After moving about 50 meters, the mother looked back and found one of her cubs still lazing at the spot where the family of three had rested most of the day. While the second cub at her heels waited, she turned and trudged back through the snow to their rest site. This tiny bit of motherly attention made the dawdling cub spring to its feet, rub its cheek against hers, and start following her.
I was sorry to see the beautiful family disappear from sight but also secretly thankful. The cold air had started to bite through my layers of clothing as the sun hid behind the mountains. I headed back to the village of Kibber, where a warm mud-walled room and a steaming hot cup of sweet tea waited for me, nearly 27 years after I first lived there as a young Ph.D. student.
Things were different then in this snow leopard haven of the Indian Himalayas. Soon after I initially arrived there, I heard that a snow leopard had been killed inside the village. It was a retaliatory killing. The conflict was intense. Snow leopards kill domestic livestock when they have an opportunity. At that time, spotting a wild snow leopard in any other way was almost unthinkable. In fact, it would be ten years before I saw my first snow leopard in the wild.
Today, Kibber and surrounding villages are among the world’s top destinations for snow leopard tourism. For local residents, snow leopards – once viewed as pests to get rid of – are now a source of pride and livelihood. Such is the transformative power of conservation when local and indigenous communities are empowered to lead it.
So, when I heard about Kalzang Gurmet’s recent experience in the village of Tashigang in Kinnaur District, further downstream of Spiti, I felt a distinct sense of deja vu. Kalzang, a member of the indigenous community of Kibber, is a conservationist in our team, leading our work in Kinnaur. In his early conversations, Kalzang discovered that a snow leopard had been killed in Tashigang in a retaliatory killing. The conflict was rife.
Tashigang in 2022 was where Kibber was in 1995. Kalzang and our team members were well-versed in the PARTNERS Principles, our award-winning training program on how to engage effectively and ethically with local and indigenous communities. This program was born, in part, from our long experiences in Kibber. Kalzang knew that this was going to take time.
Thus began a phase of presence and trust-building in Tashigang, followed by conservation action. In 2023, we collaborated with the community members to build 13 predator-proofed corrals to secure their livestock from predator attacks. This region is important for snow leopards. Camera trapping as part of our multi-country collaborative initiative called PAWS (Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards) recently showed it to be a high-density habitat. Tashigang is the latest addition to our list of local community partners in snow leopard conservation. With patience and time, Kalzang and our team will hopefully make Tashigang another model of successful coexistence. One community at a time.
Thank you for making all this work by Kalzang and others possible. Thank you for all the hard work you put in for snow leopard conservation and our wonderful organization. In Kyrgyzstan, in 2023, four new community partners were able to pilot beekeeping as part of their income diversification. Together, they harvested nearly a ton of honey during the year and participated in snow leopard conservation efforts.
With time and perseverance, the numbers add up. In Pakistan, 278,000 livestock could be vaccinated in 2023 under our snow leopard-friendly vaccination program, benefiting 7,600 families who otherwise have little access to veterinary healthcare.
Community efforts must also be backed by science. Our scientists managed to collar and track 3 new snow leopards in 2023, publish 29 peer-reviewed papers in books and international science journals, and initiate new research on climate change impacts on people and snow leopards.
At the recently concluded United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC CoP-28 in Dubai, the voice of snow leopards was prominent in the blue zone, the formal negotiation space for party delegations and heads of state. The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Ministers from snow leopard range countries, and our own team brought snow leopards into the discussions on climate adaptation. We also appealed to political leaders for snow leopards to be designated as the symbol of climate resilience and action across Asia’s high mountains, also called the Earth’s Third Pole. Meanwhile, the response of our supporters to the ongoing petition calling on global leaders for climate action for snow leopards and local communities has been overwhelming!
Earlier, in London, at the People for the Planet Summit that brought inspiring conservationists from across the Global South together, a new international effort called the Ethical Conservation Alliance was launched on 6th November 2023. This growing alliance, which already includes conservation leaders from 29 countries working across the world’s lands, oceans, and air, aims to transform how nature conservation is practiced worldwide and bring local and indigenous communities to the forefront. We are thrilled, as this new global movement had its humble beginnings at a PARTNERS Principles workshop we hosted in 2022 in the Kashka Suu Village in the lap of the Kyrgyz Tien Shan Mountains.
I hope you feel inspired by all the life-changing work you are making happen!
During these times of global conflict and turmoil, it can be hard to stay optimistic. But each time I despair, I’m reminded of the special moments I’ve spent watching snow leopards and their families, such as the gentle gesture of love between a mother and her wayward cub. I’m reminded of our strong community partnerships and of your dedication. And I’m filled with hope. Snow leopards bring people and nations closer. Together, we will transform the world: one family, one community, and one country at a time.
PS. Because of you, we are making a positive impact in all 12 snow leopard range countries. And thanks to more than 2,500 supporters like you from 40 countries, we recently surpassed our year-end revenue goal, raising over $755,000 (and still counting!) Together, we are ensuring that the tale of the snow leopard is one of hope.
Photo credits: Kesang Chunit, Nature Conservation Foundation India, SLF-Pakistan, Gustaf Samelius, Jomart Maksatbekov, Whitley Fund for Nature