Photograph by Rebecca Hale
High in the harsh world of Pakistan’s wind-chiseled Himalaya, endangered species—and villagers—struggle to survive. Yet both, it seems, can find relief through the same improbable source: an insurance plan.
Shafqat Hussain was born in Pakistan’s lowlands but always felt drawn to the mystery and majesty of its highest mountains. In the remote Baltistan region, the economy depends upon herding, but when Hussain first arrived herds faced a serious threat. Snow leopards attacked village goats and sheep, leading communities to retaliate by killing the cats. "The easy explanation,” Hussain says, "is that the snow leopard’s own natural prey has declined, forcing them to attack domestic flocks. This is true in some areas. But even when prey such as ibex and markhor are plentiful, the leopards kill village livestock. After all, it’s much easier to attack a village goat than to expend ten times the energy stalking wild prey.”
Hunted by villagers in defense of their flocks and prized for its pelt in the illegal fur trade, the snow leopard soon became one of the world’s most endangered species. "Since it sits at the top of the food chain, the snow leopard regulates the balance between predators and prey," Hussain says. "When threats jeopardize a crucial keystone species like this, the entire ecosystem feels the effect.”
Concern for the local economy and an extraordinary species in peril led Hussain to create Project Snow Leopard. This ingenious low-cost insurance program compensates local herders for each animal killed by a snow leopard, stabilizing the economy and deterring the killing of endangered cats. The self-funding system requires herders to pay a small premium for each animal they own and includes strong incentives to prevent cheating. Villages use surplus funds from the nonprofit program to build water supply schemes, upgrade schools, construct bridges, and make other community improvements.
Five thousand people throughout ten villages participate in the ever expanding project, supplemented by grants from private institutions. Meanwhile, about 50 snow leopards benefit from the plan’s protection—approximately one-fifth of the entire species left in Pakistan.
"It is very important," Hussain stresses, "for villagers to run the project themselves. They manage it at every level—collecting premiums, writing claim checks, and guarding against fraud. They submit reports to us, but the responsibility rests with them." Hussain expands the program by bringing members of other communities into participating villages, demonstrating success in action. "Seeing it firsthand and talking with others like themselves makes a strong, persuasive impression."
Although conservation of a rare species lies at the heart of the program, meeting human needs is equally vital to its mission. "You cannot expect people who are struggling to survive to subsidize a species for purely environmental reasons," Hussain says. "Conservation should not come at the expense of poor farmers. That’s why we make it clear that we understand the problem from their point of view, and are here to help solve their community’s needs." While unconventional, this blending of social and ecological perspectives evolved naturally for Hussain who trained in biology, economics, and now works to complete a Ph.D. in anthropology.
"Our surveys linked human actions to the leopard's decline for the first time," he notes. "Now human impact is recognized as a major contributing factor to the species' shrinking numbers." In fact, his data has attracted enough attention to inspire and justify similar programs in China, India, and Nepal.
"The ability of animals and people to adapt and live at such incredible altitudes continues to amaze me," he states, "but, I first fell in love with the snow leopard because of its beauty." With dramatic plumed tail, thick coat, and furry ‘snowshoe' paws, the rare cat gracefully navigates treacherous ice, rocks, and blizzards at elevations up to 18,000 feet. Yet it is so elusive, Hussain like most others, has never encountered one in person. "Maybe that's what keeps me going," he smiles, "although even if I do finally glimpse a snow leopard, I know I could never stop working to save it."
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