I was thrilled to learn that for the first time since the Equator Prize was launched by the United Nations Equator Initiative in 2002, an NGO from Pakistan has won the prestigious award for this year. Every two years, the Equator Prize showcases from around the world community efforts that strive to relieve poverty through conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. The Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO) is amongst the 15 organisations from across the world that will be awarded the 2017 Equator Prize. BWCDO working on the ground in 17 villages in Baltistan to protect endangered snow leopards through insurance schemes and financial compensation against livestock losses that result from snow leopard attacks. They will receive their individual $10,000 award money in a high-profile ceremony to be held in New York on September 17 after a week-long summit during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. Before he left for New York, I spoke to Ghulam Mohammad, the General Manger of BWCDO. “Our NGO started working back in 1999 in Skardu with the local villagers on snow leopard conservation,” he told me.

Local villagers with members of the BWCDO during a wildlife survey in the area. -All photos by Ghulam Mohammad, the General Manager of the BWCDO He credits Dr Shafqat Hussain, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College in Connecticut, US for establishing Project Snow Leopard in 1999 which successfully introduced a community-based livestock insurance scheme in one village in Baltistan. That scheme later spread to 17 other villages in the region and in recognition for which, Dr Hussain also received the Rolex award for the environment in 2006. “He is the one who decided to give incentives to the local farmers to save the snow leopards who attacked their livestock,” Mohammad sai

Claim being settled by the head of the local village committee for the loss of livestock from a snow leopard attack. Since 2007, Project Snow Leopard has been incorporated into BWCDO and Dr Hussain continues to serve as the chairman of the board of directors of the organisation. In this mountainous region, local farmers have a meager annual income of around $500 on average. Therefore, an attack by a snow leopard on a farmer’s livestock threatens the entire family’s livelihood (a snow leopard can kill up to 20 or 30 goats at a time). In the past, farmers killed snow leopards after their herds were attacked. Now, damages are paid after verification through joint decisions between BWCDO and the Village Insurance Committees established for this purpose.

According to research done by BWCDO, around 10 snow leopards were killed throughout Gilgit-Baltistan per year between 1980 and 2000. Farmers used to kill snow leopards by poisoning the carcasses of their livestock.

Now, when a farmer loses livestock, he informs the Village Insurance Committee and BWCDO. This needs to be done within five days of the attack so that it is possible to visit and verify the claim. The committee members then inspect the place where the livestock was killed to verify whether it was a snow leopard or a wolf attack. They look for any pugmarks and wounds on the dead animals – for example wolves usually eat from the stomach of their prey, whereas snow leopards attack the neck. Once a claim has been verified by the committee, they inform BWCDO. Payment is made to the farmer by cheque. These payments are made from funds that have been collected from farmers’ premium payments and from BWCDO donations (25% from farmers and 75% from donations).

This co-finance arrangement ensures that farmers have a financial stake in the insurance scheme; they are co-owners of the programme.

The actual predation rate is about 2% of the total herd. This means that 2% of the total value of the herd needs to be raised through insurance premium to cover the risk. Since the farmers are too poor to cover the entire risk from their own premium payments, BWCDO subsidises the premium payments to the tune of 50-80%. Therefore, if the total worth of 10 goats is Rs 100,000 (that is, on average Rs 10,000 per goat) and the total loss rate is 2%, it means that ideally the villagers should generate Rs 2,000 from their premium. This means that each goat’s premium is Rs 200. But BWCDO subsidises this and farmers end up paying only Rs 50-100 per goat. The Village Insurance Committee collects the premium payment from the farmers once a year.

Until now, the organisation has paid compensation for more than 280 livestock through more than 100 claims. A total of approximately $30,000 has been paid to farmers as compensation through the scheme.

BWCDO has further helped farmers by assisting them in making around 50 predator-proof corals (solid constructions of stone and wood which create a periphery around lifestock) and providing them training on improved herding techniques and livestock vaccination. They have also helped them construct water pipes, pony tracks and protective walls. “These are small interventions but in these tough areas where we work so hard in the short summer seasons, they have proven to be very beneficial to the communities,” Mohammad said. The communities living in these remote mountains are poor and BWCDO supports them with these important infrastructural projects as an incentive, and to encourage them to support their conservation goals.

Solid wood and stone structure of a predator-proof coral.

Predator-proof corals are effective in keeping the livestock safe from leopard attacks. Helping the villagers reduces the burden of losing livestock to snow leopards and makes them more willing to coexist with the animal. BWCDO’s work has certainly won over the trust of the communities and created economic incentives for farmers not to harm the snow leopards. The elusive snow leopard is an iconic species of this region (Central and South Asia) and prefers to live atop mountain forests and high altitude pastures. Conservationists say snow leopards have been threatened by poaching, retaliatory killing by farmers, declining prey species, shrinking habitats, and climate change. According to Mohammad, there are only around 300 to 400 snow leopards surviving in Pakistan today. Dr Hussain, who has been studying snow leopards for almost two decades now, says that although more research is needed, it seems that the snow leopard population in Pakistan has been stable over the past 15 years

Taking a sample for a scientific survey on snow leopards.

A shot of a snow leopard from a camera trap set up by the NGO for scientific surveying purposes. We have now a pretty good idea about how the snow leopard population is doing in Pakistan, thanks to advanced technology such as camera trapping and genetic tests on faeces left by snow leopards. “I would say that 80% of these snow leopards in Pakistan are to be found in Gilgit-Baltistan – which means that about 80% of the snow leopards in Pakistan are found here – while the remaining are in Khyber Pakhtunkwa and Azad Jammu & Kashmir,” pointed out Mohammad. Experts say the habitat range for snow leopards extends over nearly two million square kilometres, involving 12 countries in Central and northern Asia, including Pakistan. Last month, scientists and leaders from the 12 countries who host snow leopard population gathered for the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP) at the Snow Leopard Forum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to address conservation challenges.

A snow leopard guarding its fresh kill in the still of the night. According to Dr Tom McCarthy, the Snow Leopard Programme Director for Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organisation, “Experts from each country within the range were asked to come up with the best estimates of snow leopard population by country and the total was between 7,400 and 8,000 animals”. This figure is higher than what was previously thought. Pakistan’s newly-appointed minister for climate change, Mushaidullah Khan, also attended the meeting. The minister is currently the chair of GSLEP’s steering committee. According to the global protection programme, 20 landscapes of snow leopards shall be protected by the year 2020. Pakistan is included in these landscapes. BWCDO’s work at the grassroots level is an excellent example of how partnering with local communities can lead to feasible solutions to preserve wildlife and local livelihoods, which in turn can protect landscapes. “It really is a big honour for us to win the Equator Prize. Our confidence has grown tremendously,” Mohammad told me. “There were over 800 applications from 120 countries around the world and only 15 were chosen in the end. The recognition of our work is a remarkable feat.”