ecollywood logoNat Geo WILD's third annual Big Cat Week kicks off Dec. 9 with the new special "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan." The week of coverage includes "Attack of the Big Cats" on Dec. 10; "Tiger Dynasty" on Dec. 11; "Born Predator," chronicling the life of a lion cub, on Dec. 12; and "Cheetah: Fatal Instinct" on Dec. 13. In "Snow Leopard," big cat tracker Boone Smith goes in search of the endangered, elusive species in the middle of a war zone.

"I think I was so excited for the opportunity to catch a snow leopard that I missed the part that said 'Afghanistan,'" confides Smith. "Certainly it was a calculated risk, but at the end of the day, I felt it was worth the risk to be involved in such an incredible project. The theory was that once we got to the mountains and disappeared to do our job, the risk of Taliban would be minimal at best. Although that ended up being true, we soon found out they were only 5.5-6 hours away. That was extremely unnerving considering we had been within a few blocks of an assassination attempt in Kabul, arrived at the airport the day after someone tried to get in there with 700 kg of explosives, and been questioned by the Border Patrol at gunpoint (gunpoint meaning the barrel of the AK-47 was tapping my chest). Looking back, I was crazy to go, but would have missed one of the greatest experiences of my life. Every emotion on this expedition was an extreme. When we were scared, we were scared for our lives. When we were happy, it was the top of the world type feeling. Nothing was just run of the mill, it was all extreme.

"There was so little known about snow leopards in Afghanistan," Smith continues. "In just the first few weeks of GPS location data, we learned these cats travel so much further than we thought they would. From my standpoint, the seasonal predation will be fascinating: golden marmots in the summer and ibex and goats in the winter. This data will be key in minimizing retaliatory killings by herders and conserving the snow leopard habitat and populations."

Big Cat Week is WILD's most-watched week of programming, which doesn't surprise Smith. "I think there is a innate fascination with big cats, whether it is the traits we see in our pets or a morbid obsession with big predators that have to kill just to survive. Big cats at one time dominated the landscape and have adapted to almost every environment in the world. Big Cat Week will explore what it takes to do the toughest job in the world: to be a predator. Viewers will go inside the lives of some of the most dangerous and most endangered cats in the world. We will see the daily struggles, successes, and at times failures of these magnificent animals. In their world, mistakes can be fatal. Understanding the intricacies of their lives is a key part of conserving their rightful place on the landscape."

Populations of big cats have declined in recent years, Smith points out. "Some species, such as mountain lions, are doing well and returning to their historic habitat. Others, like African lions, have had populations decrease from nearly 500,000 to 20,000. In many situations, it is a combination of things. Siberian tiger pelts and bones can bring high prices on the black market and tiger populations are being pushed into smaller and smaller areas due to loss of habitat and prey, thus making them more susceptible to poachers."

What can be done? "It's not about just leaving the cats alone and hoping they can reestablish populations," says Smith. "We are now part of their environment and only through good science and application of programs can we help ensure their continued survival. Not everyone will be a cat researcher, but everyone can be involved. Simply put, good research and management cost money. Nat Geo's Cause and Uproar and Big Cats Initiative are great ways to become involved. Whether it is to purchase a GPS collar or create a local education program, folks can find a way to help make a difference and make sure future Big Cat Week specials are highlighting the successes of these incredible animals."

Smith hopes viewers will be entertained, but more importantly, gain "an appreciation for what it takes for big cats to survive, an understanding of cat biology, the importance of good research to help ensure survival of the species, and true enjoyment of nature. Above all, I hope folks can realize the big cats of the world are absolutely amazing, and we are fortunate enough to get a peek into some of the greatest dramas ever told."

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MNN tease photo of snow leopard: Shutterstock