Snow leopards bring education to Basha valley girls

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Wildlife conservationists traversing the Hindu Kush Himalayas are helping spread education in remote valleys

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Girls attend school for the first time in Sibiri village in the Karakoram mountains, Pakistan (Images by Genevieve Chabot courtesy of Iqra Fund)

Until a decade ago, the only snow leopard a resident of Pakistan’s Basha Valley wanted to see was a dead one. But today the endangered big cat has brought education to their homes, especially to their daughters.

Tanya Rosen, a snow leopard conservationist, was on one of her expeditions in a village called Sibiri in the valley in 2010. She found that none of the village girls were enrolled in school.

Basha Valley is in Baltistan, in the Karakoram range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, bordering Xinjiang, China.

“I saw all these cute little girls watching us through the windows and it struck me that these girls should be in school, instead of peering at us from their homes. I asked around and learned they were not because their parents were too poor to afford books, uniforms and even shoes,” she told me over email from Tajikistan, where she works for Panthera, an organisation dedicated to ensuring “a future for the wild cats of the world.”

Looking down at two villages in Basha valley

Doing some quick back of the envelope calculations, Rosen figured out it would take “only US$2,100 to fund fees, uniforms, books etc., for a year for all the 67 out-of-school girls.”

Without hesitation, she told Ghulam Muhammad of the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organisation (BWCDO), who was accompanying her, that she would arrange for the money.

Her daughter, Bianca, just seven then, was her first donor.

“Our support showed that as snow leopard conservationists we cared about the communities and their livelihoods first,” pointed out Rosen. This was important, because the average villager sees the snow leopard as a sheep killer.

But Sibiri was not the only village where girls were not going to school. There were villages across the region where most girls were out of school. Rosen found out that even when schools existed, “there were no teachers or education was only offered to boys.”

The same year, she found out about educationist Genevieve and her mountaineer husband, Doug Chabot, who wanted to set up an organisation focused on providing access to high quality education for girls in Gilgit-Baltistan. Rosen informed them about the out-of-school girls in Basha valley, an area where BWCDO was working too.

There has been no looking back for either Rosen or the Chabots since then. Covering 12 villages, today 559 girls and 158 boys are enrolled in various schools. The Iqra Fund, founded by the Chabots, has hired 20 teachers.

2013-06-21 11.33.42 Doghoro

Students lined up to enroll in a new school that was just established for Doghoro Village, across the river from Sibiri.

Some of the girls are the first generation of women in their villages to go to school. “They have parents who cannot read or write,” Genevieve said in an email from Bozeman, in Montana, US. After her first trip in 2007, which started her “deep connection with the region,” she returns multiple times each year.

According to Shafqat Hussain, a conservationist, who founded the Project Snow Leopard in Basha Valley, and has been working in the region for two decades, the community is very poor – living on subsistence farming and rearing livestock. “Where an average family size is nine or ten, and resources stretched, terrain difficult to traverse, the closest government school hours away, even if parents want to educate their children, it remains a pipe dream,” he said.

He feels there are so many areas that the villagers need to be supported in. But his hands are tied. “We work in the area of conservation and we cannot stop our work and decide to address other problems because they exist,” he said, emphasising that it was not a matter of “lack of knowledge” that the needs of the communities were not addressed but more because he “didn’t have the resources and expertise to do that.”

Villages support snow leopard conservation

Back in 1999, Hussain, then professor of anthropology at Trinity College in the US, had initiated an innovative insurance project in two villages in Baltistan, with funding from Britain’s Royal Geographical Society and the US-based Snow Leopard Conservancy.

The project has since expanded to cover 22 villages. It not only helps protect the endangered cat but compensates the local herders for every goat killed by it, on condition that the villagers will not resort to retaliatory killing. From 2006 to 2012, they have paid compensation for 206 animals killed by snow leopards.

“There are about 1,500 to 1,600 households in these villages of which 40% have insured their animals; there is still a vast majority that we have been unable to bring in as they cannot afford to insure their animals,” said BWCDO’s Muhammad.

The success of the project can be gauged by the fact that it is now being replicated in China, India and Nepal.

The experts in the organisation Panthera estimate there are anything between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards living in the wild today, spread across 12 countries in Asia, most of them in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The species, Panthera uncia, is the toughest of the big cats to spot, as they live and travel along steep mountain slopes, usually staying between 3,000 and 5,400 metres above sea level.

Snow leopards are endangered as their furs are highly prized in the illegal wildlife market, because shepherds are often in conflict with the animals, and because their ranges are getting fragmented, sometimes for farming and sometimes by shepherds.

Based on a survey he conducted in 2003, Hussain estimated there were anything between 250 and 450 snow leopards in Pakistan, spread across Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan; in the Dir, Swat and Kohistan districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; and in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A fresh survey has just been done, and the results are being tabulated.

The conservationists will be able to gauge if their intervention has helped safeguard the snow leopard, which they fondly call the “mountain ghost”.

6 Responses to “Snow leopards bring education to Basha valley girls”

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  1. Aziz Ali says:

    Prima!! It is amazing, I would say this is the best example to demonstrate “poverty environment nexus” in our rugged rough and harsh mountain environment, where the community living below the poverty line because of a number of physiognomic, edaphic and climatic factors (rough mountain terrains, inaccessibility, shallow and poor soil, small land holding, drought, prolong winter heavy snow, short growing season, no agric extension services, no employment opportunity etc). In such situation the mother earth/the nature and natural environment still has potential to sustain lives and associated culture and traditions. The thing is that how much you know and care your nature and natural environment. The example of conservation and protection of a single species snow leopard changed the destiny of the poorest mountain villages in Baltistan, as 559 girls and 158 boys are enrolled in schools and the initiative also created employment opportunity for the educated jobless local youth in their villages.
    Tanya Rosen is a dedicated and visionary conservationist I ever met in my life. She is working hard day and night for the great cause of conservation and sustainable management of unique and endangered wildlife species particularly snow leopard, markhor and argali sheep in Karakorum, Hindukush Himalayan and Pamir regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan over the years. I salute for her great work for conservation and protection of the endangered species in this region and for her continued efforts to generate much needed financial and human resources to translate her ideas into action for conservation and sustainable management of wildlife resources this region.
    My deep gratitude and appreciation are due to Mr. Hussain, then professor of anthropology at Trinity College in US; Mr. Shafqat Hussain- the founder of Snow Leopard project in Basha Valley Baltistan; Mr. Ghulam Muhammad of Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO); Yong baby conservationist Bianca; respected volunteers and generous donor agencies for their great services and contribution of time, energies and money for this noble cause of conservation of precious wildlife species in our region.
    Aziz Ali,
    Regional Manager NRM
    The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF)
    Badakhshan, Afghanistan
    Email: aliaziznrm@yahoo.com

  2. Suraiya Makhdoom says:

    Very inspring and touching! The girls are so beautiful and innocent. They don’t deserve to be deprived of education. Yes, their place is in the school and later on in the college and University and not in imposed idleness.

    Suraiya Makhdoom

  3. Amna says:

    Very inspiring article. However, I must correct you: Chitral is not in Gilgit-Baltistan. :)

    • zofeen ebrahim says:

      Amna,nowhere in the above story does it say that Chitral is in G-B. In the second last para, though, I do mention that these snow leopards are found in Chitral and G-B….not Chitral in G-B. Please check. Thanks

  4. Wazir Ali says:

    Sir
    when i saw today about this topic “Snow leopards bring education to Basha valley girls” i feel very happy b/c a i am from this area i appreciate Tanya Rosen , her doughter Bianca and Mr Ghulam Muhammad Sadpara BWCDO they are really doing good job to promote education of girls in Basha and Tissar Union Councils very well.

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