Snow Leopard Conservation in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Leopard Enterprises

saving snow leopards in kyrgyzstan: snow leopard enterprises
Posted by on March 5, 2015

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. Road to Ak-Shyrak. 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. Ak-Shyrak Village.

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. Snow Leopard Enterprises community in Ak-Shyrak

“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.

Snow Leopard Enterprises Kyrgyzstan

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.

Ak-Shyrak at Night 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.

Handicrafts in Kyrgyzstan

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.

Be Sociable, Share!

24 Responses to Snow Leopard Conservation in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Leopard Enterprises

  1. Anne Klien ( MeAnne)

    This is a good cost to help out in the conservation program. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Antoni (Tony) Eru

    Hi i would just like to say that this work you are doing really means the world to me , i have loved the snow leopard ever since i was a youngster now 50 yrs i fear this beautiful big cat will only be seen or heard of in a zoo , their habitat is shrinking even thou they live at such a high altitude , being hunted for Chinese medicines and their amazing coats also proposes more problems , i will always like the posts on face book encourange others and share to help fund this amazing course , thank you so much for your efforts .

    • Stephen

      Hi Tony, thanks for the kind words. They’re beautiful, aren’t they? I fell into this story at first just as an excuse to check out a snow leopard rehab center in Kyrgyzstan (more here: but in the end was so interested in the story itself that I felt like I had to try to reach out and do some reporting on it. Thank you for reading, and make sure to keep supporting groups like Snow Leopard Trust that are doing such good things for the animals.

  3. Sean

    What a great conservation program, for such a magnificent animal.

    • Stephen

      It’s a cool project, isn’t it? All my Christmas presents last year were bought in their store, as another small way to help out!

  4. Gabor Kovacs

    It’s always great reading about places that are not so known for most of the travelers. Kyrgyzstan definitely is an off-the-beaten-bath destination, and I have never heard about the snow leopards that live there. This conservation projects seems really great, I hope they will succeed!

    • Stephen

      Thanks Gabor, I’m sure SLT appreciates your support and I’m glad you enjoyed reading more about Kyrgyzstan. It’s a superb country to travel – add it to your list if you haven’t already!

  5. Emily Luxton

    I think that the work Snow Leopard Enterprises is doing is truly admirable. A program designed to get the local communities to stop hunting and provide them with an alternative source of income, is genius. When thinking about the protection of an animal, the need to also protect its prey had never crossed my mind. This is a really interesting article, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Alli

    I can definitely say I did not know very much about Kyrgyzstan and especially its wildlife before. I would love to experience this unique and off the beaten path destination! 🙂 I am glad to hear that snow leopard numbers are finally on the rise and also hope their prey species are protected!

  7. Heather

    I love that you focus on the lesser visited parts of the world, always love reading about places I know so little about. And sounds like a great initiative for such a worthy conservation cause, I always feel these sort of programmes work so much more effectively when the local community are involved and can also benefit from it.

    • Stephen

      I agree – that community involvement is key. Luckily they seem to be growing and have recently expanded to India, in addition to the other countries they work in, so it seems like their model is working well!

  8. Andrea

    Conservation programs in general are often thrown under the radar, but as you bring up they are so important! The idea of bringing a community together, while protecting this endangered species is admirable and is something we should all be doing.

  9. christine

    Wow, thanks for sharing this. It is very insightful.

  10. Megsy

    It’s a good thing you brought this up. Programs like these are often overlooked. I hope that this would reach the right people

    • Stephen

      Thanks Megsy, I’m hopeful as well that the Snow Leopard Enterprises program will be able to keep growing and expand to even more villages in the area.

  11. Andreja Jernejčič

    I watched a TV series on snow leopard, such an amazing creatures! I´m glad you stopped over there and supported great cause!

    • Stephen

      They’re such beautiful things. I was fortunate to visit a rehab center early last year and see a few in person, now I’m just hoping to find some out in the wild as well!

  12. Roaming Renegades

    This is a really great cause and fantastic that you can help out such a beautiful creature whilst travelling and experiencing this place. So many of these organisations are made just for the benefit of tourists and that is annoying and upsetting when you genuinely want to help. I guess one of the good things about this region is the lack of as many other tourists as other areas such as SEA as so more projects like this one. Good on you.

    • Stephen

      You’re totally right, and perhaps one of the distinctions of Snow Leopard Enterprises is that they’re not really tourist-facing at all. I actually had to pull some journalism strings to make this happened, but that sort of just confirmed what I’d read of them before about how they raise and distribute money. No doubt as tourism in Kyrgyzstan continues to grow those sorts of programs will begin to appear, but for now the organizations that are doing work in the country are actually aimed at real conservation goals.

  13. Revati

    This is such a great initiative. I hope to see a snow leopard in its original habitat someday!

  14. Mom

    This was a great read Stephen. Love the snow leopard stuff you have sent us.

  15. Tim

    Excellent article Stephen and a great cause for a great creature.

    • Stephen

      Thanks Tim. I hope to do more with these guys, nature conservation is right in line with so many of my interests; hopefully I can be of some help to them in spreading the word!

Leave a Reply to Mom Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *