This year, the 2017 Equator Prize recognizing local conservation and sustainability initiatives was awarded to the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO), marking the first time an organization from Pakistan has earned this biennial award. The Equator Prize, launched by the United Nation’s Equator Initiative in 2002, showcases community efforts to relieve poverty through conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. BWCDO, a Pakistan NGO located in the Baltistan region of northern Pakistan, aims to protect snow leopards (and other wildlife) in ways that support local development by providing economic incentives to farmers, including insurance schemes and compensation, to combat human-snow leopard conflicts.
Shafqat Hussain founded Project Snow Leopard in 1999 to conserve the snow leopard and wildlife population in the region by including local communities. Since 2006, Project Snow Leopard has been incorporated into BWCDO, with Hussain continuing to serve as an advisor to the organization, and currently operates in 17 villages in northern Pakistan. Additionally, BWCDO recently launched an education program in Pakistan to raise awareness and encourage local youth, including girls, to participate in conservation and development initiatives. One example of the NGO’s ongoing efforts is International Snow Leopard Day in Gilgit-Baltistan, which began in November 2015.
BWCDO finances its operations by charging farmers annually a premium per head of livestock. However, most of the financing comes from selling snow leopard trekking expeditions through commercial tour operators. BWCDO and a village management committee promote these ecotourism activities in order to supplement farmers’ income, creating economic incentives for farmers not to harm the snow leopards.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), snow leopards are endangered. It is difficult to address and fund the protection of snow leopards when the herders in the area are poor and lack adequate resources to counter negative consequences of snow leopard activity. BWCDO’s goal is to address both of these obstacles. In northern Pakistan, local farmers make an average annual income per capita of $300. Therefore, an attack by a snow leopard on a farmer’s livestock threatens the entire livelihood of that farmer who already lives in extreme poverty. Occasionally, farmers have killed snow leopards after their herds were attacked, increasing the threat of the snow leopard’s extinction. The organization has further countered the economic losses caused by snow leopard attacks by assisting communities with predator-proof fencing and training on improved herding techniques.
In addition to these initiatives, the abundance of glaciers in the region have helped to maintain rivers and wetlands essential to the wild antelope and sheep that snow leopards eat. However, global warming, deforestation, over hunting and logging in the area further threaten the snow leopards and jeopardize the livelihoods of the local people in northern Pakistan. If the degradation of environmental conditions continues unchecked in the region, an increase in flash floods, species extinction, pest attacks, and glacial melting is expected, placing the surrounding communities at greater risk for displacement, poverty, destruction of water bank infrastructures, and other problems.
Increased glacial melting will also leave a third of the snow leopards’ habitats unsuitable and disrupt the migratory routes of other species. For example, if temperatures increase, then the tree line will move higher up the mountains, altering the plant species that can grow and making the habitat less appealing to the snow leopards’ prey. In an interview with Babar Khan, a Senior Conservation Manager at WWF- Pakistan, told GlacierHub that “in some places, particularly on shared habitats, [changing climatic conditions] has increased the negative interactions between human and the carnivores, which has ultimately led to retaliatory killing of top predators like snow leopards, while disrupting the natural balance of the peculiar fragile mountain ecosystem, that not only affects the wildlife but the dependant human societies as well.”
Communities like those in northern Pakistan are working hard to combat these consequences and to achieve the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Equator Prize is one such effort that celebrates contributions by local and indigenous groups who develop innovative solutions to tackle poverty, environmental and climate challenges. Martin Sommerschuh, a program analyst at the Equator Initiative, told GlacierHub that “the Technical Committee was particularly impressed with the achievement that BWCDO set up one of the first functioning insurance schemes for livestock loss due to predation from endangered wildlife, in this case the snow leopard.”
To pick the recipient of the Equator Prize, the Technical Advisory Committee, composed of environment and development practitioners, utilizes certain criteria such as impact, innovation, scalability, resilience/adaptability, social inclusion, and gender equality. In order to be nominated, the organization must have existed for at least three years, be an indigenous people community or local community-based group, and use nature-based action related to two or more Sustainable Development Goals. This year’s recipient joins 208 other winners representing 70 countries, receives $10,000, and will have the opportunity to participate in policy discussions and special events at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
BWCDO has encouraged the protection of snow leopards in the region by the same people who were once the snow leopard’s top predator. BWCDO continues to provide an excellent example of how partnering with locals can lead to feasible solutions to preserve wildlife and local livelihoods.