Helen Freeman, one of the greatest champions of the snow leopard, would have turned 80 today. We remember her work with the majestic creatures. Originally published October 2007 on Obit-Mag.com.
The snow leopard can jump higher and farther than any other cat in the world. It roams from the white-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the barren steppes of central Asia. Before Helen Freeman established the Snow Leopard Trust in 1981, it was also one of the most threatened big cats on the planet. Helen Freeman, conservator and lover of snow leopards died on September 20, 2007. She was 75.
After Helen Freeman’s two young boys were old enough to start school, she began volunteering at the Woodland Park Zoo near her home in Washington State. Two adolescent snow leopards were on loan from a zoo in what was then the Soviet Union. Freeman fell in love with the ash-grey, spotted felines and embarked upon a life’s pursuit that resulted in innovative and effective programs in Asia and numerous awards. She later recalled, “Snow leopards are the kind of animal people get captivated by.”
Freeman returned to school and got a degree in animal behavior from the University of Washington. Through tireless research, she became a leading expert in snow leopard behavior in captivity. In observation, Freeman found a career calling, but it was in conservation that she realized her life’s passion.
Taking a friend’s advice (“If you really want to do something, start a trust”), Freeman teamed up with other snow leopard experts and started the Snow Leopard Trust in 1981. She traveled to Asia constantly and originated many programs that have become models for conserving wildlife throughout the world.
The snow leopard lives in mountainous regions of central Asia. It is prey to poachers, as it is a valued ingredient in many Asian remedies. Herders, however, are their main threat.
Snow leopards are incredibly agile and can bound down craggy escarpments like summer lightning. Herds of domestic animals are a snow leopard’s occasional prey, and shepherds who subsist off of their domesticated animals would take to retaliatory or preventive killings to protect their livelihood.
Snow leopard cubs (Wikimedia Commons/Dingopup)
Freeman’s techniques for conservation attempted to remove the economic incentive to kill snow leopards. She involved local communities in Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Republics, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in what she would call “community conservation,” mutually beneficial programs that would result in a higher standard of living for the inhabitants of the region and less human involvement in the lives of snow leopards.
A video from the Snow Leopard Trust:
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