From time immemorial, shepherds in the Himalayan mountains of Baltistan, in northern Pakistan, have reviled the snow leopard as much as their Western counterparts once hated wolves. About half of the Balti economy comes from animal husbandry, particularly domesticated goats that are preyed upon by the snow leopard, largely because its traditional wild prey — the ibex and markhor — are disappearing. So local herders do not hesitate to kill the snow leopard, which is also at risk from the illegal trade in its highly prized pelt.
Project Snow Leopard
In an impressive example of lateral thinking, Shafqat Hussain, who originally trained as an economist, created Project Snow Leopard (PSL) in 1998 to deal with the threat to the snow leopard in Baltistan. This non-profit conservation programme combines ecotourism and low-cost insurance, protecting herders against attacks by the leopards on their livestock. The plan is helping local people realize that one cat alive in the surrounding bush is worth more to them than several killed for the fur trade.
Hussain, aged 37, describes the snow leopard as 'a marvel of nature’s perfection’ and explains that, sitting at the top of the food chain, this animal plays a key role in maintaining the mountain ecosystem. Dr Ma Ming, of the Snow Leopard Trust in Xinjiang, China, calls it an ”umbrella species”: protecting it ensures its habitat and many other local species are also preserved.
High in the Himalayas
Wonderfully adapted for the extreme weather and rocky terrain, the snow leopard roams wild at altitudes up to 5,500 metres in the Himalayan peaks. Furry feet help it stay on top of the snow by acting as natural snowshoes. This rare creature hunts alone for wild and domesticated goats and other prey, which it pounces upon from up to 15 metres away. With a total population estimated at between 4,000 and 7,000 scattered across the Himalayas, including fewer than 150 in Baltistan, the snow leopard is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. This elusive relative of the tiger and more familiar African leopard is one of the least photographed, but most photogenic of big cats, with its metre-long tail and handsome dappled coat.
Key to Success
The insurance scheme set up by Hussain compensates villagers for every goat killed by the predators, which effectively deters the villagers from killing the offending cat or any other suspect. The annual premium paid is one per cent of the value of one goat, with each herder paying according to the number of goats he owns. This covers about half of all claims. The other half comes from Full Moon Night Trekking, the ecotourism agency Hussain founded, which advertises the snow leopard as its chief attraction. "People who find pleasure in the idea of the snow leopard surviving in the wild should be willing to pay for this pleasure, and this payment helps offset the losses to farmers for having the cat around," he says. To succeed, both complementary programmes must be profitable, another reason for locals to protect the animal at the heart of the project. A key aspect of the scheme’s success is the fact that local people participate at every level. Village committees collect premiums, pay claims and act as the scheme’s financial watchdog. Villagers control the income from Full Moon, using surplus profits for community projects, like making wells for drinking water. Full Moon also employs two villagers as guides.
Until recently, Project Snow Leopard covered a relatively small area of 170 square kilometres embracing the environs of the village of Skoyo, which has 260 inhabitants, and other nearby settlements. With support from his Rolex Award, Hussain is now extending his project to more Balti villages near Skoyo and K2, the world's second-highest mountain. He also hopes to attract more ecotourists, many of whom are staying away because of the 2005 earthquake and bad publicity about Pakistan in the wake of 9/11. Hussain points out that Baltistan is very much associated with adventure tourism, but he wants it to be known for ecotourism. "Things can change and other trekking companies now mention wildlife in their brochures because Full Moon started to do it," he says. "In Nepal [also home to snow leopards], they have about 200,000 visitors per year; here in Baltistan, we only have about 5,000." The added funding will also allow him to build better fences to protect livestock and to update the counting of leopards, mainly by automatic unmanned cameras dotted across the mountain landscape.
Harmony with a Predator
Hussain’s broader vision is to demonstrate that human villagers and feline predators can live side by side. By involving local people, he is gradually convincing the villagers that man and beast can profitably coexist. He sees it as “sadly ironic” that in many places there is more concern for endangered biodiversity than for humans. "No matter how charismatic an animal is, its survival should not come at the cost of poor human farmers," he says. But he adds that he is "only one of many who are trying to make a difference for snow leopards and herders", pointing out that his project would not survive without local colleagues who run the scheme when he is in London and at Yale University writing his Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between human societies and the natural environment in the mountains of northern Pakistan.
His innovative idea of enlisting local support and willingness to challenge widely accepted ideas have won him many admirers, including Rodney Jackson, the renowned snow leopard authority who won a Rolex Award in 1981 for his work to save them. "Hussain’s work is groundbreaking, especially since he brings the social and ecological sciences together," Jackson says. "My impression is that Hussain’s original programme is more effective [than similar ones inspired by his scheme], thoroughly designed and appropriately implemented."
Published in 2006