Helping, half a world away.
ISLT's headquarters is half a world away from the endangered cat's natural environment--the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, and other mountain ranges that are the Central Asian Plateau. Yet to Brad Rutherford, executive director of ISLT, this arrangement just makes good conservation sense.
Rutherford points out that in order to secure resources to help the cat, the first task is to raise people's awareness of the snow leopard and its situation. "And you can do that from anywhere. In fact, the awareness problem is much worse in the US, Europe, and the developed parts of Asia than it is among the people where the snow leopard actually lives."
Much of ISLT's financial support comes from people far away from the snow leopard's natural habitat. About a quarter of ISLT'S members, and nearly 60 percent of its contributions, are from within Washington State.
To ISLT's contributors, the snow leopard is the epitome of a charismatic species, a compelling symbol of a harsh yet romantic landscape. The nomadic herders who share the cat's environment in Mongolia, by contrast, are more likely to describe the cat as "the number-one enemy of livestock."
Throughout the cat's range, humans and snow leopards are coming into increasing conflict. As the human population grows, people push farther into the remote territory and high elevations where snow leopards live. They hunt the wild sheep and goat species that are the snow leopard's most important prey, and their livestock compete for food with these wild grazers.
Faced with declining prey populations, hungry snow leopards occasionally kill domestic livestock. To people who live close to the edge of survival, the snow leopard is a predator that can spell the difference between economic hardship and economic ruin. The cats are often hunted down and shot or poisoned.
In addition to these retaliatory killings, snow leopards are hunted for their pelts--which despite being illegal, are in great demand among the wealthy in some countries--and for their bones, increasingly in demand in traditional Asian medicine as substitutes for tiger bones. About 3,500 to 7,000 cats are believed to be left in the wild today.
Little is known about previous population levels, but the World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the snow leopard as endangered--the same classification accorded the panda and the tiger. Trade in live animals, their pelts, or other body parts is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and all 12 range countries have laws prohibiting hunting of snow leopards.
Yet lists and laws are likely to come to naught without the support of the people who share the cat's environment, and this knowledge animates all of ISLT'S conservation programs. ISLT's community-centered approach is illustrated by Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), a program that offers people an opportunity to increase their household income in exchange for helping to protect the cat.
Dr. Tom McCarthy, ISLT Conservation Director, and Priscilla Allen, formerly ISLT Program Officer, got the idea for the program during a research trip to Mongolia in 1997. McCarthy was conducting snow leopard population surveys, and Allen was interviewing herder women about their interactions with the cats.
"As we drove across western Mongolia, we started brainstorming how we could help the local people in exchange for tolerating the snow leopard," McCarthy recalls. They reasoned that snow leopard predation on livestock wasn't rampant--a sheep here, a goat there--so even a modest economic incentive might help defuse the human-predator conflict.
"We could see they had a handicraft tradition, and they had lots of raw material, but no access to markets," McCarthy continues. The Snow Leopard Enterprises program provides herders with training and equipment for handicraft production, and markets the products at tourist attractions in Mongolia and various stores in the US. In return, the local people agree not to kill snow leopards or their prey species, and to follow responsible herding practices.
A bonus is available at the end of each year if the community has complied with its agreement. But if just one person violates the contract, the entire community loses out. This creates peer pressure and encourages the community to prevent poaching by outsiders.
Participants increase their household income as much as 25 percent--much-needed cash that enables rural families to buy medicines and send their children to school. Nearly 200 herder-artisans and their families in six provinces of Mongolia are involved today; the product line is expanding; and the program has recently started up in the Kyrgyz Republic.
It's not a one-size-fits-all solution. "Even within Mongolia, the cultures, handicrafts, raw materials, and economic problems vary between regions," McCarthy says. "So we really took a close look and got a lot of input from local people when we expanded to each new place."
ISLT staff in India found that villagers in the Spiti region were unenthusiastic about the handicraft program, possibly because this is a relatively prosperous area compared to the Mongolian steppe. Instead, the villagers agreed to a livestock insurance program that would reimburse them for animals lost to predation. During the program's first year, 2002-3, about 60 percent of families in the pilot village of Kibber enrolled and paid their premiums.
Villagers in the Chitral region of Pakistan helped come up with a different solution. They were losing one percent of their herds to predators, but ten to fifteen percent to disease, and said that they would be willing to tolerate losses to predators if they could reduce losses to disease.
So ISLT has agreed to help herders get basic animal vaccines, previously unavailable in this remote area. The vaccines cost just 50 cents per animal per year, which ISLT will partially subsidize for the first four years.
In exchange, as in Mongolia, the villagers have agreed not to kill snow leopards or their prey species. They also promise to limit the size of their herds so that their livestock don't overgraze the plants on which snow leopard prey species depend. ISLT will also help the villagers market their extra animals. Village leaders in Kuju have just signed the first contract for this program.
Although these programs each look very different, the approach behind them is the same. "We use good science to develop conservation programs, and those conservation programs are "always developed in close partnership with local people," Rutherford says. "The same principles lead to different community-driven solutions from place to place."
The snow leopard is an extremely elusive cat, and its small population is scattered across a nearly a million square miles of remote habitat. The science on which good conservation programs are based--and the data with which they are evaluate--is hard to come by.
To remedy this, ISLT helped develop the Snow Leopard Information Management System (SLIMS), a methodology for collecting data on pug marks, scat, scrapes, scent marks, and other signs of snow leopard presence. ISLT has trained scientists, park employees, and Peace Corps volunteers in SLIMS methodology, and maintains the centralized database into which snow leopard researchers worldwide deposit their data.
SLE program areas in Mongolia have been monitored using SLIMS methodology for four years. More extensive follow-up is necessary, but the initial data suggest that snow leopard populations are increasing in some SLE program areas. In other areas, McCarthy suspects that snow leopard populations were relatively healthy to begin with, and ISLT conservation programs have prevented declines from occurring.
"Human attitudes are a good way to measure progress as well," says McCarthy. He reports that participants in SLE and other conservation programs have become much more tolerant of the snow leopard's presence in their midst.
Yet other challenges remain. While individuals in the Seattle area support snow leopard conservation, securing funds from local foundations and grantmaking agencies can be tricky. These organizations may feel hard pressed to justify supporting conservation activities thousands of miles away when so much needs to be done close to home.
To help build local support, WildFutures--a program of Earth Island Institute--has recently been providing communications assistance to ISLT. In addition, ISLT is working to forge connections with organizations that are trying to reduce conflicts between humans and predators such as cougars and wolves. "I really think these issues are the same in many respects worldwide," says Rutherford.
Take Action: You can help to ensure the long-term survival of the snow leopard in the wild by visiting the ISLT Web site at snowleopard.org where you can purchase Snow Leopard Enterprises merchandise and find out about becoming a member of ISLT.
International Snow Leopard Trust
4649 Sunnyside Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98103 USA
(206) 632-2421 (phone)
(206) 632-3967 (fax)
Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science writer based in Seattle, WA.