Though I don’t often review ‘nature books’, Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World came to me back in July when I received an email from Beth Svinarich at University Press of Colorado. I must admit that an inquiry from University of Colorado at that particular time caught my eye, it being just days after the atrocity in a Colorado movie theater committed by James Holmes. Anyway, Beth wanted to bring my attention to this book, and beyond the morbidity of the story about Holmes, the content caught my eye. I have an affinity for cats, and this book is a collection of powerful first-person accounts from an impressive group of scientist-adventurers (Helen Freeman, Rodney Jackson, Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller among them). It grants readers a rare glimpse of this elusive cat, its remote and rugged habitat, and the remarkable lives of those personally connected to the snow leopard’s future.
My “To Be Read List” was crammed full and I was falling way behind with my various trips to the hospital this year, but I committed to reading and reviewing the book, first to bring attention to a happier piece of work from the University, and secondly because Beth bribed me. That’s right. It was a down right case of bribery. She opened the University Press catalog–and what a catalog it is–to me, and from there I became a willing accomplice.
Usually with a book like Snow Leopard you would expect to find a dry, academic report written in language that it straight ahead science, filled with terms you would have top look up in the dictionary. Not so here. The editor, Don Hunter has managed to assemble a collection of accounts from a large number of contributors that reads like diary entries, literature and in some cases adventure stories. It is also educational on many fronts, informative and surprisingly enthralling. I started the book one night in bed and found myself reading until way past 3 a.m.
What distinguishes this book from many like it is that the stories–and they are stories, not strictly academic accounts or scientific notes–is that they are told by scientist-adventurers. Some have the feeling of having been scribbled by lantern-light, in a deathly cold and windy place as if the author hunkered down for the night in freezing conditions.The reader gets the feeling that even when the writer perhaps set out to pen straight wildlife biological notes and observations, that writer was soon captured by the beauty, majesty and sense of myth and mysticism that these big cats seem to evoke.
These “world’s coolest cats” inhabit some of the most uninhabitable country in the world. They are recognized as the mammalian predator highest in elevation, its stomping grounds among the Seven Great Ramparts of central Asia, Altai, Pamir, Tein Shan, Kun Lun, Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and the mighty Himalaya.
Because of this, the snow leopard is the least studied endangered species, more than any other–bald eagles, polar bears, lion, tiger, and panda. It takes a dedicated adventurer to try and track these ghosts of the misting snow over rocky mountain sides where a misstep means, at best a broken leg with hundreds of miles to the next hospital and at worst a lonely death from a fall. If the high, forbidding landscape isn’t enough to keep out the heartiest explorer, then the treacherous travel and ageless border disputes between the countries that claim parts of the snow leopards kingdom will dampen enthusiasm.
One would think that these natural and man made barriers would serve to protect this cat with no roar–the snow leopard is the only big cat that has no roar–but the snow leopard is threatened by an ever-growing human presence as sheep herders move higher into the mountains to graze their sheep; the snow leopard loves sheep, the blue sheep or naur being it’s favorite prey. The snow leopard is also still hunted for its bones and its magnificent fur. Its also killed in retaliation for its raid on domestic herds. Climate change is also a factor as warming in the mountains pushes the cat and its prey to higher elevations, leaving the snow leopard with no options for retreat or alternative refuge. Beyond the mountains lies extinction.