We often call our partner communities in snow leopard countries “remote” or “isolated” – and most people have a vague image of what that means, mostly based on their own experiences. But the isolation and remoteness of Ak Shiyrak is on a scale that is hard to fathom for those of us who grew up in densely populated parts of the US, Europe or Asia.
Kyrgyzstan isn’t the most crowded place to begin with. Even the capital, Bishkek, offers lots of space and greenery – and the further away you get, the more sparsely populated the landscape becomes.
A Trip Into The Heart of Snow Leopard Country
After a few hours’ drive south-east from Bishkek, we reach the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, the second-largest saline lake in the world and a major tourism magnet for this landlocked Central Asian country. Here, we stock up on food and drinks, then turn south towards the Central Tian Shan mountains. And immediately, we are on our own.
There is a Forest Department checkpoint half an hour up the road. And another hour or so up the mountain, we cross a heavy truck near the turnoff to Kumtor mine, Kyrgyzstan’s economic engine. Chances are that some part of your cellphone originates from this huge gold mine. But up here, you might easily forget about that, since you’ve lost connectivity a long time ago.
We climb further, to a pass at 4,000 meters above sea level. Then we descend a few hundred meters in elevation and finally reach the high plateau at the heart of this part of the Tian Shan. To call this landscape vast doesn’t even nearly do it justice. It is epic; enormous; hauntingly beautiful and somewhat intimidating.
On the plateau, we turn East, following the meandering Sarychat river, crossing it several times (thankfully, water levels are low enough to allow it). It’s a bumpy dirt road on the best of days, and if there is rain or snowfall, it becomes impassable to all but the most practiced drivers and the most hardy 4×4 vehicles. Thankfully, our driver Myrza has taken this journey many times before. So has Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Director of Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan and our program director in this Central Asian country.
It’s early June. Bishkek, was hot and sunny when we left in the early morning. 10 hours later, up on this high plateau, it’s near freezing and the relentless wind makes me regret that I didn’t bring my down jacket.
Eventually, we pass a border police checkpoint, where our passports and border permits are inspected and finally found to be in order. It’s a reminder of how close to China we are. Beyond the river, a few hours’ ride, is the border.
We drive on and are utterly alone. For several hours, there are no houses anywhere in sight, and we don’t encounter a single other car traveling on this remote mountain road. A power line along the river bed is the only reminder that we are still navigating Terra Cognita.
Then, as dusk begins to announce itself, we reach the entrance to Sarychat Ertash State Nature Reserve. We stop to say hello to the rangers here. Kuban has worked closely with them for many years, enlisting their help for wildlife surveys and training them on how to best combat poaching.
Ak Shiyrak is about an hour further East. Several of the men from the village work as rangers in Sarychat Ertash. On the way, we stop at Akyl Kydyraliev’s herding camp, which is the kind of place the phrase “in the middle of nowhere” must have been coined for. A little over a year ago, Kuban and his team helped the herder build a predator-proof livestock corral to prevent attacks from snow leopards and wolves. The simple construction – steel rods and wire mesh – has worked exactly as hoped. Akyl has not lost any livestock at his camp since the corral was built.
“This corral has kept my livestock safe from snow leopards and wolves. I’m very grateful to the team for helping me deal with this problem in such a positive way”, Akyl says.
We say our goodbyes and drive on. Just before the sun disappears behind the mountains, we crest a final bluff and see the village of Ak Shiyrak below us, illuminated by the day’s last rays of sun. Despite the golden light, it’s not a picturesque place. Most of the houses are utilitarian brick constructions with corrugated tin roofs. It’s a pragmatic, functional architecture. But to our group of weary travelers, it’s a beautiful sight nonetheless.
We check in to Cholpon’s guesthouse. Cholpon is a local community leader who has been engaged in our conservation projects in Ak Shiyrak for many years. She leads a group of local women who produce handicrafts from wool and felt under the label “Snow Leopard Enterprises”.
One of the reasons we’ve come to Ak Shiyrak is to pick up the latest order of products – beautiful rugs, place mats, pet beds and more. We’ll take all these unique handicrafts back to Bishkek, where they’ll be sorted, tagged and eventually shipped to the Snow Leopard Trust’s Seattle office. From there, they go to buyers around the world. The money that families in Ak Shiyrak earn through Snow Leopard Enterprises makes a big difference – it can add as much as 40% to their annual income.
As part of Snow Leopard Enterprises, the entire community signs a so-called Conservation Contract with us. In that contract, the community members commit to refrain from all hunting of snow leopards and their prey within the land they use for their livestock. They also pledge not to provide any kind of assistance to outside hunters who come to the area illegally, e.g. lodging, guide services or food.
If the community holds up their end of the bargain – i.e. if there are no poaching incidents – they receive a substantial bonus at the end of the year, which goes into a shared fund from which villagers can take out loans, pay for road improvements etc. If the contract is broken, that bonus is voided.
For several years now, we have not had any reports of poaching incidents involving people from Ak Shiyrak, and Kuban has brought the bonus payment the community is due.
In the evening, we all gather in the village meeting hall. Kuban congratulates the community on their successful conservation engagement over the last 12 months and hands over the bonus payment. Then another local leader who manages the shared community fund gives a brief update on how much money was spent last year and what it was spent on.
The meeting isn’t over though. Earlier this year, Kuban had brought metal rods and wire mesh to build five additional predator-proof livestock corrals. Four of those have been built – but today, the community needs to find a consensus on where to build the last one for this year. Next year, we hope to add another five or six.
Life in Ak Shiyrak is defined by scarcity and simplicity. There is electricity, but no indoor plumbing. Most people have TVs in their home and 2018 saw the arrival of cell phone connectivity in the village. There is no internet, however, mobile or otherwise. To me, at least, the defining characteristic of this place is its isolation. The nearest village, Enilchek, is less than 50 miles East – but in between lie impenetrable mountains. The road we took to come here is the only access point. Driving anywhere, e.g. to go see a movie, hear a band play or see a specialist doctor, takes a day in the best of conditions. For someone who is immersed in the global, postmodern culture of permanent connectivity and accessibility, it’s an unsettling thought. It really drives home the meaning of “remoteness”.
It also underlines just difficult it is for the people of Ak Shiyrak to eke out a living. The ground here isn’t fertile enough to grow cash crops, and distances are simply too large to trade any agricultural goods with a short shelf life. For the majority of people here, livestock rearing is their only option.
A study we carried out a few years back showed how deeply the communities in this landscape depend on the land: only about half the people of Ak Shiyrak have sources of income besides livestock, and every single family raises at least a few goats and sheep. The value of goods and services the average family here draws from nature – free of charge, of course – is more than seven times the average annual income. In other words, without pastures and livestock, these people have no means of making a livelihood.
In those circumstances, it’s not hard to understand why local attitudes towards the snow leopard are ambiguous at best.
“Three years ago, a snow leopard came down this valley and killed one of my goats”, recalls a herder whose camp is about half an hour outside of Ak Shiyrak. His experience is shared by most people here. But interventions such as Snow Leopard Enterprises and the predator-proofing of corrals have made a big difference.
“People here may never love the snow leopard the way we do”, Kuban says. “But if we work with them, they can tolerate the cat, and perhaps even see that it brings value.”
Today, the snow leopard has undoubtedly brought value. The men and women of Ak Shiyrak seem very content as they file out of the meeting room, their payment for the handicrafts they made in hand.
When the meeting is over, we’re treated to a feast at Cholpon’s – fresh goat, hearty soup and loads of Borsok, tiny, addictive fried breads you eat with preserves until you’re literally unable to lift your arm to reach for the next one.
As I get ready to go to bed, Ilnur, Cholpon’s six-year old grandson who lives with them, peeks into my room through the half-open door, then, after I wink at him, sneaks in. He has a book in hand, and clearly wants me to look through it with him. It’s one of those children’s books about the world – a page for each country, with illustrations of landmarks, cultural and culinary specialties and iconic wildlife. It immediately takes me back to my own childhood – thousands of miles away in the suburbs of Bern, Switzerland. I had a very similar book when I was Ilnur’s age, and I’m sure it helped instill in me the wanderlust and curiosity for the world that still drives me today. I don’t speak Kyrgyz or Russian, and both Ilnur and I are beginners at reading Cyrillic script – but together, we decipher country names and find out what their animals are called in the other’s language. One of them I know, even in Kyrgyz: Ilbirs – the snow leopard.
The next morning, the weather has started turned. Dark clouds are gathering over the peaks to the South of us, and the forecast looks less than encouraging.
After breakfast, we meet a few of the local women, who have gathered to work on Snow Leopard Enterprises products while they update each other on the latest news. Meanwhile, with the help of a handful of villagers, Kuban, Myrza and I load all the finished products in and onto the roof of the the car. An hour later, we’re ready to hit the road for the long drive back to Bishkek.
We’ve barely left Ak Shiyrak when the snowfall starts. It’s right around freezing, and the snow is heavy and wet. The dirt road quickly becomes muddy, and with its heavy load, our trusty Toyota struggles mightily on some of the steeper inclines. “In an hour or so, we may not have been able to make it out”, Kuban says as we make it through the trickiest stretch.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been so bad. As harsh and remote as this place is, it’s also alluring in a very unique way. I would not have minded at all to spend another day or two in Ak Shiyrak, eat more Borsok, hang out with Ilnur, and maybe go on a little hike to see if I can spot some argali or ibex on the slopes above us.
Our work in Kyrgyzstan is generously supported by partners including Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, Edrington Group and Snow Leopard Trust UK, Darwin Initiative of the UK Government, and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation as well as many individual donors. Thank you!