Ge­orge B. Schaller, “Stones of Si­lence- Jour­neys in the Hi­malaya” 1979.

Wild Fibers - - TABLE OF CONTENTS -

“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.

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