Governments, wildlife conservation organizations, and international institutions can all work together to protect snow leopards and their ecosystems. But we can’t achieve real, effective, long-term conservation outcomes until we involve local communities living and sharing mountainous areas with wildlife—and empower them to save our natural heritage.
With foreign, female trekkers and hunters frequently inquiring about being led by women guides, the conservancies recognized that there was clearly an opportunity to empower the women in these communities. The benefits could be used to negotiate the barriers of culture, tradition, and religion, which often leave women with few options besides housework.
The leader of one conservancy noted that there's value in allowing community women to answer female tourists' questions about local women, culture, and history when they stay for a long time (anywhere from one week to two months).
Our project features a three-year training session for women in Alichur village’s “Burgut” and Ravmed’s “Parcham” conservancies. We started by training 18 participants in ranger and guide skills, such as how to read a map, use and maintain trekking equipment, and navigate mountains safely. Students also learned how to prepare an expedition and manage the pace of a group.
The women gained a more precise idea of what it means to be a guide—and whether or not they want to work in this field. They even inspired renowned lawyer and teacher Frances Steyer, herself a tourist they guided, to return and teach a month-long English session open to all members of the Alichur conservancy. All the vocabulary words, dialogues, and other exercises focused on the subjects of wildlife, welcoming tourists, and trekking, which proved invaluable for tourism work.
We are very grateful to Frances for making this important contribution to the conservancy. She also provided very important feedback, particularly on some of the challenges she encountered. For instance, some rangers are not only beginners in English, but also have difficulties reading the alphabet. This is a widespread issue across remote mountain communities in Tajikistan.
In late December 2017, Kelli Poole, a young wildlife biologist and hunter from Montana, with support from the Wild Sheep Foundation, visited the Alichur conservancy and taught some of the trainees the basics about guiding hunts, taxidermy, and cooking wild game. “I hope to be as much help as possible for the conservancy,” Kelli told us. “I am inspired by the dedication of these people to their wildlife.”
To my surprise, despite our strict traditions, prejudices, and stereotypes, the women were so motivated. They worked like race horses, full of energy and with an open heart to a completely new experience. Their eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, ready to go and start their new career. Additionally, the support from the male rangers in the two conservancies, along with encouragement from the women’s families, was outstanding.
Thanks to the Tajik Women & Conservation Initiative, we are optimistic for our snow leopards, who will now be protected by 18 Pamir women. These individuals now have hope for financial independence, flexibility to help their families, and greater recognition. There’s hope for better treatment from men, and an overall improved life.
In the following months and years, these young women will attend more trainings and be exposed to professional development opportunities. This summer and fall, Piia Kortsalo of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Yukon Canada will hone the women’s wildlife observation skills; and Katharina Schilling and Laura Riedl—passionate climbers, slack-liners, and teachers from Germany—will teach climbing. Kelli will also return for an advanced session on guiding sustainable hunts.
Finally, there will be other professional development opportunities for some trainees, like a forthcoming training in the U.S. on tourism management organized by Colorado State University. Their mastery of guiding, wildlife spotting, anti-poaching, and trekking skills will actively contribute to the conservation work of their conservancies.
Members of these two conservancies are successfully protecting wildlife, conducting sustainable hunts, and welcoming international tourists for wildlife observation tours, photo-hunting, and yak safaris. Women who want to stand next to their male peers as rangers and guides now have the necessary opportunity and tools to do so.
Locals are really the ones who must benefit from the use of natural resources. These women are making history in the Pamir Mountains. The more men and women who are involved from communities, the higher the awareness and motivation to conserve snow leopards and other wildlife.