Working toward resilient mountain ecosystems and livelihoods in the Kyrgyz Ala Too

A firsthand account from Benazir and Ulukbek as they travel the Ala Too Mountains in Kyrgyzstand and speak with herders about their livelihood and the challenges they face.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Vanishing Treasures project aims to improve coexistence between humans and wildlife, especially with the rising threats of climate change to both. In the Kyrgyz Republic, our team members and partners work on the Vanishing Treasures project in the Ala Too mountain range, which is in the North Tien Shan region and close to the capital city, Bishkek. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the project is focused on fostering coexistence between people and snow leopards. Within the framework of the project, we (Benazir and Ulukbek) have been collecting data on negative human-wildlife interactions to understand predation levels by the snow leopard and resulting consequences for people and animals. While conducting these surveys, we were able to travel to many villages and we came across a lot of beautiful places and people. 

This has been a very humbling experience because we witnessed the resilience of people despite all of the hardships they face on a daily basis. People in every village helped us find herders. They would either call herders to the village or guide us to them. Every local self-government we interacted with was open to providing phone numbers of village leaders and rooms where we could conduct meetings. People would invite us into their homes and offer us tea, bread, and jam.

A ranger, local herder, and veterinarian help us find other herders to interview. Photo by Visid u. Ulukbek

During our surveys, a family invited us into their small, two-room mud house. It was a bit cold and crowded inside with the two of us, the herder, his wife, and their two daughters. Yet this herder did not complain or demand anything from us. He explained that he and the other herders in the area had experienced livestock depredation due to snow leopards. While the herders did not seem to harbor hostile attitudes toward snow leopards, we realized that their attitudes could change if they continued losing larger numbers of their livestock. 

One stormy day, as we struggled to see very far through the snow and fog, we traversed a road that connected multiple villages. We took a turn and all of the sudden we saw the dark figure of a man standing on the side of the road, looking into the distance. We noticed he was a herder, so we invited him into the car to warm up and talk with us. While the herder was kindly giving information about recent predator attacks to livestock, his cattle disappeared into the fog. We could tell the herder wanted to stay and help us, but we could also see that he was restlessly looking for his lost cattle through the fog. Jackals, wolves, or snow leopards could attack the cattle at any moment. As soon as we received his information, he jumped out of the car, galloped into the depths of the fog on his horse, and disappeared like a ghost. In winter, herders stay next to villages, but that does not make their job any easier. He would spend all day herding cattle in this cold fog and come back home in the evening.

A foggy, cold day on the road in between villages. Photo by Benazir Kabaeva

The people living in this landscape face so many challenges, including droughts that affect the amount of food for livestock and people, livestock losses due to predators, pasture degradation, landslides, and more. In recent years, drought problems have intensified, which bring not only environmental and economic consequences, but also conflicts between people and villages. Expecting people to prioritize conservation in the midst of all their challenges would be a bit insensitive. 

People here are well aware of climate change and they already feel its effects. They realize the importance of conservation and sustainability, and are trying their best to overcome their challenges. However, financial means, expert resources, and time are scarce. The Vanishing Treasures project is helping local communities to address these challenges through different interventions. Some of the planned interventions include planting orchards, building vaccination centers, and beekeeping. We are working with communities to design these interventions to ultimately increase the resilience of livelihoods and mountain habitats in the Kyrgyz Republic. Together, we are building a stronger community and ecosystem. 

We aim to foster coexistence between snow leopards and local people who call the Ala Too mountains home. Photo by SLFK, SLT, and SCEC

We express our gratitude to the United Nations Environment Programme and the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg for making the Vanishing Treasures project possible. Thank you to Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, Ilbirs Foundation, and Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program for being key partners in this project. Huge thanks are also extended to the local communities in the Ala Too for their participation and partnership.

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