Coverage for Carnivores

By insuring herders against livestock losses to snow leopards, an innovative program in Pakistan is helping to protect the elusive and endangered cats

  • Heather Millar
  • Feb 01, 2008

ON A COLD MARCH MORNING in 2000, Mohammed Abbas led his two dozen goats to the outskirts of his village, Skoyo, in northwestern Pakistan. There, the herd spent the day grazing, nosing through light snow cover to the brown grass below. Returning at dusk to drive the animals back to the corral, Abbas noticed that a three-year-old male was missing. Then he found the goat dead, eviscerated and partially eaten, almost certainly by one of more than a hundred hungry snow leopards that roam the mountainous region.

A few years ago, Abbas might have been enraged enough to get his rifle and go leopard hunting. Like 400 or so of his neighbors in the Skoyo Valley, the father of six barely carves out a living by tilling fields and tending orchards in the lowlands and herding goats on the mountain slopes. Instead, when Abbas found the kill, he notified the local insurance committee--and became the first in his village to claim a loss through Project Snow Leopard, an inventive program to protect the cats through a village-administered livestock insurance system linked to snow leopard ecotourism.

The snow leopard, if you can catch a glimpse of one, is a graceful predator, with a luminous soft gray coat marked with rosettes of black on brown and a long tail that helps it balance, doubling as a muffler in bitter weather. Ranging from Afghanistan to China, the cat rules at the top of the food chain in mountain ecosystems that include famous peaks like K2 and Mount Everest.

No one knows for sure how many snow leopards remain in the wild. The cat is so reclusive and hard to track that it has taken on an aura of myth. Based on indirect evidence such as tracks, interviews with locals, and the remains of kills, accepted population estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000.

Most scientists believe that the snow leopard's numbers are decreasing, and since 1972 the World Conservation Union has listed the cat as endangered. One of the greatest threats is poaching for the thriving--though illegal--international fur trade. Leopard pelts bring high prices on the black market, often equivalent to an entire year's income for a mountain villager. And in booming East Asia, the cats' body parts are increasingly prized as ingredients for traditional medicines.

But retaliatory killings by angry livestock herders also take a considerable toll, as is the case with many threatened predators worldwide. (The leopards take domestic animals largely because wild prey, such as ibex and markhor, are declining.) Project Snow Leopard seeks to discourage villagers from striking back at livestock-killing cats. The program was the brainchild of Shafqat Hussain, a native Pakistani and Ph.D. candidate at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He first started to think about the predation problem in the mid-1990s while working as a program analyst for the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in nearby Skardu, a market town and well-known supply depot for trekkers and mountaineers. As Hussain traveled through the region interviewing people to see how well development programs were working, he kept hearing complaints about livestock killed by wild animals, especially snow leopards.

With a grant from the London-based Royal Geographic Society, and input from local communities, Hussain founded the project in Skoyo in 1998. Trained in economics as an undergraduate, he made sure the program included checks and balances to discourage cheating and encourage cooperation. Its Village Insurance Committee rotates membership every two years, for example, so that no one person or family can dominate.

"We got all the villagers to participate," says Hussain, explaining that each herder pays premiums equivalent to about 1 percent of their livestock's value. That premium money goes into a pot, called Fund 1, where each person's contributions are recorded and kept separate. Meanwhile, Hussain founded an ecotourism company, Full Moon Night Trekking, to market snow leopard treks. A portion of the money from that venture--70,000 Pakistani rupees, or US$2,333, in 1999--goes into another pot, called Fund 2. The village holds all the Fund 2 money in common. The trekking company also employs two local people as guides.

Here's how the process works: When Abbas reported his loss, two other herders hiked to the site of the kill and confirmed that the goat was probably killed by a snow leopard. The insurance committee ruled that the market price of the goat would have been 1,200 rupees (about US$19). Soon Abbas received two checks: The village committee wrote one from Fund 1 for the 240 rupees in premiums he had paid. Project Snow Leopard wrote a second check for the remaining 960 rupees from Fund 2. Since then, Skoyo villagers have made 17 more claims, with no cheating or disputes over inadequate compensation so far.

"It's a psychological thing," Hussain says. "The villagers monitor each other. It's not in their interest to verify a fraudulent claim, because they would have to draw from Fund 2. They would not want to do that, because they'd be making someone rich by making themselves poor."

Snow leopard experts and conservationists worldwide are watching the project with interest. While various insurance schemes have attempted to insure locals against livestock killings by endangered predators like lions and leopards, so far they've had little long-term success. "There's a history of insurance programs failing," explains Brad Rutherford, executive director of the Seattle-based International Snow Leopard Trust. "Typically, they're set up by the government, underfunded and undermonitored. Soon there are too many claims and not enough money. Then the program goes bust, and villagers end up being even more angry at the animal you're trying to protect."

But thanks to its unique design, Project Snow Leopard is working. The pooled money from locals, plus income from tourists, has made the program self-sustaining. In good years, the funds even support community improvement projects like building wells or upgrading corrals. In October 2006, Rolex SA, the Swiss watch company, recognized the project, naming Hussain one of five associate laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and issuing him a $50,000 check to help expand the effort. Organizations in India, Nepal and Mongolia have either begun cooperating with the program or started their own modeled on its approach. Word of the insurance program is also spreading locally through the mountains of northeastern Pakistan. Before the Rolex award, "we got so much enthusiasm from the villages, but we didn't have the resources and manpower to expand," Hussain says. Now the program will be able to move into six more valleys, improve livestock-guarding pens and maintain a system of unmanned cameras to try to better monitor the snow leopard population.

"I think the potential for community-managed livestock programs is very high," says Rutherford. "The communities control their own fate; they're sharing the risk. If it's run properly, it can be financially self-sustaining and not subject to the ups and downs of donor support."

New York writer Heather Millar wrote about chimpanzees in the February/March 2007 issue.

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