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Rodney Jackson hikes high into the Himalayas to help snow leopards

Rodney Jackson and his team take 20 to 30 yaks, each loaded with 250 to 300 pounds of gear, into the Himalayas to study snow leopards, which take the word 'elusive' to an extreme.

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'I think snow leopards are better off now than they were 20 years ago,' says Rodney Jackson, who studies them in their native habitat above 10,000 feet.

Courtesy of The Snow Leopard Conservancy

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People who drive an hour to work might complain about their commute. Rodney Jackson used to walk for 12 days.

"You were not in a hurry to leave," says Mr. Jackson, founder and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, of his work in some of the most remote terrain on earth. Just to get mail, a runner would spend 25 days going out and coming back to camp.

Beginning in the 1970s, he, his partner Darla Hillard, and their team would take 20 to 30 yaks, each loaded with 250 to 300 pounds of gear, into the Himalayas to study snow leopards, which take the word "elusive" to an extreme.

Snow leopard territory starts at 10,000 feet above sea level and goes as high as 21,000 feet, spread over 12 countries in Asia. And they aren't easy to find. A snow leopard roams about 50 square miles of territory, Jackson explains, adding that he could go two or three years between sightings. (Another researcher who has been studying them since 2005 says he has yet to see a snow leopard in the wild.)

Despite the difficulties of dealing with multiple bureaucracies – including the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China – Jackson says that overall conditions are improving for the mountain-dwelling cat. "I think snow leopards are better off now than they were 20 years ago," he says.

Jackson, who conducted the first radio-collar tracking study of snow leopards, started with a grant from an insurance company that first brought him to Nepal to photograph the leopards, followed by funding from Rolex for him and Ms. Hillard to conduct the tracking study, which had been considered impossible. In the 1980s, they used pressure pads and hidden cameras to take photos of the snow leopards.

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