A delicate balance in Baltistan

December 16, 2010

Shafqat Hussain, Pakistani economist and conservationist, earned a Rolex Award in 2006 for providing innovative solutions for the preservation of the elusive snow leopard. Since then, Project Snow Leopard has grown rapidly, encompassing 10 Himalayan villages rather than the initial two and covering a habitat of more than 6,000 square kilometres in Baltistan, northern Pakistan.

Hussain’s successful conservation model is based on the coexistence of humans and snow leopards, offering villagers alternatives to killing the cat that preys on their herds.

He points out that their traditional solution – killing the leopards – is understandable. “The Baltistan villagers are not ‘trigger happy’. The killing of the cat is a rational strategy to protect their assets.”

Hussain’s winning idea was to create an insurance plan for the goats and other livestock, thereby removing the need to kill the cats. Paying a small premium on their livestock to a village-based insurance “broker”, livestock owners can easily recoup a goat that has fallen prey to a snow leopard. Hussain’s insurance programme now covers 200 households and about 3,000 animals.

©Rolex Awards/T. Grobet Hussain (centre) talks to villagers. By showing them that it is in their interest to protect the snow leopard, he helps ensure the conservation of the charismatic species.

“Farmers didn’t want to pay the 1 per cent insurance premium initially, but we find that once they start contributing, there is no problem collecting the premium in subsequent years,” says Hussain. He estimates the simple scheme is now protecting 50 snow leopards, and the villagers are happy.

Hussain’s Rolex Award has enabled him to further his research and activities, and create measures of the success of each facet of his conservation plan. He and his researchers have begun to analyse the scat of the snow leopard to better understand their food intake – and have discovered that 35 to 45 per cent of their diet is domestic livestock.

Photo courtesy of Shafqat Hussain

This statistic provides Hussain with an excellent argument for advocating for more financial and economic compensation to affected farmers who inadvertently subsidize the snow leopard population by “feeding” it their precious livestock. Hussain’s approach contrasts sharply with the traditional conservation approach fostered by large international organizations, according to which humans should be banished from the region in order to save the snow leopard’s habitat.

“We cannot wish away the humans, nor make them invisible,” says Hussain. “Human beings and their livestock are as much a part of the environment as the snow leopard.

“We want to make the situation comfortable for the farmers – the biggest struggle is convincing governments and agencies! The hard-minded conservationists want to create barriers. We favour coexistence,” Hussain explains. “It’s easier to convince farmers, they are pragmatic people. Scientists attach prestige to their conservation models and are harder to convince.”

Also through genetic testing of the scat of local leopards, Hussain can say with more certainty how many snow leopards are under the protection of his project. He has identified 27 individuals, and, given the elusive nature of the leopard, he estimates that there are 50 snow leopards in the area covered by his project.

Hussain suspects that his approximation of the population density of the cats is very close to “normal” or stable over the long term. Reflecting on the old diaries kept by colonialists, he wonders if the current perception of how endangered snow leopards are is somewhat alarmist in tone. Leopard sightings were uncommon even a century ago. The area in which Project Snow Leopard works was famous for game trophies, and many officers came here to hunt in the late 19th century. Their accounts show that only after perhaps 15 years of hunting was one lucky enough to see a snow leopard. This indicates that the cats were always rare, or low in population density – or very evasive. New threats are arising with new technology, however, so conservationists like Hussain must remain vigilant.

©Rolex Awards/T. Grobet Villagers in Baltistan setting a camera to capture the elusive snow leopard

Between the scat analysis and camera monitors that he continues to install, Hussain is accumulating more knowledge about this highly elusive cat, a relative of the tiger and the African leopard. Hussain’s Rolex Award funds financed more motion-detection cameras, capturing several otherwise-unseen cats on film. Locals can participate in the conservation of the cat and earn wages by installing and maintaining the cameras.

Photo courtesy of Shafqat Hussain A predator-proof corral funded by Project Snow Leopard

The final facet of Project Snow Leopard’s approach is to fund infrastructure projects that protect both the farmer and the snow leopard. Since 2006 US$13,000 has been spent on predator-proof corrals and other small scale infrastructure schemes.

While the Rolex funding has advanced Project Snow Leopard since 2006, Hussain is seeking funding from other sources, including donors and foundations. Initially, part of his funding came from an eco-tourism trekking company he created – but given the current political climate, nobody is travelling to Pakistan now. “Full Moon Trekking is in deep slumber,” Hussain says with a smile. “I think tourism will return, but not in the next decade, at least. We cannot keep asking the poor farmer to subsidize the snow leopard with their precious assets.” He hopes that his model of coexistence will inspire outside contributions to keep the snow leopard and farmers living in harmony.

Learn more about Shafqat Hussain

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