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Sunday, March 19, 2017


I'm often asked  how I do the research for my books. So let me walk you through the research that led to THE GREAT LEOPARD RESCUE.

First, I have to tell you I LOVE what a detective job this is. You see, for me, it's all about tracking down and interviewing the key suspects--I mean people whose experiences or scientific studies are critical to the story. 

First, a news story caught my attention. Basically, it reported that there are only about 50 Amur leopards still living wild and free. I thought--OMG--that's like two classrooms of school kids--PERIOD! 

And, the story reported that because of this extremely small wild population, there was an effort underway to start a new wild population in Russia where these cats live. It would be a way to make sure, if anything happened to the existing population, there would still be wild Amur leopards.

That launched me into doing a lot of reading about Amur leopards: news stories on-line, scientific journals, pretty much anything I could find to dip my toe into the information sea to figure out what I didn't know. 

I'm sure that sounds crazy but I go into a book with just the seed of an idea. Then by beginning to dig into the topic I start to figure out what I don't know about it so I can map out what I need to find out. That's how I get to the heart of the story in order to share it. I feel like when I write I'm reading the book aloud to my reader--the two of us are brain-to-brain sharing the journey of the story. And that story primarily grows out of my interviewing a lot of different people each of whom contribute a piece of the puzzle that is the story.

The first interview for THE GREAT LEOPARD RESCUE was with Barbara Meyer in October 17, 2014. I'd discovered the Colchester Zoo in the UK had Amur leopards. When I talked to the zoo's public relation's person, she told me about Barbara, a photographer who had spent years at the zoo with special access to these big cats photographing them. Barbara offered my first "close-up" insights into the behavior of Amur leopards. 

And that led me to be sure of three things: 
1) these were amazing cats who deserved to exist wild and free.

2) I needed to talk to researchers who knew wild Amur leopards. I mean people who had actually spent time with them in the wild. They were the only ones who  could tell me about the Amur leopards roaming their native habitat in far northeastern Russia.

3) I wanted to know all the details of the plan to start a new wild Amur leopard population in Russia. 

Next up was an interview with Dale Miquelle who lives in Russia. 

No I didn't go there for real, although I would have loved this opportunity. But more and more mentally I travelled into Russia as I dug into the research for this book. And I did side research to learn about the trees, climate, terrain, seasons of the Amur leopard's home habitat. 

Back to Dale Miquelle--he first went to Russia in 1992 with the Hornocker Wildlife Institute to study Amur tigers (also called Siberian tigers). He moved on to a project on Amur leopards in 1994. Then he stayed and became director of the Russian Wildlife Society. In fact, he settled and married and made his home in Russia. As we talked, he flowed in and out of speaking English to me and Russian to others in his office. 

Dale was a wealth of information about Amur leopards, the Land of the Leopard (a national park created to protect the remaining leopard population), the Lazovsky Nature Reserve (site chosen for the introduced population), the politics of protecting wildlife in Russia, and he became my first gatekeeper.  By that I mean my research journey always really gets going when someone says to me, "You also need to talk to... And here's their contact information." 

I always finish my interviews by asking my key experts, like Dale, if they'll be an expert reader for my book to check what I'm sharing is absolutely accurate. I also ask if they have any photos to help bring the story to life. And I ask if can I contact them again, if I have more questions. Of course, as I go deeper into my research I always have more questions.

One of the people Dale connected me to was Darron Collins. He had worked with the World Wildlife Fund for a decade focusing on the Amur leopards. He was very tuned in and involved in the effort to found this new wild population. And he brought the place as well as the cats to life for me. I remember him saying, "I'll never forget standing on an exposed peak in Russia with my guide pointing out China in one direction and Korea in another. So this big cat lives in all three countries, making it the most diplomatically challenging wild animal on the planet."


Darron also talked to me about what it looked like and felt like to walk through the forests where the Amur leopards live--"on the Russian side it's much like being in the Appalachian forest in North Carolina." I'd lived in Asheville, North Carolina and hiked in those forests in all seasons. So I could see it, smell it, feel it.

And Darron talked about the Russian Zapovedniks which are big areas like national parks but totally set aside for wildlife. The only people allowed in are scientists and guards watching out for wildfires and for poachers (illegal hunters). 

Darron shared about studying Amur leopards using camera traps to "capture" them. He shared what he'd learned about the wild leopard's behavior, use of the forest, even their rare social interactions as males and females come together to mate, females raise young, and adults have chance encounters in the forest with other adult leopards. That mainly happens because the forests where these big cats live are fragmented due to logging and people building roads and even towns. Then Darron shared this chance sighting of a wild Amur leopard. 

"It was amazing. I was setting up camera traps and the guy I was with tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and saw the cat. It's more like you've seen a ghost because it's so on the brink of extinction."

Another expert Dale Miquelle referred me to was John Lewis. He's the Director of Wildlife Vets International and he opened a key door into this story. That's partly because he was the person most in touch with those in Russia who were choosing the reintroduction site--the forested area where the new Amur leopard population would be launched. And he was closely involved in helping to make decisions about how Amur leopards would be introduced to live wild and free in this new location.

Over the better part of the next two years, John and I talked on a number of occasions about the reintroduction project. He also shared fascinating stories about the times he had the opportunity to be literally hands-on studying wild Amur leopards. 

That happened because people patrolling to protect those rare 50 Amur leopards noted where they saw tracks and scat (droppings). Then they put up camera traps in those areas to "capture" the cats on film. Where the photos recorded frequent Amur leopard traffic, they set leg snares--traps that would catch a cat without harming it. And John stood by with his team ready for action. As soon as and Amur leopard was caught, it was darted with a tranquilizer gun. 

Next, John and his team took over. They weighed the cat, measured it, took blood and tissue samples--checked everything possible about the cat's health. 

In addition to lots of  scientific information, John shared something more. He talked about actually getting to touch some of these rarest wild animals on the planet. 

John said, "Of course, there's usually a little moment during the whole procedure when I pinch myself and say, 'this is really cool.' Then I snap back into professional mode." 

Jo Cook was fascinating to talk to for another reason. Based in the U.K., her job is to keep track of all the Amur leopards in zoos anywhere in the world. She knows all about their health and their family history. Her job for this project was to choose which of the zoo leopards would travel to Russia to become the founding parents for the new population. The parents would go back to their zoo homes; their cubs would live wild and free.

This is a VERY IMPORTANT JOB. By the time I finished the book, the founding pairs had not yet been chosen. But how they would be chosen and how bearing and raising cubs to become the pioneers for the reintroduction program had been set. Be sure and check out how that program will work in my book THE GREAT LEOPARD RESCUE. It's fascinating!

There were more expert interviews--but I'll share just one more--Linda Kerley. She's the Amur Tiger and Leopard Project Manager for the Zoological Society of London. She had moved to Russia to study the tigers. 

Then she stayed to study Amur leopards. She married and worked with her Russian husband Michael Borisenko to continue those studies, using a creative approach. They trained dogs to track Amur leopard scat (droppings) in order to send it to scientists. Scat was easy to find during the winter when the ground was snow-covered. However, it was nearly impossible to spot in other seasons on the leaf-covered forest floor. But scientists needed to analyze this resource. They needed to learn what prey Amur leopards needed to be able to catch to eat in all seasons. That would help scientists and politicians work together to choose the site for the new wild population. 

Linda's story of training dogs for this unique job was fascinating. But the "WHOA!" moment was when one of her dogs actually met a big cat. 

"Our dog went up on a ridge, reached the top of this rock as I was climbing. I stopped and turned to talk to my husband when the leopard jumped our dog. My husband and I charged, yelling and--luckily--chased the leopard off. But that dog wouldn't track scat anymore. We were getting such valuable information from this project, though, that we couldn't stop. So we started working with another dog."

Now you have a little behind-the-book insight into the research journey I traveled for THE GREAT LEOPARD RESCUE. Every book is a new journey of discovery--a fresh opportunity to connect with amazing on the front line of discovery researchers.

I do LOVE researching my books--love sharing what I discover with young readers. 

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