Omurbek killed six snow leopards during the economic turmoil of the 1990s. “My father would warn me that killing wildlife would never bring happiness,” he said, recalling how uneasy he felt about poaching. “But it was necessary to feed my family.”
Understanding that poaching and environmental degradation are driven by poverty and lack of economic opportunities, WWF and other partners sought to transform people like Omurbek from threats to advocates, first by raising awareness, and then by providing them with constructive alternatives. For example, WWF recently set up development funds that provide microcredit loans for sustainable livelihood enterprises, but to be eligible for a loan, residents must actively participate in wildlife conservation activities. By then, the government had already established the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, opening new career paths in conservation for local residents.
Omurbek began working as a part-time park ranger at the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. He also started herding sheep and goats, and his wife Cholpon produces snow leopard themed handicrafts from wool sheared from the village’s flock. Together, they have managed to carve out a new life that relies not on exploiting nature’s treasures, but on conserving them for generations to come.
A new foe
Today, the people and animals of the Central Tian Shan mountain range face a new threat: climate change. Increasingly erratic precipitation, unseasonal and extreme snowfall, and melting permafrost are transforming the landscape and making sheep herding more difficult, creating new risks for wildlife and livelihoods.