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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Geography lesson

Posted: Tuesday, Dec 4th, 2012

Unexpected treasures can turn up when we are bored, looking for a gift, or staying at home with a minor illness, as was my case in November. During that time, from my pile of review copies I picked up “Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World,” a bit reluctantly I admit.

Why Asia’s snow leopards? After all, why read about big cats in a part of the world I never will visit, and, even if I had been an adventurer looking hard for them, I probably would never have seen one?

A couple of years ago, I did read about a snow leopard that made headlines when one was snared in Afghanistan’s mountains. A hunter hoped to get $50,000 from a wealthy Pakistani businessman for his effort, but the rare animal died despite an amazing rescue effort by royalty, political leaders, and the military in Kabul.

The book I was now reading described activities conducted by scientists and environmentalists to protect this beautiful, elusive creature, a species which now numbers only in the hundreds, perhaps even less than two thousand. They live in Asia’s Near East and in the Middle East.

To understand these rare leopards better and the remote places in the book where they live, I was soon turning to maps in my atlas and to the Internet and getting lessons in geography. It became an adventure.

The easiest part of my search was the Himalayas, since most of us know pretty well where they are, or at least what their fantastic scenery looks like. We all know Nepal with Mt. Everest and other big summits in the swath north of India.

Tibet posed a problem as it should have been north of Nepal, but Tibet has been erased from the maps. It is now part of China, but it still is home to snow leopards.

I found corners of India that are in the high country near former Tibet. By reading things I never knew about Buddhists, another intriguing subject, I learned that Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s present home, is way up in the far northwestern corner of India, and Buddhists from Lhasa also took refuge at Darjeeling in a peculiar appendage to northeastern India.

From Dharamsala, the maps next took me to Kashmir and Jammu, disputed territory of India and Pakistan. In Kashmir, I was getting into a storied region of exotic beauty, although the book I was reading still focused on the snow leopards and problems with local sheep and goats.

South and east of Kashmir are the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Hindu Kush, hard to get into and for the military to get out of as we have learned. Its leopards are barely hanging on.

Still scrutinizing maps, I sorted out other countries northward with names ending in “istan” and “stan,” meaning “land of such and such” I learned, where there were mountains and snow leopards. From Takikstan and Krygystan, I traveled on to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Once part of the USSR, Kazakhstan has been reaping cash from hunters and from the trade in snow leopard furs and medicinal body parts favored by Chinese profiteers. Only a score or so of these animals still exist in Uzbekistan.

Then, over to the east between China and Siberia were Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. But what, pray tell, are snow leopards doing in a place like that?

To my surprise, I learned that Mongolia has some high elevations in the southern part of the country, just not forests. And yes, there are snow leopards and intrepid scientists, too.

Such were the ancillary geographical facts which could keep me fascinated all winter. And historical curiosity soon was leading me off me into the world of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire, and things like Marco Polo sheep, the largest wild sheep in the world.

Short chapters in “Snow Leopard” (University Press of Colorado) were written by well-known scientists and environmentalists. These included Peter Matthiessen, George, B. Schaller, Rodney Jackson, Tom McCarthy, and several others who have been smitten by these beautiful, rare creatures. The editor, Don Hunter, was in the forefront in the use of state-of-the –art systems and devices as a graduate student at Colorado State University.

Try reading. You may like it.

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