In 1998, the Snow Leopard Trust initiated Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), which aimed to create sustainable economic opportunities for communities living in snow leopard ranges in order to reduce the motivation to poach. Recognising that people and wildlife will continue to live together, the program was designed to help local communities prosper in exchange for a conservation commitment. This has been achieved through the development of local handicraft enterprises. All profits from SLE are invested back into conservation initiatives that continue to encourage communities to safeguard the species by improving their livelihoods.
The initiative began in Mongolia where snow leopards can be found over a vast area of around 100,000 km2; ranging from the Altai Mountains, the Khangai Mountains, the Hanhoohy Uul and Harkhyra ranges, as well as isolated mountainous sections of the Trans-Altai Gobi.
The initiative subsequently expanded its reach and now includes Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India.
The poaching and wildlife trade problem
Species affected Snow Leopard Panthera unciaProducts in trade
Snow leopards can be poached for meat and trophies, animals killed from retaliatory killings as a result of human-wildlife conflict can also be funneled into IWT as a way of compensating for the loss of livestock and to earn extra income.
Overview of the problem
Nearly one-third of the population in Mongolia practice a semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle, with livestock constituting the wealth of most herding families. In particular, the sale of wool from livestock is one of the most important sources of cash income in their subsistence economy.
Snow leopards usually hunt wild prey species, but the cats will occasionally target livestock too. Livestock losses from large predators are common in Mongolia and economically serious for the communities, leading to retaliatory killings or the setting of traps. This remains one of the most widespread and direct threats to the species. Hunting mountain ungulates for meat has also resulted in prey declines, which is also depressing snow leopard populations.
The anti-IWT initiative
Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) was initiated in 1998 in Mongolia in response to an expressed need for herders to gain improved access to markets in exchange for a conservation commitment aimed at protecting the species from persecution. The programme focusses on value addition, through hand-crafted products that herders are encouraged to sell and are provided training to make, as these are 15-20 times more profitable than raw wool.
The structure of the incentive program was developed through discussions with herders. Essentially, a conservation contract is drawn up in which each party commits to specific actions. SLE guarantees that it will purchase a number of handicrafts produced by local women and in return herders commit to stop poaching snow leopards and their prey. SLE purchases the products at an agreed price and if herders honour their conservation commitment they receive an additional 20% bonus. Any violation results in a loss of bonus for all participants and if the individual involved is a member of the conservation program, the whole family loses their membership. This is designed as an incentive to get communities to work together to stop poaching and protect wildlife.
Compliance is monitored by the protected area administration in areas where the project falls within a buffer zone and elsewhere by environmental officers of the local government. These agencies play a policing role and also provide logistical support. They are visibly associated with a program that is valued by the local community, allowing wildlife managers and administrators to communicate a positive image. Agencies are incentivised as they receive 10% of sales from the income of the project site.
Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour
The project incentivises communities to stop poaching and would-be poachers by using a conservation contract where local people commit to certain actions. If communities violate the contract, they will not receive a monetary bonus and could potentially lose their membership to the program.
Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife
Mitigating livestock losses from large predators in the region is a key aim of the project, which ensures local herders are paid adequate prices for their handicrafts in return for responsible conservation actions.
Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife
The sale of wool from livestock is one of the most important sources of income to local herders, but reliance on passing traders meant that wool was often sold below market prices. The incentive program therefore focuses on value addition to wool. Herders are encouraged and trained to make handicrafts, rather than selling raw wool, which can fetch 15-20 times more.
Improving education and awarenessFurther detail
Regular conservation education and outreach activities are built into the program, increasing awareness about snow leopards, encouraging additional conservation projects initiated by SLE participants, and providing resources and information that help reduce snow leopard predation on livestock.
Has the initiative made a difference?
By 2003, the program had grown in popularity throughout the snow leopard’s range in Mongolia, with over 200 families participating. Herders began to organise themselves into collective groups, facilitating logistics and increasing the conservation impact. By 2003, sales of handicrafts had increased the per capita income for families by 25%. The program was expected to continue to grow as marketing opportunities opened up and families can now increase their income by 40%. This money is used to buy food, medicine, clothing, and other necessities.
Herders have increased awareness of the value of protecting snow leopards and their prey. Between 1998 and 2003, there were no reports of snow leopards being killed in any of the project sites. At one site, two ibex were poached leading to local participants not receiving a bonus. These participants expressed a determination not to allow this to happen again and peer pressure has risen as a result. Conservation commitments declared in the contract have created a positive incentive and the program has improved relations between local authorities, the protected areas, and local people.
By 2003, SLE was active in all Mongolian provinces with snow leopards but had only touched only a fraction of the people affecting wildlife. Expanding the spatial coverage of these programs while internalising their costs remained a crucial step forward to conserving the species.
Today, SLE has expanded to work with more than 400 women from 40 communities in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India. By 2014, the program reached the milestone of $1 million in total revenue created.
Organisers, donors and partners
The program has been funded by The David Shepherd Conservation Foundation, WWF Mongolia, The Canada Fund, and the British Embassy in Mongolia.
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