NOTE: This is a guest post from Brad Rutherford, the Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust since 2000. He recently returned from a visit to the Snow Leopard Enterprises project in Mongolia.
For generations snow leopards have been seen as an enemy by herders across the mountains of Mongolia. If a herder lost a sheep or a goat to a snow leopard, it caused an economic catastrophe for the family that reinforced a cycle of conflict between humans and this endangered big cat. This system made protecting snow leopards very difficult in the remote parts of Central Asia where snow leopards are found.
However, this all started to change in 1998 when two researchers sat down with herders and really tried to understand the challenges facing these rural families who share the land with snow leopards. While drinking tea and listening it became clear that as long as herders were only being paid pennies per pound for their raw wool there was no way they could tolerate any losses of their herd to predators. That led to the idea of adding value to the wool and Snow Leopard Enterprises was born. Back then, the concept of an incentive for conservation was relatively new.
But the idea really took off.
Each fall, Snow Leopard Trust staff place an order for thousands of products to be made by the herders. At the time the order is place, each herding family signs a Conservation Contract that specifies what role the community will play in conservation efforts as well as what training and services will be provided by Snow Leopard Enterprises. In the spring when the products are complete, a mutually agreed upon price is paid to the herders and the order is shipped to the United States. Then in the fall, if all the terms of the Conservation Contract have been met, the herders receive a 20% cash bonus. If any herding family breaks the terms of the Conservation Contract the entire community loses its bonus, creating a self-regulating system that has proven itself effective time and again.
I took a trip to the West of Mongolia this month to personally see how the program is working, and it was a truly incredible experience. It is wonderful to participate in the fall order and witness how seriously the terms of the Conservation Contract are debated and how official the signing of the agreement is made. I was touched by the excitement among the families as this year’s order was placed and they calculated the revenue they would be earning in the spring. It was clear what the 20% conservation bonus would mean to each community if the Conservation Contract were upheld. To meet one of these families, and the talented yarn spinner Surnaa, check out this video.
Throughout history, conservation has always been focused on preventing a behavior. Don’t go in this area or kill this animal, otherwise you’ll be fined or arrested. I understand the need for good laws and better enforcement, but when you can pair those with positive incentives for families who join efforts to protect wildlife, amazing things can happen. One woman I met was making extra felt cat toys that have proven to be great sellers so that she could buy a laptop for her daughter who was attending university in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. To watch a video about how these cat toys are made by hand, click here.
Who would have thought a program that was started in 1998 with a handful of products would grow into the largest snow leopard conservation project in Mongolia. Seeing Snow Leopard Enterprises develop and expand to protect hundreds of snow leopards, help hundreds of families escape poverty, and produce thousands of beautiful products that people can enjoy has been one of the most important accomplishments of my 11 years at the Snow Leopard Trust. To hear more from me and to learn about our other programs, check out this video.
I hope you will comment on this post and help trigger a discussion about other projects that focus on providing incentives for conservation activities. With so many species using home ranges far beyond the boundaries of protected areas, it is imperative to involve nearby communities in successful conservation efforts and I welcome your thoughts. Thank you.
Through innovative programs, effective partnerships and the latest science, the Snow Leopard Trust is saving the magnificent snow leopard and improving the lives of people who live in the snow leopard countries of Central Asia. The Snow Leopard Trust was founded in 1981 and is the leader in global snow leopard conservation efforts.
Photo credit: Jason Brown