Written by SLN member Tanya Rosen, NRCC Research Associate.
Reprinted from: NRCC News (Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative) annual newsletter: bridging science and policy to advance conservation. Fall 2010, issue 23(1). 12-13.
It is a warm July evening and the bus of the Northern Areas Transportation Company has just pulled into Skardu, after a 29-hour exhilarating drive along the Karakorum Highway from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Mesmerized by the unearthly beauty of the Karakorum mountains, I step off the bus with Rich Harris of the University of Montana. We are greeted with a warm smile by Ghulam Mohammad, the manager of Project Snow Leopard of the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO).
In 1999, Shafqat Hussain, a conservationist and anthropologist, founded Project Snow Leopard (PSL), focused on creating incentives for snow leopard conservation in villages in Gilgit- Baltistan. Ghulam soon joined the organization. Whereas in the past farmers would normally retaliate against livestock losses by killing snow leopards, Shafqat proposed that farmers set aside a
collective pool of money equal to the value of the average annual loss rate. In his words, “The loss of livestock would then be a mild setback for the entire community rather than a devastating
loss for a farmer alone.” That idea led to the development of an insurance-like scheme with two components: a collective insurance fund managed by the community’s Snow Leopard Conservation Committee (SLCC) and a second fund managed by BWCDOPSL that is ideally funded by income from an eco-tourism venture focused on snow-leopard viewing called Full Moon Night Trekking. !e premiums are relatively low and the compensation that is disbursed when the animal is lost to snow leopards is subsidized with money from the second fund.
Snow leopards are beautiful cats that use their thick fluffy tail for balancing. They are agile hunters of the ungulates that inhabit the Karakorums: ibex and markhor. But a decrease in wild prey due to hunting and poaching has varied their diet. A diet that now includes domestic livestock. They are very hard to spot in the wild where they blend in well with their surrounding landscape; but when they come in villages or summer pastures to attack livestock, they are easier to catch, especially in instances of surplus killing when they kill more than they need for food and surprisingly don’t always flee the killing scene.
Eleven years later, the Project has expanded into 9 villages. I am excited to be here, to help in the expansion of the project and to learn as well. Since I am working on similar conflicts for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Yellowstone, I have a feeling that the work that Shafqat and Ghulam do here can help back home.
After a night in Skardu, we leave with Ghulam for Hushey in Ganche District, where we will join Shafqat and engage in community dialogues to assess their satisfaction with Project Snow Leopard’s insurance scheme. We drive for six hours, stopping to take in more of the landscape and basking in the dramatic contrasts of light and height.
Hushey is a small village in the shadow of Masherbrum. Many trekkers and climbers come through on their way to climbing the largest concentration of 8000 metre-and-up peaks in the world. Boys and girls are running around and happy to practice their English learned from Oxford University Press books in the private school subsidized entirely by the village and their families.
We sit on a small veranda sipping chai tea and eating chapatti bread. People come to greet us and we begin to talk. In my extremely modest Urdu vocabulary I rely on my hands and eyes to
express how happy I am to be with them, how inspiring to know what they are doing for the snow leopard. I look up…and wonder if hidden and camouflaged in the rocks there is one just staring at
That night, sitting outside my tent, I look at the contours of the mountains in the dark: it’s Lailat ul Bara’h, a holiday when Muslims seek forgiveness for their sins and believe that on this night one’s destiny is fixed for the year ahead. I sense Hushey is a place I will be coming back to for years to come.
The following morning, we meet with the members of the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee. Shafqat starts the meeting by introducing Rich and me. He explains that we are here to understand the work that has been done, help make it sustainable, and identify research opportunities that can produce data to show that the hard work and commitment of Hushey is paying off: namely that conflict has decreased and snow leopard and ibex populations have increased. I also add that I am here to learn for my work back in Yellowstone, where the social tolerance for carnivores is dropping dramatically. Given how precarious livelihoods are in this region, I am still amazed that people here would want to do conservation.
With my experience in Yellowstone, I have been thinking more and more that conservation is for wealthy people. It is easy to love and care for wildlife that does not threaten your life and your
economic activities. So I was surprised to hear one of the elders say that “the decision to take proactive measures to protect the snow leopard” was a decision “taken by the community and not a tall order coming from a conservation organization.” As the leader of the village Snow Leopard Conservation Committee tells me, with Shafqat and Ghulam translating, Hushey “wants to protect the snow leopard because it is proud to have an animal that so many people care about.”
Clearly not everyone feels that way…and if that was not the case I would probably not believe it. However, the combination of peer pressure, coupled with the calls of the mullah of the local mosque that deeds against the snow leopard would not go unpunished, tell me that Hushey has a true conservation success story to tell. I listen carefully. As people get more comfortable, with the conversation turning from a question-and-answer session to a free flowing dialogue, everyone chimes in with tales, views and feelings about experiencing livestock losses. Even with the insurance scheme in place, these people still take an incredible economic loss, as the compensation paid does not fully compensate the cost of the animal lost. The village has a very small economy with agriculture and livestock activities carried out only to meet local needs.
!ere is a relatively successful trophy hunting program that brings some cash and, since Hushey is en route to K2 and other peaks, there are some income opportunities for guides, porters and cooks, but the economic opportunities remain small. It was incredible that such a powerful conservation lesson came from such a place.
I turn to Shafqat, who started the whole program, but maintains an impressive modesty. He does not talk about himself or the awards he’s received for the project. In Hushey, he blends in. But when he talks, his narrative is magical and persuasive. He cares about the people and the snow leopard, not the renown he might get from it. Ghulam is the same; the species and the people are the most important thing about the project for both of them.
!e next stop is Baisha, a neighboring valley where the economic opportunities are even more limited. Thanks to the expert hands of driver Mansour, we safely negotiate narrow roads, some washed out by roaring streams or blocked by massive boulders that luckily decided to tumble down before or after we passed. Many villages in Baisha are accessible only on foot or via cable over the river. Because of their location and access difficulties, places like Sibiri, Zill, and Doko are more cut-off from income generating opportunities, like portering or trophy hunting. Development aid has not arrived there yet either, at least not as visibly as in Hushey. In one of the villages, the teacher of the local government school shows up only one day out of every four.
!e private school is expensive for the farmers, and families choose to educate their sons first, which leaves 67 girls out of school.
Talking about snow leopard conservation in the context of such problems with the education system and a lack of primary healthcare is really hard. We learn that the need to protect their
limited economic resources has driven people in this valley to poison snow leopards. The demand for snow leopard fur has exacerbated this practice. But, once again, surprisingly the people from Sibiri choose to protect the snow leopard.
Back in Skardu, hell has broken loose. The Karakorum Highway is closed. The angry and dark Indus River we saw on the way up to Skardu, full and seemingly in a hurry to reach the plains, was not the norm. Bridges have collapsed — once again either before or after we arrived, but we are stuck. We scout the sky and hope for the clouds to open up enough for a plane to land to take us back to Islamabad. I am not ready to leave though. I have learned so much from the way people live here, and I hope to come back soon, perhaps this spring. !e warmth of the people I talked to cut through barriers of culture, gender, and religion and went straight to the core. You talk about wildlife and the hardships of life and you see that where you come from does not matter: nature, in this case in the shape of a wild cat and the challenges it poses, unites us.