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Helen Freeman

Conservationist who worked to save the snow leopard

Helen Elaine Maniotas, conservationist: born Everett, Washington 10 March 1932; Founder, Snow Leopard Trust 1981, Director 1982-96; married 1958 Stanley Freeman (two sons); died Bellevue, Washington 20 September 2007.

Helen Freeman has been called "the Jane Goodall of snow leopards". Optimistic and determined to succeed, she single-handedly set up the Snow Leopard Trust, an international conservation body dedicated to saving one of the world's most beautiful and charismatic animals, the snow leopard of central Asia. The trust, which now employs local staff in China, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, is based on an ethic of co-operation that was way ahead of its time when it started. Freeman also helped set up a self-sustaining breeding programme of captive snow leopards.

She was born Helen Maniotas, the only child of Greek immigrants who settled in Everett in Washington state where they ran the London Café. Her parents ensured that their bright daughter received a college education: she went to Washington State University, where she graduated in 1954 with a degree in business administration.

From her school days on, Freeman spent her spare time working as a volunteer at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. She became so fascinated with the animals that, once her children were in school, she returned to university – to the University of Washington, at Seattle – to study zoology, receiving a second degree, in animal behaviour, in 1973. This enabled her to join the staff of the zoo, where she was eventually appointed curator of education in the early 1980s.

The turning point in Freeman's life came with the arrival at the zoo, in 1972, of a pair of rare snow leopards from the Soviet Union, named Nicholas and Alexandra. She described the moment as "love at first sight". By watching them for hours at a time, she became expert in interpreting the animals' behaviour. "The more I learned, the more I saw them, the more interesting they were to me," she recalled.

Her expertise helped the zoo to design a programme that overcame the usual reluctance of snow leopards to breed in captivity. Over the years, Nicholas and Alexandra have produced 29 cubs. For five years from 1982, Freeman chaired the snow leopard "Species Survival Plan".

However, the snow leopard faces great pressures in the wild. There are thought to be between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals, scattered in remote, mountainous regions in central Asia. Adult animals stand about two feet high and weigh between 60 and 120 pounds. They are rarely seen by outsiders, but are hunted for their thick fur, and because they are seen as a threat to livestock.

In 1981, Freeman set up a foundation to help her favourite animal: the Snow Leopard Trust. Her credo was straightforward: "I think it's important that we preserve diversity," she said. "I don't think every animal we look at should be domesticated. We evolved to share with every other creature on this planet." However, she was ahead of her time in placing the emphasis on helping people to improve their standard of living in exchange for protecting the leopards and their rugged environment. From the start, the trust sought to make links with local officials and communities in central Asia, establishing partnerships and co-operative ventures, and working out ways for people and snow leopards to co-exist peacefully.

As the trust's first director, Freeman travelled, sometimes alone, to most of the countries where snow leopards are found. Using all her native persistence and charm to drum up support, she consorted with Maharajahs in India, trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, sailed the Yangtze River to Chungking in China, and helped to organise, and participate in, symposia on the snow leopard in China, India and the Soviet Union. She was also a tireless lobbyist of potential US supporters. She retired as director of the trust in 1996, but remained an active board member.

Among Freeman's awards were the Alumni Achievement Award from Washington State University and a medal of honour from the Woodland Park Zoological Society. She also won the 1998 Evergreen Award from the US government's wildlife service "in recognition of worldwide partnerships in wildlife conservation and understanding".

Freeman's achievements were the more remarkable because, for 30 years, she lived with a chronic and degenerative lung condition. A sense of humour helped. Recovering from a lengthy bout of coughing, she might say, "Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Others remember her driving along forest trails on her motorised scooter with "various grandchildren hanging off the handlebars".

She met her future husband, Stanley Freeman, on a boating trip which turned into a shipwreck adventure. They were married in 1958, and had two sons, Doug, who is now a vet, and Harry, who became a developmental psychologist. Freeman enjoyed a happy private life with five grandchildren and an assortment of pets, including a 90lb basset hound. Something of her indomitable spirit spills over in her memoir, Life, Laughter & the Pursuit of Snow Leopards (2005).

Peter Marren