Transforming minds in the mountains of Central Asia

Posted on 17 October 2016

Turning poachers into snow leopard protectors in Kyrgystan
Late 1990s. Kyrgyzstan, Central Tien Shan, 4,000 metres above sea level. This is a tough place to live. The air is thin and breathing is difficult. Summers are brief and winters are long. The terrain is rugged. Travelling to the valley takes four days. But this is home to the residents of the high-mountain villages of Ak-Shiyrak, Enilchek and Karakolka, writes Ekaterina Vorobyeva, Director of Central-Asian programme, WWF-Russia. 
And to their neighbours: the snow leopards that prey on wild argali sheep. And on the villagers’ livestock. Some talk about conflict between people and the big cats. But this is more than ‘conflict.’ This is a matter of life or death. It is war to be won by the best hunter. Men have guns and snares on their side…
September 2016, Kyrgyzstan, en route to Ak-Shiyrak. We are riding in a car with Farida Balbakova and her husband, Azat Alamanov – the couple who put an end to the human/leopard war in these mountains. It is a 10-hour trip to the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, much shorter than the trip two decades ago. But long enough for Farida to tell me how they transformed life for people and wildlife.
When they first arrived, there was no point in preaching an end to poaching or calling for communities to protect snow leopards. One skin back then bought a poacher enough sheep to feed his family through the winter. And there was no other alternative.
Farida realized that she would first need to find a way to reach people’s minds and souls, to stir the great love for nature that is alive inside of each of us. And she did – thanks to the children and teachers from the local school. “They were the driving force,” said Farida.
With Farida and Azat supporting them, the staff and students organized the annual ‘Land of the Snow Leopard’ festival as well as public celebrations of  the ‘Day of the Leopard’ and Earth Day. Farida wrote poetic plays in Kyrgyz, often using elements of traditional folklore, to inspire a deep love and understanding of nature. The scripts were also translated into Russian. And soon parents and grandparens were participating, while more and more people from neighbouring areas started coming to see the performances.
There is no doubt that the environmental theatre changed people’s attitudes to nature and snow leopards. But they still needed alternative sources of income to poaching.
So alternatives were found. With the support of WWF, women started generating income from felt production. And started keeping an eagle eye on their men – and any strangers arriving in the village – to make sure they did not resort to poaching since WWF assists communities, who are responsible for ‘no poaching areas’. Regular income is much more valuable than illegally selling the pelt of a poached snow leopard every now and then.
Some of the inhabitants of Ak-Shiyrak and Enilchek also benefit directly from snow leopard conservation through employment in the Sarychat-Ertash Reserve, which protects critical habitat and was recently expanded with WWF support. They are now committed to protecting the big cats, installing camera traps and looking for tracks amid the rocky terrain.
And they are genuinely happy to see the number of snow leopards increasing, with at least 24 now roaming the reserve.
But they do not do it for the money alone. After all, a senior gamekeeper only earns the equivalent of US$65 per month – barely US$2 per day. They do it because they are passionate about preserving their snow leopards.
Having spent time with the villagers, one thing really struck me: they understand how advantageous it is to live in harmony with nature, especially in this incredibly tough part of the world. How both people and wildlife can thrive together.
It is remarkable to see the transformation in these remote villages. Hopefully, Farida and Azat can work the same magic in other areas, bringing an end to years of human-leopard conflict and charting a better future for both.
Community celebrating snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan
© Farida Balbakova & Azat Alamanov
Snow leopard on camera trap in Kyrgyzstan
© WWF-Russia
Community celebrating Place of the Snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan
© Farida Balbakova & Azat Alamanov
Snow leopard on camera trap in Kyrgyzstan
© WWF-Russia
Women generating income through felt making
© Farida Balbakova & Azat Alamanov