then be able to monitor the presence of their resident cats, and have some ownership about them, be able to sell photographs to tourists. I don't know," says Jackson.

That may sound like a mercenary concept, but money motivates people.

Dr. Jackson wants high mountain locals to view snow leopards as resources, not pests. As part of his program, Jackson has found residents who open their homes to tourism, who might get $15 dollars a night for dinner, a bed, and cultural exchange. That's a lot of money for someone earning $400 dollars a year.

"And that is, I can guarantee you, an incredible incentive for these people to protect the snow leopard, and they will," says Jackson.

It's original, innovative thinking, in a world of big, remote spaces, growing ever-smaller. Home, still, to one of the world's most magnificent animals.

"We have an obligation to work with developing countries to help them conserve their biodiversity and the snow leopard is just one species," says Jackson.

And so ABC7 Salutes Dr. Rodney Jackson of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, nominated for the Indianapolis Prize.