An intrepid Ulsterman will today embark on his third and final research trip to the Himalayas – and hopes for his first sighting of the rare creature which is at the heart of his studies.
Jonny Hanson, 26, is studying attitudes towards snow leopards among Nepalese villagers, and has braved tough terrain and bone-chilling temperatures in his efforts to gather opinions for his PhD research.
He has seen swooping valleys, ice-capped peaks and resilient villagers on his travels, but has never actually managed to spot a snow leopard itself – only their tracks and the bodies of their prey.
Although his research is really about human attitudes towards the endangered creatures, he said that it would be a real “bonus” if he can finally glimpse one – and that because this latest trip is to the remotest area so far in his research, it is his best chance yet.
He said: “They are, I suppose, the iconic big cat of the mountains; maybe the iconic animal of the mountains.
“The animal itself is quite endangered. There are about 4,000 to 6,000 across 12 central Asian countries. At 40-70 kg, they’re not the biggest big cat, but they’re incredibly powerful. They can catch animals up to four times their own weight.”
He added: “We’ve found paw prints, and found an old sheep killed by a snow leopard. But as to an actual snow leopard, we haven’t seen it. We don’t expect to, but if we do see one it’s a bonus.”
The inhabitants of the region are poor, and when a leopard preys on their cattle it can lead to lethal retribution.
For example, villagers sometimes leave poisoned carcasses to kill them in an effort to defend their livelihood.
Mr Hanson is looking at the effects that things such as increased tourism have on people’s attitudes towards the animals, and how opinions differ from generation to generation, and region to region.
Mr Hanson was born in Lisburn, the son of a Presbyterian minister who took him to live in Malawi when he was a child – something which helped spur his interest in the wild.
“Having that experience was crucially important – that love of nature. You went from watching it on David Attenborough to seeing it in real life,” he said.
“Day-to-day you’d see a chameleon, I had a snake in my schoolbag once – that was quite interesting – and when you went to the mountains and nature parks you’d see hyena and antelope.”
He did a history degree at Queen’s University Belfast, a Master’s degree at Queen’s on sustainable business management, and is now doing a PhD in Cambridge in Geography, which he started in October 2012.
He also volunteered at places like the old Causeway Safari Park and the Cat Survival Trust in Hertfordshire.
A married father-of-two, who describes himself as a non-denominational churchgoer, on his last trip he and the team braved temperatures of minus 20.
This time, they will be interviewing people in an area close to the Tibetan border, with fewer tourists than his previous locations.
“It’s our best chance of seeing a snow leopard,” he said.
“So fingers crossed.”
For more on his trip, visit: snowleopardresearchnepal.wordpress.com/
See Morning View, page 16