That’s what Dr. Rodney Jackson, the founder and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, was in Indianapolis recently to promote. It was his first visit since attending the 2012 Indianapolis Prize Gala presented by Cummins Inc., where he was one of the finalists for the world’s leading award for animal conservation.
As the foremost expert on snow leopards, much of Jackson’s ability to study these elusive and mysterious cats has been due to his innovative work with camera trap photography. And that’s exactly what brought him to Indianapolis on this visit.
Of course there are no snow leopards to be found in the wooded hills outside Indiana’s capital city. Instead, this trip is all about teaching people how to use the same technology to learn more about the wildlife living around them.
Pausing briefly from his regular schedule of field work, conservation outreach and occasional time at his home in California, Jackson recently visited Bradford Woods, near Martinsville, to present a workshop on the practical applications of camera trap photography. With 30-plus years of experience, the small group who attended couldn’t have found a better teacher than Jackson.
“When I do these workshops, it’s really to raise awareness for the local wildlife,” he said.
In the 1980s, Jackson helped to pioneer camera trap techniques and was among the first to capture images of the stunning snow leopard.
“We were trying to do a census for snow leopards and using trail cameras. This was before they were commercially available, so we made one,” Jackson recalled.
He showed the group one of the first cameras he built using a standard point-and-shoot camera, a small pelican case, and basic wiring and circuitry that’s now readily available online. This model, pictured at right, has been in use for decades in harsh climates high in the mountains of Central Asia, but remarkably, it still works! But for less than $200, Jackson said, anyone can purchase a camera that’s practical, reliable and a heck of a lot of fun!
Intermixed with amazing camera-trap images of snow leopards in their native habitat are stealthy images of Jackson’s house cat as it wanders out for an evening adventure. Similarly, Jackson has helped set up homeowners with cameras that capture photographic proof of the animals that raid their garbage bins at night.
“More and more this is going to happen,” said Jackson, noting the continual overlap of human and animal territory. “I think you need to use cameras to see and determine when you have problem animals and what you can do.”
For instance, eliminating raccoons requires a much different approach than eliminating bobcats or even bears. First, Jackson said, you have to see what animal you’re dealing with before you know how to handle the problem.
What he’s found is that as people capture images of these animals, they become more curious about them. And many of the people he’s taught set up cameras simply to enjoy the intriguing wildlife photography they generate.
Just as he’s empowering people to connect with wildlife during these workshop, so too has he empowered the small communities that speckle the landscapes of Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia and other remote Asian countries.
Several years ago, Jackson began a program that partners students in these small towns with livestock herders in the area. Many herders have lost livestock to snow leopards and they’re intimately aware of the patters of these big cats.
“We team up the kids and the herders because the kids know the technology and the herders know where the cats are,” he said.
“The people see snow leopards as pests, but we want them to see them as an asset. When we get these photographs, you can look and see that this is a beautiful animal. And it’s making a difference!”
Because snow leopard ranges are measured across thousands of miles of rugged, remote terrain, it’s difficult to say how many are left in the wild. But, Jackson said, while a single sighting in a year used to be commonplace, now he and his team are seeing evidence of multiple cats in the same areas in much shorter times spans.
For Jackson, that’s enough to know these methods are working. So he’ll continue teaching these workshops so that more people will become inspired to meet the nature around them.
“Citizen science — I think that’s going to emerge as a very important conservation tool.”