Chhinsu, an 18-year-old snow leopard, lazes in the corner of her cage in an Occidental preserve, moving only her watchful amber-green eyes and occasionally her tail.
The tail is what often gives them away in the Himalayas, where their coloring provides such perfect camouflage in both rocks or snow, said Rodney Jackson of Sonoma.
"Aren't they beautiful?" Jackson asked, watching a leopard in its cage. "Those eyes, they have such a faraway look, like they are looking for the mountains."
Jackson, 64, has spent half of his life working to save the snow leopard, establishing the Snow Leopard Conservancy and working in the 12 nations where the endangered cat lives.
For his work, Jackson is a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, a prestigious award from the Indianapolis Zoo being given for the second time.
The $10,000 prize is the single largest award for work with a single species, zoo spokeswoman Karen Barns said.
"What he has done with the conservancy has a lasting effect on the survival of that animal," Barns said. "As a researcher, his work and his contributions to the body of scientific knowledge is impressive."
"And he is out there doing his work in remote areas, places only mountain trekkers go to, where he lives in a tent for a month," she said.
Barns said the prize also is used to inspire youth.
"A lot of kids are looking for heroes and looking at sports stars when people like Rodney are the real heroes, they are the Indiana Joneses," Burns said. "It may turn young people onto a career option maybe they have not thought of."
The winner will be announced in September.
Jackson said he believes there are 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild, with 400 in captivity in zoos and private breeding programs in North America and Europe.
Chhinsu and another snow leopard, Ashakiran, who is 7, were born in captivity and are at Leopards Etc., a nonprofit preserve in Occidental where Barbara and Rob Dicely keep 19 cats that are used for education and special events.
Both snow leopards have been used in fund-raising efforts for Jackson's conservancy.
"They are one of the five most endangered cats on our planet," Barbara Dicely said.
Snow leopards are shy animals that, because of the harsh conditions in which they live, are seldom seen, she said.
"There is a mystery about them," Dicely said. "The African cats, people see them, but people don't see snow leopards. It's a mystical part of the world where they live."
Jackson has been working to preserve snow leopards since 1974, when he took a three-week trip to the remote area of Dolphu, Nepal.
"That was prime snow leopard habitat," Jackson said. "We found that the animals were being hunted by the villagers, and we saw what a rare animal they are."
Snow leopards are found in a dozen countries that include Nepal, China, India, Pakistan and nations that were part of the former Soviet Union.
Jackson's work requires him to spend half the year in Sonoma, raising money and writing reports and grant applications. His conservancy raises about $300,000 a year.
The other half is spent in the Himalayas, living and eating in villages where the way of life has changed little in 400 years.
"The food is sheep heads thrown into water and boiled, eyeballs of sheep, legs of yak, I don't even want to know what I have been eating," Jackson said. "I basically become a vegetarian there."
In the mid-1980s, Jackson's conservancy put radio collars on snow leopards to establish their range, the first time that was ever done.
He also has trained park rangers in how to monitor the cats.
Snow leopards are hunted by villagers to stop the cats from preying on livestock and because of the money their pelts and bones bring.
Snow leopard coats can bring $60,000 on the black market, and it takes a dozen pelts to make a coat. The Chinese also value the ground-up bones as medicine and aphrodisiacs, Jackson said.
Jackson said his work has involved helping villagers build pens that snow leopards can't get into.
He also gets villagers involved in eco-tourism programs. They provide rooms and meals for travelers at $10 to $12 a day, which is a considerable sum for people living well below the poverty level, Jackson said.
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org