I had been desperate to work on snow leopard conservation for several years when I met Dr. Shafqat Hussain, a tenured professor at Trinity College, USA, and the Chairman/Founder of the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO). We discussed the lack of government support in low population areas, and the tedious bureaucratic processes that hinder development. Information is not easily shared, and issues of climate change are often misdirected to create quick policies. Often, these policies sidetrack communities that reside in environmentally sensitive areas. I spent this record-breaking winter in Skardu, working with BWCDO on snow leopard conservation. It has been a dream come true, but for the most part my brain has been too frozen to process it. I worked closely with the CEO of the organization, Ghulam Muhammad Sadpara (GM), in applying new but promising approaches to conservation, especially trying to get to know the communities in which they work. The focal point of their project is snow leopard conservation.
Though we all love snow leopards for their fluffiness and ferocity, the local communities that live among them do not feel the same way. These communities live in incredibly difficult conditions brought on by an overabundance of brute nature and a severe lack of outside help. Most do not have access to roads, schools, hospitals, electricity or even phone signals. They rely almost entirely on livestock rearing as their primary source of income. The snow leopards tend to attack this livestock, and local livestock farmers began killing snow leopards in retaliation. When global conservation efforts became aware of the threat to snow leopards posed by these farmers (and indeed, the international illegal wildlife trade), they responded by imposing heavy fines and prison time for those who kill snow leopards. These already impoverished farmers were told to quietly bear the cost of losing their livestock, because it was imperative to protect snow leopards. BWCDO has been gathering data on snow leopards, by setting up camera traps and collecting scat samples for laboratory analysis. This research requires going deep into valleys and mountains inhabited by leopards, not an easy task. Drudging through deep snow, across slippery ice, on narrow tracks bordering steep cliffs, it is only the presence of locals that comforted our shaky hearts. They serve as guides keeping us from getting lost, injured or dead in remote areas. Once the camera traps are set, these locals ensure that they do not get stolen or damaged, they exchange the batteries and memory cards for us, and they even set up some of our camera traps on their own. Additionally, they report on, monitor and combat illegal hunting activities. Without locals, many researchers and conservationists would be lost in the Karakorum.
Then, BWCDO team led by Dr. Hussain, started dialogues with many of these communities about leopard conservation. In Basha Valley, for example, the locals told Dr. Hussain that though the animal poses a threat to their livelihood, the communities are more concerned about the lack of education in the region. BWCDO promised to make efforts to bring education to the valley, in exchange for their promise to help protect snow leopards. Firstly, in order to lessen the damage caused by snow leopards, BWCDO implemented a Livestock Insurance Scheme, which aims to compensate locals for their loss of livestock to snow leopard attacks, and even built several corrals (protected areas for livestock) in the region. Then in 2010 BWCDO, jointly with the Iqra Fund, brought education to Basha Valley. With support from the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), 9 girls and 15 boys began studying in Seisko village, and with the help of friends and volunteers of BWCDO, 64 girls in Sibri village began their educational journey.
In 2009 no girls had access to education in the area, and today over 800 boys and 1300 girls are enrolled in schools across the valley, thanks to the efforts of BWCDO and Iqra Fund. Today, the community understands that it is the presence of snow leopards that has brought education, as opposed to ruin to their community. To strengthen this correlation even further, BWCDO also annually hosts an International Snow Leopard Day at Basha, with the financial support of SLC.
On International Snow Leopard Day, around 1000 students from across Basha gather in DokoSibri village to give enthusiastic speeches, recite original (and very witty) poetry, draw pictures, take part in quizzes and listen to speeches by relevant educational and environmental authorities. The focus of all this creative expression is the importance of conservation, and the role of individuals in protecting nature and wildlife (in particular, snow leopards). At the end of the day, prizes are handed out and several of the winners are even mentioned in local publications.
This is the only forum these students have for this sort of creative expression, and they do not take it lightly. Having witnessed the last International Snow Leopard Day event, I can testify that these children possess a passionate intensity for conservation and the environment. As a result of all this, the people of Basha Valley now see great opportunity for the development of their region through the conservation of nature. It is wonderful that BWCDO has found a way to protect a species, and benefit communities at the same time.
However, the work of NGOs, such as BWCDO, is dependent on international funding, which is often difficult to acquire. Funding comes with tight deadlines and schedules, which leave little room for long term planning. Creating lasting and sustainable positive change for communities is very challenging, in some cases impossible, without continuous and reliable outside support. Unfortunately, sometimes government intervention seems to be the only reliable solution in the long run.
The government’s attention, however, goes where the most amount of noise is being made and, sadly, these communities are scarcely heard. Perhaps, if we occasionally express outrage over the suffering of people and the loss of nature within our own borders, we could bring some attention to where it is really needed, and create a meaningful change. There are many more communities in other villages and valleys that need help, and who live amongst nature that is under threat. We must pay attention to them because they determine the future of our natural world.