Nat Geo's Big Cat Week: 'Snow Leopard of Afghanistan' features human, feline predators

Trapper Boone Smith goes after an elusive feline in the 2012 premiere

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Though no stranger to danger, biologist Boone Smith almost bites off more than he can chew during Nat Geo's Big Cat Week. Smith is front and center during "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan," an episode in which the fourth-generation trapper searches for an elusive feline. With the Taliban starting their "spring offensive," his mission could end before it even begins.

Smith arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, and meets with David Lawson, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Using intelligence data gathered via camera traps, Smith and his team will fly into Kret, a tiny village near the mountainous region known as the Hindu Kush. As Smith points out, Alexander the Great reportedly said these are the mountains over which no evil can fly.

With just 20 days to accomplish this task, Smith and Lawson discover they don't have a working radio receiver for their snares. Putting their lives at risk, the two men leave the gated WCS compound to find an electronics shop in Kabul. Though kidnapping is a strong possibility, the men get the components they need.

With no guarantee of a quick escape, the team flies to Kret as melting glaciers trigger falling rocks and avalanches. From the WCS guest house in Qal'ah-ye Panjah, they travel to the Sarkand Valley and pay their respects to the local tribes that govern the area.

After a two-mile hike into the mountains, tracking expert Hussain Ali helps determine the best possible snare placement. Snow leopards typically travel alone while looping around their territory over a three-week period. Ali and Smith check for scratches, scent marks and fresh scat (feces) to determine where the big cats are likely to walk.

As this episode shows, snare placement is not an exact science. Smith, Ali, and conservation scientist John Goodrich manage to get one trap anchored down before nightfall. Beating the odds, the team manages to catch one of the big cats. Like excited children on Christmas morning, the men must force themselves to take things slow and easy.

At this point in "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan," viewers get a first-hand look at the sedation and tagging process. Stephane Ostrowski, a WCS wildlife veterinarian, oversees the tranquilizer darts used on the leopard. The feline must be drugged quickly and safely before it breaks free of the snare and hurts itself in the process.

Even with a sedated cat, Ostrowski has the men move carefully lest a headlamp cause the snow leopard to react. The veterinarian also ensures that the animal breathes normally until the medication wears off.

"Snow Leopard of Afghanistan" is an excellent kick for the 2012 edition of Nat Geo's Big Cat Week. Though Boone Smith and the WCS team agreed to this mission, their fear of both human and feline predators is present quite often in the footage. It's an exciting, sometimes controversial episode that is bound to prompt discussions about trapping and tagging.

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