A Volunteer's View: Working with the Trust in Kyrgyzstan

This fall, Tristan Williams-Burden, a long-time volunteer with the Snow Leopard Trust from Seattle, had the opportunity to spend two months with our team in Kyrgyzstan, assisting in everything from setting up camera traps to shipping handicrafts around the world. He shares some of his fondest memories of an unforgettable experience.

By Tristan Williams-Burden

Sary-Chat Ertash Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan—Riding across a long valley in the Tian Shan Mountains, I hear only our horses trotting across the rocks and the hushed “choo choo” of the rangers urging them on. Some of the world’s last snow leopards live here.

There is a stillness in the air, a breeze is a song playing on the grass. This is a country full of steppes and mountains untouched, with a lake at the heart of the land. But more importantly, this is a land of generous people who want to help save their environment.

Kuban leading the way. Photo: Tristan Williams-Burden

Kubanych Jumabay, or Kuban, is the Kyrgyzstan Country Director for the Snow Leopard Trust. I first met him at the SLT annual fall fundraiser in 2012. He was wearing a traditional Kyrgyz felted hat and a big smile across his face. Stepping off the plane in Bishkek, it was hard to miss that smile.

Originally from a small village on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, I get the feeling Kuban is something of a country boy. That’s part of what makes him such an incredible asset to saving the cats—he’s not afraid of the back country, of getting his hands dirty, of confronting poachers.

Kuban acted as my mentor. Even though I was there strictly as a volunteer, he was generous with his time, energy and knowledge.

Setting up a camera
Tristan setting up a trap camera. Photo: Kuban Jumabay

The days with Kuban in the reserve were some of the best days I’ve ever had. Showing the rangers and me how to find the signs of the leopard: Teaching us to lean under rocks to smell for the pungent scent left by a cat marking its territory; finding just the right angle to place our trap cameras so maybe we’d get a glimpse of the elusive creatures.

Climbing a ridge with loose rock slipping under our feet, Kuban shows us how to find just the right spot for the cameras, knowing the pictures are worth the effort. These pictures show that what we are doing is making a difference.

It made me proud to have been one of Kuban’s “students”.

Friends and Felt

Cholpon Abasova is the Kyrgyzstan program coordinator for the Trust’s handicraft-for-conservation program, Snow Leopard Enterprises. I spent days with Cholpon at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek choosing felt and thread to be used by local Krygyz who sew slippers and rugs and other felted goods for Snow Leopard Enterprises. Hand picking each length of felt, searching through bolts of dyed felt, stacked higher than my head, we talked about life.

Cholpon became one of my best friends. She invited me into her family, letting me really get to know her brother and sisters. I’d spend most days with her helping with all kinds of tasks, from documenting shipments to delivering felt.

Cholpon, Kuban and I delivered the felt from the market to remote villages where it is made into goods for Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE). Loading up a Toyota Four-Runner with the felt, made of local sheep wool, we made the 16-hour drive to the villages. About five of those hours were off-road. Arriving late, we were welcomed with chai and offered a place to sleep.

In the morning, we unloaded. The village women — SLE participants — began cutting and sewing, talking and drinking chai, much like a quilting bee.

Cholpon Abasova and SLE participants. Photo: Tristan Williams-Burden
Cholpon Abasova and SLE participants. Photo: Tristan Williams-Burden

It is one thing to know where a product is made, it is another to see first hand how it is made. To see what I means to the people to be part of the Snow Leopard Enterprises program.  Listening to the women talk, it was clear they participate in SLE not just for the money — but because they want to ensure that this land is the same for their children, as it has been for them.

Working for the Future

The environment here is fragile, just like the future of the snow leopards. At the Global Snow Leopard Conversation Forum 2013 in Bishkek, I met other Snow Leopard Trust staff from countries such as Mongolia, India and Pakistan. Much talk focused on how to protect Kyrgyzstan’s precious high altitude environment. Our conversations reinforced my feelings that what the Snow Leopard Trust does makes a difference.

People make the difference. SLT staff, participants, volunteers and donors.

I am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer with such a fine organization.

And, already, I miss the long drives to the villages with Kuban and Cholpon, talking about their lives, their history, their stories. I miss waking up after a long, cold night in Sary-Chat, waiting for the sun to warm the hills and looking for argali to take their morning drink from the river.

Tristan Williams-Burden. Photo: Kuban Jumabay
Tristan Williams-Burden, Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. Photo: Kuban Jumabay


  1. This is an outstanding story and a stellar piece of writing. What an incredible feeling it must be to do something so meaningful while seeing breath taking scenery and making new friends from whom you can learn so much. It is great to “hear” your thoughts.

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