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Q&A with Boone Smith, Big Cat Wrangler

Snow leopard close-up.
Snow leopard close-up. (Image credit: Wildlife Conservation Society)

NEW YORK CITY — Boone Smith's latest project was to track down one of the world's rarest cats in the middle of a war zone. The affable adventurer has been capturing big cats since growing up on a ranch in Idaho, where he learned to chase down mountain lions. Since then, he's become an expert at catching a range of big cat species, to help researchers learn more about the animals and to conserve them.  

This summer, Smith helped catch a couple of extremely rare snow leopards in Afghanistan's Wakhan Province, where a small and extremely endangered population of 100 to 200 of the majestic cats remain. Smith's trek for the elusive beasts is detailed in "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan," a show on Nat Geo WILD that premieres Sunday (Dec. 9) at 8 p.m. ET. It's part of the channel's "Big Cat Week," which features different specials on magnificent species each night.

OurAmazingPlanet sat down with Smith this week while he was in town promoting the show. The following is an edited interview.

OurAmazingPlanet: What was your exact role in the effort to find the snow leopards?

Boone Smith: I'm a capture specialist. Folks hire me, different research groups, to come in and capture animals to put radio collars on. We also trained local people to do this.

We rely a lot on local knowledge. The Wildlife Conservation Society [a major partner of the effort] put together one of the best teams I've worked with. We had a local tracker spend months prior to our arrival documenting scrape marks and droppings. They put in camera traps to find snow leopards.

We had two snow leopards coming through the area once a month. We got our first snare in the ground before dark one night, and six hours later we caught the first snow leopard in Afghanistan.

OAP: How do you know where to set the snares?

BS: That's the hardest part, because they can go anywhere. But big cats are also creatures of habit. So when we get adult residents, primarily males, they will return to the same spot to scratch and spray the ground with urine.

You'll see a scrape pile and dig a pit and disguise our snare in there, so he will fall through. The mechanism throws a loop around his foot and tightens it.

Then we hide it and walk away. And then it's a waiting game. When the transmitter goes off we get there ASAP, and dart him, get him to a safe area, and attach the radio collar. We take every measure you can imagine. We measure pad width so that you can classify the gender from the prints. We measure height, weight, tooth wear — for an age estimate — and we draw blood to test for diseases.

They're down for about an hour and a half. We monitor them to make sure their vitals are okay. After it shows signs of coming out of it, we retreat and watch it from a safe distance, until it goes on its way.

OAP: Do these snares hurt the animals?

BS: These are foot snares and modified for safety. When the animal is on the snare, the snare sends out a signal, and we come quickly. The only wound received — one snow leopard had a small abrasion on his arm, but was fine. We take their safety really seriously.

OAP: How many leopards did you catch?

BS: The film will document two. They've since caught another, a female. There are now three leopards out there creating data. [Rare Photos: Snow Leopard Babies in Dens]

OAP: Is it a safe area of Afghanistan, where you were?

BS: The area we were at hasn't had terrorist activity, although the Taliban killed some folks five hours away of us. Some folks also had just rushed across the border. So the border patrol came to check us out, and that riled us a bit because, of course, they had guns.

That being said, the people there were incredible, caring, humble, loving.

OAP: What have we learned so far from the radio collars?

BS: It's still a work in progress. The collars will be on for 14 months — we put them on in June. We got to see how far they travel, though — farther than we thought.

OAP: How'd you first get interested in tracking big cats?

I grew up as a fourth generation trapper/houndsman. I learned how to track and trap things, like mountain lions.  So that guided my career decisions. Learning the book stuff was good, but knowing how to rope, tie up and handle a mountain lion — you can't really learn that in a book.

OAP: What's your favorite animal to work with?

BS: That's hard to say. Mountain lions, though, I've done a lot of work with them. I've helped catch jaguars, bobcats, black bears, wolverines … even elk and a problem moose. I even caught a mountain lion in my hometown on Main Street that wandered in.

I got a job offer to help catch Bigfoot last week. I'm not taking that job. [laughs] They wanted to know, if it really existed, how would you snare it?

OAP: How would you?

BS: I don't know.

OAP: Have you had any close calls, tracking big cats?

 BS: I don't have any visible scars. One time, though, we chased a female mountain lion up into a tree. She had kittens and was very protective.

My job is to climb up there, rope them and lower them. Sometimes adrenaline rushes can overpower the drug used to sedate them. I touched her foot, and her tail, and she didn't respond. But when I went to put a loop around her, she came alive. I had her by the back foot, and she came around the tree and was taking swipes at me, but she couldn't quite reach. She was only a 100-pound [45 kilograms] female, but I realized she was so powerful she would soon wear me out.

While I was trying to figure out what to do, she did me a favor and chewed through my safety rope and then I scooted down the tree and she followed, and when she returned to climb back up, I looped a rope around her hind paw, and held her until the drug fully kicked in.

The one thing that I remember about her isn't her swiping at me or the danger, but it was her breath. It stunk. It smelled like rotten meat.

OAP: What's the most difficult animal to track or work with?

BS: It's not so much the species but the personality that makes it tough. Some are laid back, other animals are aggressive. Some of the toughest chases are mountain lions. Just awhile ago in Wyoming we spent eight hours chasing one.

OAP: What do you want people to take away from the show?

We want people to know that these animals are endangered, and populations are decreasing. We have a great program called Cause an Uproar (opens in new tab), where people can get involved. [In Images: 100 Most Threatened Species]

We have education programs to reduce human-predator conflicts. You can donate to a cause. And hopefully there are some folks that want to become biologists and researchers.

Reach Douglas Main at Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.