George B. Schaller, “Stones of Silence- Journeys in the Himalaya” 1979.
“For epochs to come the peaks will still pierce the lonely vistas, but when the last Snow Leopard has stalked among the crags a spark of life will have
gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence.”
The numbers are staggering: between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards still live wild in an area about the size of Mexico, alongside close to 120 million humans.
Under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the snow leopard is listed as “endangered,” but that classification alone cannot eradicate the cause of the snow leopard’s vulnerability. A lethal combination of poaching, reduced rangeland, and poverty (with income levels as low as $2 per day), makes saving the snow leopard a complex and costly undertaking.
For the past thirty years, Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) has been trying to protect the snow leopard by working with local communities on environmental and economic concerns. With range land extending from the mountains of Afghanistan across central Asia into Mongolia, the cultural and socio-economic challenges of the disparate communities involved are daunting.
Beginning in 1992, SLT began working in Mongolia, where there are 500-1,000 snow leopards, the second largest population of the species after China. Focused on establishing a sustainable model of coexistence, SLT has implemented a livestock insurance program that reimburses herders in the event of loss (often a cashmere goat) to snow leopard predation. Rather than poison the snow leopard in retaliation, and to prevent potential further killings, the herder is financially compensated—with the explicit understanding that the snow leopard will not be harmed.
This ingenious program not only engenders community awareness about the fragility of the snow leopard population but also addresses a critical first step: stopping the killing. It does not, however, resolve the more pernicious issue of crippling poverty.
With limited natural resources available in the remote mountainous regions where snow leopards live, SLT developed a program to help herders earn extra income from a readily available natural resource: wool!
Using their native felting skills (which have ensured the Mongolians’ survival for centuries by enabling them to live in gers (yurts) made of felt), 225 Mongolian families now participate in Snow Leopard Enterprises’ flagship program. They make more than 30,000 handicrafts per year. SLT buys the handicrafts directly from the women and sells them to the western market. As a result, the women can earn additional income in an area where employment is scarce. The extra money also helps alleviate some of the pressure to increase herd size, one of the ongoing threats to the snow leopard’s habitat.
Saving any animal from extinction is a noble endeavor. Trying to save one so highly valued for its fur (priced at $60,000 for a garment of six to ten pelts) and whose bones are prized in Chinese medicine, requires extraordinary dedication and cooperation.
In October 2013, the first Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum was held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At the urging of SLT, government representatives from all twelve snow leopard range countries attended and made an unprecedented collective commitment to protecting this endangered species.
The Forum’s manifesto, known as the “Bishkek Declaration,” acknowledged in part that “the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of our nations’ natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems.”
It also reconfirms that “conserving snow leopards and their habitats is a shared responsibility of our countries, the international community, civil society, and the private sector.”
The broad-reaching scope of this project might make thousands of felted toys and slippers seem inconsequential. But according to SLT, the program has drastically increased the value of each herding family’s raw wool, and the money earned can boost annual household income by up to 40 percent.
The world of natural fibers and the world of exotic furs rarely sit at the same table. Maybe it’s time they did.