Saving the Snow Leopard

Snow leopard pelts command high prices in the black market fur trade, while bones from these wild cats are in demand as remedies prescribed by traditional Asian medicine. However, half a world away, the snow leopard is being marketed in an entirely different way—one that may help ensure its survival.

Snow Leopard Enterprises is working with local people to save the endangered cat by selling handicrafts (below).© Margaret White/Snow Leopard Trust

Volunteers for the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT), a nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Seattle, are sitting at tables piled high with handicrafts made by women in Mongolia and the Kyrgyz Republic. The rugs, scarves, mittens and other merchandise have all been produced through Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE).

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia), which ranges through the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and other Central Asian mountain ranges, has an estimated wild population of only 3,500 to 7,000 individuals. On paper, the cat is well protected. In the real world, however, the snow leopard is threatened by illegal poaching, habitat destruction and retaliatory killings by herders.

The Snow Leopard Enterprises program grew out of a research trip that ISLT staff took to Mongolia in 1997. "We started brainstorming how we could help the local people in exchange for tolerating the snow leopard," ISLT’s Tom McCarthy recalls. "They had a handicraft tradition, and lots of raw material, but no access to markets."

The Snow Leopard Trust provides the herders with training and equipment for handicraft production, and markets the products at tourist attractions in Mongolia and at various stores in the U.S., Asia-Pacific region and Europe. In return, the local people agree not to kill snow leopards or their prey species, and to practice responsible herding.

Snow Leopard Enterprises, begun in Mongolia in 1998, has since expanded to 12 communities. Baby booties, pillows, glass holders and ornaments are some of the newer items available. "We try to combine traditional materials, techniques and symbols with designs that will appeal to the international market," says ISLT’s Jennifer Shnell Rullman.

"We use good science to develop conservation programs, and work in close partnership with the local people," says Brad Rutherford, executive director of ISLT. Even ISLT’s location in Seattle, thousands of miles from the nearest wild snow leopard, has proven to be an advantage in the Trust’s education efforts. "The awareness problem is much worse in the U.S. and Europe than it is among the people where the snow leopard actually lives," Rutherford says.