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Shafqat Hussain has dedicated his career to saving the ultra-endangered snow leopard

Saving the snow leopard, one insurance policy at a time

Conservationist and Rolex Enterprise Laureate Shafqat Hussain has dedicated his career to saving the ultra-endangered snow leopard.

©Rolex/Saiyna Bashir

The Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan is a rugged and remote corner of the Himalayas, home to more than 60 peaks that are higher than 7,000 metres.

Despite its harsh climate, heavy snowfalls, and frequent avalanches, Gilgit-Baltistan is not devoid of life. Humans have lived here for thousands of years, and villagers continue to eke out a delicate existence by herding livestock, subsistence farming, and sharing the land with a wide array of wildlife, from the Himalayan wolf and Siberian Ibex to the endangered snow leopard.

But in the late 1990s, environmental anthropologist, economist and Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Shafqat Hussain was doing rural development work in the area when he made a troubling discovery. Tempted by a ready food supply, snow leopards were preying on local livestock, and villagers were hunting and killing them in response. A lifelong conservationist, Hussain set out to find a solution.

“These villagers are very poor and life is very tough for them,” Hussain says. “They invest in livestock for savings and asset creation, so a loss of livestock to snow leopard predation means that these villagers were economically suffering.”

With an estimated population of less than 10,000 snow leopards in the wild, Hussain understood that helping these apex predators live harmoniously alongside their human neighbours was critical for survival.

Instead of simply asking the villagers to stop killing leopards – a response they felt was justified when their main source of livelihood was threatened – Hussain used his background in economics to come up with a new idea.

Lifelong conservationist Shafqat Hussain came up with an innovative “insurance policy” system that compensated farmers for livestock lost to snow leopards, disincentivizing the need to kill these endangered big cats.©Rolex/Saiyna Bashir

“The villagers were behaving in an economically rational way when they killed snow leopards, but it was not good conservation behaviour,” he says. “[But] if we could take away the negative incentive that the snow leopards represented to the villagers, we could induce in them a conservation-friendly behaviour.”

Hussain’s solution was as brilliant as it was unconventional: an insurance policy. The program works by charging each farmer a premium per head of livestock, which is calculated according to average rate of loss.

For example, if a village has been losing one out of every 100 goats to leopard attacks each year, the insurance premium is set at 1 per cent of the value of each animal. These premiums are then collected in a fund that is matched by the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Seattle and by private donors, and paid out to farmers for each animal lost.

In addition to helping villagers build predator-proof corrals to keep their animals safe at night, Hussain says he believed providing financial compensation for lost livestock could be the key to helping villagers peacefully co-exist with the leopards.

At first, Hussain says, the villagers were wary of the idea, but over time he was able to earn their trust. “The biggest challenge was to make the villagers realize the ecological importance of the snow leopard,” Hussain says.

Hussain in the field in the breathtaking Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan.©Rolex/Saiyna Bashir

“We held conservation awareness sessions, held open dialogues with the villagers, and started conservation education in the schools to make people aware that despite it being an economic threat, the snow leopard also plays an important function in regulating and maintaining the local ecosystem.”

These conversations grew into a pilot program, and its success led Hussain to be named a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate in 2006. Created more than four decades ago, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise are dedicated to supporting individuals who are finding new ways to advance human knowledge, improve lives and protect the environment.

Receiving the Rolex Award for Enterprise not only provided crucial funding, Hussain says, but also helped his project gain international recognition. “The Rolex Award gave us visibility and credibility. The success of our project would not have been possible without the Rolex grant.”

The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are less than 4000 snow leopards left in the world.©T. Kitchin, V. Hurst/NHPA/Sutter

More than two decades after the project began, Hussain says he can see the difference his work has made. Not only has the leopard population grown significantly in the areas where his program operates, but local people are much more aware of their roles as stewards of their ecosystem.

“When we started the program 23 years ago, no one took the issue of conflict between farmers and snow leopards seriously,” Hussain says. “Today, 12 countries have implemented programs such as insurance schemes to address the conflict.”

With a robust conservation education program now in place in Gilgit-Baltistan’s classrooms, Hussain hopes the next generation of local people will see snow leopards as more than a threat to their livelihood.

“What we have learned is that economic and conservation priorities of poor farmers are very different from those of people in a society whose lives are not tied to livestock, We learned that poor villagers are not irrational – rather, they behave according to their own circumstances, and if conservation organizations want to change the behaviour of local people, they must change their economic circumstances.”

Rolex Enterprise Laureate Shafqat Hussain has dedicated his career to saving the ultra-endangered snow leopard.

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