Since 2010, the Snow Leopard Conservancy has worked with its partners to build a coalition of Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs) who live and work in snow leopard habitat. The term ICP includes shamans, tribal medicine people, sacred site guardians, and revered elders.
The conservation community increasingly recognizes that cultural and biological diversity are deeply linkedand programs should take into account the ethical, cultural and spiritual values of nature. The framework for this creative merger is provided for in the United Nations’ Brundtland Report and Agenda 21 of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. See links to these and other resources at the end of this page.
The goals in our Land of the Snow Leopard Network program are:
Merging western and indigenous approaches to scientific knowledge;
Establishing a precedent for Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs) to be co-equal partners in snow leopard conservation, standardize integration of relational world-views in such planning,
Revitalizing ancient ceremonies to remember and honor the snow leopard spirit as a unifier of humanity;
Establishing sacred sites as education/interpretive centers for the spiritual and terrestrial ecology of snow leopards;
Empowering cultural practitioners with new communication technologies, and building an on-line network.
With the moderation of Covid-19 restrictions in Mongolia, the Land of Snow Leopard Network recently was able to conduct virtual Nomadic Nature Trunk training. While LOSL’s education program area also includes Mongolia and the Buryat and Altai Republics of Russia, our IUCN Save Our Species project, entitled Sustaining Indigenous Communities in Snow Leopard Conservation, is focused on expanding our education projects, including Nomadic Nature Trunks, into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
These traveling trunks contain a treasure trove of conservation lessons for students who live in remote mountain communities in the snow leopard’s range. From paw prints to pictures, through interactive games and lessons, students learn about the biodiversity of the local wildlife and how each species interacts with and contributes to the environment.
Increasing knowledge and developing awareness is imperative for the survival of the snow leopard which is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Maria Azhunova, Director Elect of the Land of the Snow Leopard Network & Executive Director of the Baikal Buryat Center of Indigenous Cultures, is this year’s recipient of Stanford’s Bright Environmental Award.
This top honor is given to individuals who are dedicating their careers to increasing sustainability & to conservation of the environment. While recognizing her past achievements, this award will enable Maria to achieve her full potential as a leader in biological and cultural conservation.
In November of 2019, Marcia Sivek of BeProvided Conservation Radio interviewed Darla Hillard of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, who serves as facilitator for the network, and Maria Azhunova, the newly elected leader of the Land of the Snow Leopard Network.
The Land of the Snow Leopard (LOSL) Network completed its third year of a groundbreaking collaboration between Western and Indigenous science, with the goal of creating pathways for Indigenous people to be equal partners in research and planning for conservation of snow leopards.
In September, Rodney, Charleen, and Darla traveled to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to meet with LOSL’s seven Country Coordinators and other key Network members in order to work through some challenges of communicating in more than five languages and working in remote, mountainous snow leopard habitat across more than 600,000 square miles of the Altai Republic, Buryatia, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Tajikistan.
In the Network’s program areas, the snow leopard is not only a flagship species for biocultural diversity, it is the axis mundi of ancient traditions, legends, and beliefs. These beautiful, mysterious animals are protectors of sacred mountains, a unifying force, and a source of spiritual power and wisdom. Despite the remoteness of their high-mountain habitat, snow leopards are vulnerable to human-caused threats across a wide spectrum. Most of these cats roam outside the relative safety of national parks or other officially protected areas.
The LOSL network now includes over 100 organizations and individuals. The founding members include Shamans, Sacred Site Guardians, and revered Elders. They are referred to as Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs). An ICP is defined as “one who communicates with and receives support and guidance from the spirits/creator/ancestors/guardians.” While ICPs serve as guides, the greater LOSL community includes lifelong herders who know the ancient practices for reading and living in their environment, indigenous educators, historians, scientists, and traditional hunters.
The catalyst for this work is the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP), whose leaders recognize that achieving the plan’s objectives will require collective action – including the full participation of local communities.
The strength of the LOSL Network is the knowledge and experience of the spiritual and cultural importance of Snow Leopards to the work of securing landscapes for their preservation. The challenge is to help the Snow Leopard range country governments understand and embrace the Spiritual nature of Snow Leopard and it’s fundamental place in indigenous practices and knowledge of how to protect the species.
Over the past three years, the Network has made significant progress, in part through the creation of two database structures. One is a geospatial computer App for monitoring wildlife sightings, poaching incidents, and other data in a way that supports the goals of the GSLEP, including the overarching goal of “20 landscape-level snow leopard populations protected by the year 2020.”
Unique to this project is a platform that enables the members to collect interviews, stories, folklore, photos, and videos. Country Coordinators had collected a large amount of this culturally-important data, but they had encountered problems in getting the information onto the platform so it could be shared among the network members. Thus, the September meeting was called to deal with database management.
Once the technical problems were solved, a system and form for summarizing and categorizing photos, interviews, etc. that were considered of cultural and/or spiritual importance was developed. All summaries will be translated into Russian and English. This allows for easy sharing of the data, to identify commonalities, create reports, and develop tools for revival/preservation of traditional practices. No one has attempted this kind of effort before, to standardize the integration of culturally-important data into conservation planning and action for snow leopards.
ICPs and other LOSL Network members are already developing tools and taking an active lead in reviving traditional practices that save snow leopards.
They are bringing new ways of learning about snow leopards to their local schools. In Russia’s Buryat Republic, the Baikal Buryat Center for Cultural Conservation followed the example of the Conservancy’s Mongolian partner, Nomadic Nature Trunks. They introduced interactive conservation education through visits to all the schools in Okinsky Region. Norbu Lama, the local Buddhist spiritual leader, talked to students about the indigenous attitude towards nature and how to record observations using the LOSL snow leopard monitoring App. The children at one school decided to write special love letters to snow leopards.
Norbu Lama worked for more than a year to achieve for Okinsky official designation as a Territory of Traditional Use of Natural Resources. The designation gives special management authority to local people. This means that they can now, for example, protest mining, forbid hunting, and establish tourism. The territory includes Mönkh Saridag Mountain, sacred to Norbu’s community and the highest peak in the Sayan Mountain range. Mönkh Saridag is the site of Norbu’s annual community ceremony to honor Snow Leopard as their protector.
In Mongolia, Shaman Buyanbadrakh led the effort to establish Spirit Lord of Sutai Mountain in his home province of Hovd. The mountain is now officially acknowledged as a spiritual and cultural sacred site of the Mongolian Altai.