TODAY   |  December 07, 2012

Tracking the elusive snow leopard

National Geographic kicks off its third annual Big Cat Week with a special about the snow leopard, the elusive and endangered cat that lives high in the snow-covered mountains of central Asia. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie reports and big cat tracker Boone Smith brings lion, cougar, and tiger cubs to visit Studio 1A.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the search for a rare and beautiful animal in one of the harshest environments on the planet. they are called snow leopards because they live high in the snow-covered mountains of central asia , and they are something to see, when you can see them.

>> yeah, yeah, i can see.

>> reporter: they are elusive and camouflaged by their fur, burks still, these beautiful cats are endangered. conservationists estimate there are only between 4,500 and 7,000 left in the wild.

>> if we lose a cat, we've lost a significant percent of the population.

>> enter big cat wrangler boone smith.

>> excited. waited my whole life to do that.

>> leading a team that hopes to trap, capture and release one of the big cats for a new program on nat geo wild .

>> we're going to remake our scrape right here. the idea is to have them come back, want to scrape, boom and then step in.

>> it's not easy.

>> dang it.

>> misfire.

>> you all right? you?

>> yeah.

>> and the odds of trapping one are very long, but their efforts pay off.

>> it's a snow leopard . it's a snow leopard .

>> keep him flat.

>> with the chance to help save the cat called the ghost of the mountain.

>> okay.

>> we're either the best in the world or the luckiest guys on the planet.

>> big cat tracker boone smith is with us now. good morning.

>> good morning.

>> how are you guys?

>> good morning to little jake . a 5-month-old bengal tiger .

>> this is jake . he's a rescue cat, and he's here to teach us a little bit about some of these big cats .

>> how endangered are tigers? i think i read they are more in captivity than the wild.

>> they estimate there's maybe 3,500 left in the wild, and there are more in captivity. just coming up to say hi.

>> that's a hug.

>> where do we find a tiger like jake in the natural habitat ?

>> india has the biggest population of the bengal tiger in the wild and a couple populations scattered all over and coming up to say hi.

>> amaing how big he is and only 5 months old.

>> he likes me a lot.

>> what's the reason we see tigers in the decline?

>> poaching. they are heavily poached and that's one of the things we want to bring to light on people here, let people know that these kids are in danger, and we need to protect them.

>> and lives on a diet almost exclusively of blue jeans , it turns out, as you can see right there.

>> we'll say good-bye to jake and move on.

>> let's move on to the 8-week-old cougar.

>> a different kind of cougar than you're used, to willie. tell us about this cougar.

>> you've been holding that one all morning. i've been planning that joke.

>> this is sheyenne, an american cougar. she's about a couple months old.

>> are these similar to mountain lions ?

>> cougars, pumas, mountain lion , same family.

>> are they as endang aered as the tiger?

>> they are doing well.

>> and savannah will actually serve as a human shield between the lioness, tell us about her.

>> so this gal, african lions are really, really significant to us. they have actually, their numbers have decreased by two-thirds over the last 50 years. they have lost 75% of their habitat, so when we think african lions, this is probably the iconic cat. we want to do what we can to bring awareness to help people have some knowledge that we need to do some things and step in and save these guys before they do get in trouble and become endangered.

>> and a lot has to do with humans moving into their habitats.

>> habitat loss is a huge thing. they need big spaces to roam and don't have that anymore.

>> love how the lion is playing with the killer whale , that's so sweet.

>> thank you so much. great information. big cat week starts this sunday night with the premiere of " snow leopard of afghanistan" on nat geo wild .