Snow Leopard Conservation in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Leopard Enterprises
Note: this article originally (apart from some minor changes) appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of AUCA Magazine, of which I’m the Editor-in-Chief. See the full version on the AUCA website. If you’re looking for gratuitous pictures of snow leopards, check out my post on Saving Snow Leopards in Kyrgyzstan: the NABU Rehabilitation Center. As the head of Snow Leopard Enterprises in Kyrgyzstan, Cholpon Abasova is responsible for not only ensuring that snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan are protected, but also that the local communities within snow leopard habitats prosper from the conservation effort. Like many of AUCA’s current and former students, Cholpon sees the snow leopard as one of the most important species in the Kyrgyz Republic and one whose protection is vital to the environmental initiatives in the country. Not content to stop at high level government meetings like the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in 2013 or local awareness drives like AUCA’s annual Flashmob on International Snow Leopard Day, Cholpon is working to make snow leopard conservation sustainable in the very mountains these animals call home.
Snow Leopard Trust, a leading world authority on the study and protection of snow leopard populations, has been working with rural communities for over ten years to address the economic issues that when neglected will often lead to conflict between those communities and the endangered snow leopards that occasionally prey on their livestock and which represent a potentially tempting income from illegal poaching. Founded in Mongolia in 1998, the Snow Leopard Enterprises program provides economic incentives for rural communities to support the effort for conservation and join the fight against poaching and habitat loss for the animals.
In villages like Ak-Shyrak, deep in the Tian Shan Mountains near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, winter sees residents occasionally cut off even from the nearest town of Barskoon – which on the best of days is a six-hour drive away. Despite that geographic remoteness, with summer comes a thaw of the three mountain passes on the road to Ak-Shyrak that connects it not only to the rest of the Kyrgyz Republic but, through the village’s partnership with Snow Leopard Enterprises, to the global marketplace as well. Using raw materials purchased in Bishkek and delivered by Cholpon and her colleague Kuban Jumabai uluu (SLT’s Kyrgyzstan Program Coordinator), the thirty-one Ak-Shyrak participants that currently work with Snow Leopard Enterprises produce handmade felt products ranging from traditional slippers and shyrdak rugs to extremely popular toys for children or accessories for pet lovers. These products, which sell to consumers in the United States for anywhere between $10 for a pair of baby booties to $140 for a large rug, are a lucrative source of income for a community that once relied solely on animal husbandry.
“The products were designed ten years ago, at a higher level of quality than most handicrafts in Kyrgyzstan. It adds additional income to the family aside from livestock sales, which has historically been the only income here. The women are satisfied about earning real money for their work, and there is good income in SLE.” – Cholpon Abasova, SLE Country Coordinator
Even after accounting for the cost of materials, shipping, storage, and helping to fund Snow Leopard Trusts’ conservation programs around the world; the families that work with Snow Leopard Enterprises pocket over 1100 Kyrgyz Som ($20.50 according to 2014 average exchange rates) for each large rug they produce, with less for smaller items. The per-person average in 2014 for Snow Leopard Enterprises’ participants was an income of 16,095 Som ($300), with the most prolific producer in the program bringing in 64,693 Som ($1205). Compared to Kyrgyzstan’s per capita GDP of $1263 (67,772 Som) in 2013, this represents a strong return – especially considering that they are guaranteed these sales once SLE places an order and provides the supplies.
Before accepting a community into the program, Snow Leopard Enterprises meets with the village to discuss the terms of the conservation contract and the responsibilities of SLE, communities, local government, and representatives of protected areas nearby each community. As a group, these actors define a ‘Community Protected Area’ within which local community members will not hunt. In both Ak-Shyrak and SLE Kyrgyzstan’s partner community at Enylchek, that protected area includes part of the buffer zone of the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve – Kyrgyzstan’s highest density snow leopard habitat. Once per year, communities that have followed the guidelines of their contracts – which also stipulates that they will not aid or accommodate illegal hunters in the region – receive a bonus of 20% on top of the regular payouts to individual families based on their production levels during the year, as well as a 10% bonus to the community at large to be used for group needs. In recent years the Ak-Shyrak community’s bonuses have been used to purchase tableware for use at community celebrations and first aid kits for the local boarding school.
One of the largest concerns regarding the protection of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan is hunting and especially poaching. For foreign hunters that come to Kyrgyzstan from the US, Europe, and Russia to hunt argali and ibex; even those that attempt to follow the proper channels to get one of the 70 argali and 200-300 ibex permits issued annually encounter corruption at various levels of regulatory agencies and in locally based hunting companies. For those that come without such scruples, illegal hunting above and beyond the issued number of permits is simply a question of paying off the right people. These ibex and argali, living high in the mountains in large packs, are one of the major food sources for snow leopard populations. Snow leopard numbers are finally on the rise again in Kyrgyzstan in recent years, but if their prey species are not protected, that growth is not sustainable.
The government has made moves to protect these species, raising fines for those caught poaching, but while corruption continues to pervade the responsible departments, these fines are not always effective. Ak-Shyrak is actively involved in preventing these activities as well – eight men from the village work with the State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry as rangers at Sarychat-Ertash to monitor wildlife populations and protect against illegal hunting by poachers.
Of course, working as rangers is not the only chance for the men of Ak-Shyrak to be involved in the conservation effort. Though the Snow Leopard Enterprises program is dominated by women, many of the male members of the program’s families pitch in as well. It is Ruslan Asanbekov who adds the intricate hand worked stitching to the rugs that his wife Kayirkul weaves and which gives these traditional Kyrgyz handicrafts their colorful designs. In fact, Cholpon says that demands for just this sort of bright and colorful products are driving her to reevaluate the range of products that Snow Leopard Trust produces in Kyrgyzstan. A booming demand for pet accessories from the US may give Ak-Shyrak the opportunity to utilize locally produced wool, dyed in brighter pastel colors, that will not only reduce overhead for raw materials but will also allow the village to monetize a supply that now often goes unsold because of low prices in the markets of Issyk-Kol and the high cost of transportation.
One of the greatest global threats identified by the Snow Leopard Trust is a lack of financial resources for both families in snow leopard habitat zones and the governments that are responsible for protecting the one and a half million square kilometers over which the endangered animals roam. Through programs like Snow Leopard Enterprises and the work of Country Coordinators like Cholpon Abasova, addressing this problem in a way that remains sustainable for both the people affected and the animals themselves presents a possibility for cooperation and conservation that works at all levels. With the support of community outreach such as AUCA’s annual Snow Leopard Flashmob and the work of engaged governments like the Kyrgyz Republic who has initiated a Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection program, hopefully the 2015 International Year of the Snow Leopard will be the one we look back to as the turning point for snow leopard conservation around the world.
Want to help support the work of Snow Leopard Enterprises in Kyrgyzstan? Visit the Snow Leopard Trust website to purchase handmade products from Ak-Shyrak and Enylchek, as well as the other countries that are part of Snow Leopard Trusts’ community conservation initiative. If you’re looking to visit this region as a tourist, you’ll need help in terms of both transportation and border permits. Contact a tour operator in Kyrgyzstan, such as Iron Horse Nomads.