INTERVIEW Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde Talking AVATAR with the Mongolians

To set the scene, visualize a man sitting on the dirt floor of a smoky yurt in Western Mongolia eating goat out of a common plate.  Listen closely to the Mongolian sitting across from him.  What did the Mongolian say?  You heard right –  “yeah, AVATAR… that’s a good movie.”  The conversation’s not so strange if the man is Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde, and he’s explaining his current AVATAR-land theme park project to his Mongolian companions in the yurt.  However, Joe’s not in Mongolia for any Disney Imagineering research trip; this time he’s on the “Leopard in the Land” expedition to raise money and awareness for snow leopard conservation.  Continue reading for more details on the trip, and how you can get involved in the project and even purchase some of Joe Rohde’s artwork.

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia[All images, except where noted, are provided by and used with permission from Joe Rohde.]

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Some background for those not familiar, Joe Rohde has a 30+ year career with Walt Disney Imagineering and served as designer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park; the addition of the Expedition Everest roller coaster; and Aulani – the Disney Resort and Spa in his home state of Hawai’i (just to name a few projects).  Rohde’s currently hard at work collaborating with Academy Award winning filmmaker James Cameron on bringing the world of AVATAR to life in the Animal Kingdom theme park.  This fall, Joe Rohde traveled to Mongolia’s Altai Mountains for a painting expedition to raise money for the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

James Cameron, Joe Rohde, and Tom Staggs explore Disney's Animal Kingdom

James Cameron, Joe Rohde, and Tom Staggs explore Disney’s Animal Kingdom ©Disney. All rights reserved.


The “Leopard in the Land” Expedition grew from Joe’s desire to travel to Mongolia, and wanting a greater mission for his adventure.  Rohde elaborated,

I don’t really like the idea of going someplace just as a tourist.  I wanted to go with more of a sense of purpose.  I find that when you travel in that way, you push yourself into unusual circumstances and unusual settings and things happen that are much closer to the spirit of adventure.

Because of Animal Kingdom, I know all kinds of wildlife conservation people, and so I put my feelers out for who’s doing wildlife conservation projects in Mongolia, who might need some help, and where could I take my talents and energy and use it productively.

Joe Rohde discovered Dr. Rodney Jackson, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, and one of the leading experts on wild snow leopards and their mountain habitats.  Dr. Jackson has collaborated for over 30 years with rural herders and farmers raising livestock in snow leopard territory.  His work was a cover story for National Geographic in June 1986 (as well as featured in the June 2008 issue), and the Snow Leopard Conservancy continues to do work in Western Mongolia.

Rodney Jackson in Mongolia

Dr. Rodney Jackson in Mongolia. Image courtesy of Snow Leopard Conservancy


With destination and cause in place, Joe Rohde began looking into the current issues in snow leopard conservation.  “They’re a super-mysterious creature,” Rohde explained, “of all the big cats they’re strangely peaceful – the Mongolians even call them the Peace Cat.”  Locals in Mongolia and Nepal have developed myths and beliefs around the snow leopard making it an ideal “story animal” for an artist like Joe Rohde, and one in need of protection.  As Joe Rohde wrote in his blog, “animals are to land what bubbles are to champagne.  Without them, it’s something else.”

snow leopard

Snow leopard, image courtesy Snow Leopard Conservancy


Snow leopards have fallen victim to poaching and trafficking of exotic animal parts, but the main threat is habitat pressure.  Local herders who used to raise 10-20 goats for their own subsistence, have shifted to raising 100s of cashmere goats for wool.  Therefore, the herders need more territory, and it drives goats into areas with increased snow leopard predation.  Rohde’s goal during the “Leopard in the Land” expedition was to travel into snow leopard territory in Mongolia, paint along the way, and sell these paintings to raise money for the Snow Leopard Conservancy.  However, prior to the trip’s departure, the “Leopard in the Land” expedition received a prestigious honor that upped the ante even more for the Imagineer.

Disney fans may remember Joe Rohde as the designer of the “Adventurer’s Club” in Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney.  Just days ahead of leaving for Mongolia, Rohde’s expedition was endorsed by and bestowed a flag from the Explorer’s Club – a real group in New York City founded in the early 1900’s comprised of people who embark on exploration.  Notable achievements of members of the Explorer’s Club include, first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, and first to the surface of the moon, just to name a few accomplishments.  Rohde was humbled when describing the honor,

The flag that they gave me was 50 years old and had been all over the place – Ellesmere Island, Antarctica, Cambodia, India, and some NASA programs, and all these very prestigious things, and my little expedition will get tagged on to that.

Joe Rohde - Explorer's Club Flag
With the Explorer’s Club flag, Rohde was even more motivated to ensure the trip was a success.  The expedition traveled deep into very rugged and remote mountains of Western Mongolia via camel and horseback, and the group intentionally ventured far from where people typically travel in the region.  The team strayed away from their camels because on horseback they could access even more remote regions searching for great scenes, signs of snow leopards, wildlife, and the camels would follow carrying all the “stuff.”

That stuff was, in addition to the expedition gear, all the art supplies necessary for painting.  Rural Mongolia was a most irregular environment to paint – very windy, very cold, and Rohde needed to complete a painting in a single day in order to move to the next stop.

There were times when the paintings just would not dry because it’s too cold and too moist.  So we had to drape them over the top of a camel, and then the camels would walk all day in the wind and sun and hopefully dry the paintings.

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia

Cold was a challenge for Joe during the trip, and, as someone who has lived in Hawai’i and California, certainly not something he was used to experiencing.

At one point I’m out there painting, and they would heat up water to blend my acrylics (paints).  They bring out a gallon of water that’s warm enough that a big column of steam is coming out of it.  I start cleaning my brush in it and painting for maybe 5 minutes.  I look down and think, ‘there’s some kind of Jell-O in the water.’  I had never seen that before, I wonder what that is?  Suddenly of course I realize, that is ice, forming on top of the water that 5 minutes ago was warm enough to send up a column of steam.

Before long, ice would form on the brushes, the paint would harden, and Rohde couldn’t work anymore because everything was freezing.  However, by the end of the trip, Joe Rohde used up all his canvasses to produce 10 paintings as well as another 30 or so color sketches on paper, and culminated with an exhibition at the 976 Gallery in Mongolia’s capital of Ulan Bator.

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia

I asked Joe what the Mongolians thought about the whole enterprise.  He noted for the most part everyone was interested and excited about the project; they wanted to be involved; and they wanted to participate and help.  For example,

We were traveling along and this family of herders were guiding us.  They had seen me paint this one first painting, and we’re riding along and all of the sudden they just stop their camels.  ‘You have to paint here, this is what you have to paint, this famous tree that is the Shaman’s tree with scarves on it – you have to paint this.’  And so, that’s better really than just going on ahead to where you thought you were going to go – because this is more real, more immediate, exactly the kind of thing you want to have happen when you take a trip like this.

People he encountered became very emotionally and productively engaged, and at that point, Joe agreed, “let’s paint the Shaman’s tree.”

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia

The other thing that surprised Rohde on the expedition was that half of the population of Mongolia lives in the city of Ulan Bator, and have no more experience than he with the remote mountainous regions of the country, riding horses in the snow, or staying in yurts.  Nevertheless, even in the remote areas of the country, the Mongolians are fully aware of the world around them.  Joe explained,

even though these people are herdsmen, live in a yurt, and travel around with their animals, they do have a satellite dish and a little generator and a radio and a TV and a sense of contact with the outside world.  For example, when my guide would explain to them that I was working with James Cameron on an AVATAR-land they would go… ‘ah, yeah, AVATAR that’s a good movie.’

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia

Joe emphasized how he liked that smash cut world, but it’s not quite what you might think.  He assured that going to Mongolia is not disappearing into a land that time forgot.

we’re not traveling in time, these people live with us, on this planet, and go through everything that we’re going through, they just live different kinds of lives, but they’re not living in the past.  They all talk about climate change… and have sophisticated ideas about how climate change is related to the decline of the snow leopards.

Now that Joe is back from his “Leopard in the Land” expedition to Mongolia, he is in the process of touching up and cleaning up the work.  Half of the paintings are already sold, and the remaining half will be sold with the money going to the Snow Leopard Conservancy.  In addition, Joe will be doing Giclée prints of the best paintings so there will be a continued way to purchase the work (again with all money going towards snow leopard conservation).  [Once we get details on where people can purchase prints, we’ll be sure to include the link.]

Joe Rohde - "Leopard in the Land" Mongolia

Joe Rohde is an extremely thoughtful artist, and as we concluded our conversation, we discussed a video he posted prior to the trip.  In the video, Joe encouraged people to become active, conscious decision makers.  The message spoke to me, and is one Rohde believes quite important.

There is a way in which we just freeze up.  We freeze up in the face of – it’s just so complicated what could I possibly do?  For most of us that would be online, we possess much more power than we think because we’re part of developed countries with huge consumption rates.  So tiny fluctuations in our own mini-decisions on what we do have real impact on the world.  All of us can be mindful about the decisions that we make, and cumulatively that can have huge social impact.

Joe Rohde realizes that we all cannot be martyrs, we all do not have the means to travel to Mongolia, but he encourages everyone to make small, conscious decisions and be mindful of the impact those decisions have on others as well as the planet.  You can watch the original video message here:

I want to thank Joe Rohde, lifetime achievement award winning designer and artist for Walt Disney Imagineering, for taking the time to chat.  For those wanting to learn more about his “Leopard in the Land” expedition and paintings available for snow leopard conservation, you can check out his website at

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.