From the desk of our Deputy Director, Marissa Niranjan

On celebrating 40 years of snow leopard conservation and sustaining motivation for protecting the ghosts of the mountain.

January 28, 2021

The decisions that we make can sometimes lead us down a path that we will not fully comprehend until months, or even years later – if ever.

Helen Freeman, the founder of Snow Leopard Trust, started this organization while working with the cats at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Her passion for the snow leopards she helped care for sparked her desire to protect their wild cousins. At one of the first events I attended in Seattle to promote the Trust, a lovely woman in her late 70s approached me with tears streaming down her face. She told me that she was Helen’s college roommate and as she looked at the display on our booth, whispered in a slightly shaky, but crystal clear voice, “This is Helen’s legacy. What an extraordinary example of how one woman can change the world.”

Helen's book with her signature and note for Marissa
“Here’s to snow leopards” written and signed by Helen Freeman

I had the sincere pleasure of getting to know Helen during my early days working at the Trust, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet her. She had such a familiar yet powerful ease about her, and you just knew that she was a woman who always had a plan. Helen was someone who valued relationships above all else and would nurture interest for snow leopards through her various interactions with people lucky enough to cross her path. We are proud to continue her legacy of building those authentic relationships. And that is the beauty of mentorship. Sometimes we are lucky to have a mentor by our side for a lifetime, sometimes it may be for a year, or month, or just days. But the lessons you learn, or pearls of wisdom you collect from them will last a lifetime.

During our global 24-hour event last year, a conversation with photographer and explorer Prasenjeet Yadav (represented by National Geographic) and Dr. Kullu Suryawanshi reminded me just how vital mentorship and synergy is to stay motivated, especially when you are working with a species like the snow leopard. As we talked, Kullu said,

“Part of working in the mountains is not just about the outcome. It is also about your team, it’s also about keeping the motivation of the team together, because in four months of that cold, no central heating, come back from a day’s work and start chopping wood and then you have fire two hours later.”

It takes grit and resolve to conserve a species you rarely see, especially in the harsh habitat in which snow leopards live, and I can’t think of anyone that embodies this resilience more than the communities and science teams we are honored to partner with across snow leopard range on a global scale.

And as Prasenjeet added later, “We think [the environment] is harsh but for snow leopards, it’s just home.”

When you work with snow leopards, you are often working remotely, but the current state of the world has redefined this term for all of us. Now more than ever, we are digging deep to discover new sources of motivation, having now reached a state where the word, “unprecedented” has started to lose its meaning. But as conservationists who study snow leopards, we have grown familiar with the unprecedented and the extraordinary.

The harsh climate snow leopards call home, photo credit Prasenjeet Yadav

Kullu mentions, “No one can go there for three-months and do a conservation project. You are going to need three months just to figure out how to stay warm. People can’t just come in and come out, you need to stay invested for decades to produce results.” He adds that we all stand proudly and respectfully on the shoulders of giants. Those who paved the way, as we collectively evolve and adapt conservation programs and practices while working with communities to protect this incredible species. He ends by saying, “It’s only because of the years of continuous support and continuous presence that we know what we know today.”

These past few months have further reinforced what I already knew to be true from working closely with snow leopard conservationists over the years: to achieve success, we need to be collectively committed to the long-haul.

Prasen talked about how in a world where everything is done quickly, with people expecting immediate results, the type of long-term storytelling he contributed to in the recent EVEREST issue of National Geographic has become a rarity. So of course, motivation was at the crux of the story.

He goes on to say, “Taking photos of snow leopards is not only about snow leopards. It’s a mixture of so many more things. It is pure mountain adventure, it’s hardcore nature and ecology, and it’s a testament to human endurance, both physically as well as emotionally. Because you spend such a long time in isolation away from the world.”

And then, just when you think that maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, you see a stunning image, or have an inspiring conversation over a hot cup of chai, or discover groundbreaking new data. And just like that your reset button is hit, and you can continue with more vigor than ever before.

This is one of those conversations I draw upon often, and I highly recommend you take a moment to listen if you feel like you may need some extra motivation or inspiration these days. There is something very special about bearing witness to genuine connection like this, especially now.

I think of Helen often, but especially today – January 28th, because on this day forty years ago, Snow Leopard Trust officially came into being. I wonder what it felt like for her to see the signature from the Secretary of State on that founding document declaring SLT as a recognized NGO. I wonder if she knew at that time that the Trust would become the oldest and largest snow leopard conservation organization in the world. Judging by that glimmer in her eye, I have to think she did. And now here we are forty years later, still united by this work, by community, and of course, by this elusive ghost of the mountains. 

These times call for ingenuity, adaptability, and sheer perseverance, which are qualities that anyone dedicated to protecting snow leopards must carry close to their heart. We are excited to revel in that spirit with you today for the launch of our 40th Anniversary celebrations, but also for the next 40 years and beyond. I am so grateful for the motivation that YOU, our partners, supporters, and snow leopard champions provide everyday through your support, comments, well wishes, and creative ideas.

Some of you have been with us since the very beginning, some of you may be joining us for the first time.

But today ALL of us are a part of history, and we are grateful that you will be part of our future.


  1. ich arbeite im Zoo Zürich und habe Dshamilja kennen gelernt. Sie wurde vom deutschen Tierschutz auf dem Schwarzmarkt als Welpe, verletzt, gerettet. Sie war bis zu ihrem Tod im Zoo und hatte viele Junge. Der Zoo ist auch ein wichtiger Partner für die bedrohten Tierarten. Danke euch Allen für euren Einsatz
    herzlich Sylvia

  2. It’s so rewarding to know that caring loving people love Snow Leopards so much and will do anything to keep learning about their way’s of life. I never met Helen, But I would’ve wanted to. I love that she loves Snow Leopard so much to make a difference. All of you that research these beautiful cat’s are so amazing. I love reading updates on my G-Mail. And just staying in touch with us so we can learn about these cat’s and their habitat. Congratulations on the 40 yrs! You guy’s are awesome!!

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