How Sustainable Tourism Could Benefit Snow Leopards and Communities

“Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn't that wonderful?” That famous quote by renowned author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen invokes a mysticism about the snow leopard like no other. Once-in-lifetime tourist expeditions to snow leopard habitat in search of the elusive mountain ghost are becoming increasingly popular. But should you go?

Conservation-based tourism is a popular way for travelers to experience natural environments while directly contributing to the protection of local ecosystems and the well-being of local inhabitants. While it is not without its share of challenges for both nature and people, if managed properly, it has significant potential to create new income opportunities for local communities, generate revenue for local governments and encourage coexistence with wildlife. This is especially true for snow leopard habitat in the high mountain ranges of Asia. 

These landscapes are often remote and hard to reach, but the lure of the mysterious snow leopard has piqued the interest of photographers, hikers and big-cat-enthusiasts from all over the world. And while this iconic species may be the star of the show – it is vital that the tourism focus be more holistic, paying attention to the range of other fascinating species, the human culture and the ecosystem that the snow leopard inhabits. It is also important that protections are followed to ensure that tourism does not cause damage to an already fragile ecosystem. Equally important, the benefits and decision-making about such activities must be shared with local communities.

Our team at the Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK) is working to ensure conservation is at the heart of a new initiative involving tourist expeditions in the country’s snow leopard habitats and that they will benefit local communities in the Tien Shan Mountains. In collaboration with the Kyrgyz government and local authorities, we are helping to establish a sustainable tourism model prioritizing snow leopard conservation. We have begun working with our long-term community-based conservation partners on this initiative. These communities have been supported with funding to purchase necessary equipment, including yurts, solar panels, generators, bedding and more. Local guides and rangers are being trained as ‘spotters’ to observe wildlife from safe distances without disturbing them. Our newly trained community members provided life-changing experiences on recent “pilot” expeditions. Visitors had the opportunity to see snow leopards, wolves, brown bears, argali and ibex and experience Kyrgyz hospitality in these remote regions.

One of the key goals of this program is to ensure that the community is the primary beneficiary. The local community has elected a committee that makes collective decisions on how the program will be managed and where funds will be allocated. The revenue from the program could gradually augment their income, providing a direct link to wildlife conservation. The project aims to involve at least 25% of the women in the community (and eventually 50%) in field operations. To ensure transparent guidelines and transactions, SLFK and GSLEP Secretariat is working closely with the government to formalize regulations about tourism in protected areas.

Conservation of snow leopards and their mountain ecosystems is already a high priority for governments in the region. It is considered integral to the economic, cultural and ecological well-being of the people living in Asia’s high mountains. This new initiative can aid snow leopard conservation by encouraging biodiversity protection while allowing more people to witness the majesty of Tien Shan’s wildlife. 


Acknowledgments: Global Environment Facility, Small Grants Program, Kyrgyzstan; Ministry of Natural Resources, Ecology and Technical Supervision; Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program; Voygr Expeditions.

Photos courtesy of Behzad Larry

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