A design workshop in Kyrgyzstan brings fresh energy and ideas for Snow Leopard Enterprises, our successful handicraft-for-conservation program.
Through Snow Leopard Enterprises, herder communities in Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopard habitat are producing and selling unique handicrafts made from the wool of their livestock, generating much-needed income. In return, these communities help protect snow leopards in their area.
Now, this highly successful conservation program has received a tremendous boost: Participating herders, wool craft designers and Snow Leopard Trust staff gathered in June for a four-day Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) design workshop at Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan—the second largest saline lake in the world, and surrounded by breathtaking mountain landscapes.
“The program has been growing steadily, and we’ve learned a lot about selling handicrafts over the years”, says Gina Cantara, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Manager of Sales and Marketing. “One thing we’ve come to realize is that sales can only stay strong and grow if we regularly refresh our designs to meet an evolving market. Robust sales mean higher income for herders and stronger engagement in snow leopard conservation. In Kyrgyzstan, our handicraft line had not been updated for 10 years and several items have lost their luster with buyers. So we felt it was time to offer some new ideas!”
Thanks to the generous support of the Rufford Foundation (UK) and Italy’s Punta Verde Zoo, Gina and Cholpon Abasova, the program coordinator in Kyrgyzstan, were able to organize a design workshop for twenty six SLE participants (25 women and one man) from the high altitude villages of Uch-Koshkon, Ak-Shyirak and Enylchek.
They were joined by three designers/trainers—two local and one from the US: Jyldyz Asanakunova, renowned in Kyrgyzstan for her rug designs; Gulmira Kuteva an expert in traditional embroidery, or “basma”; and Sharon Costello, a master wool craft designer from New York.
Together, the workshop participants and trainers learned new techniques and developed a stunning new line of products including four new rug designs, pet toys and pet mats, and felted and embroidered wallets and coasters. “Everyone worked so hard and with such enthusiasm,” says Gina. “In the evenings, after long days of training, many people just kept working on their new creations. They were so excited about completing them.”
Building participant capacity and skill is a crucial part of Snow Leopard Enterprises and indeed any successful conservation program. In this design workshop, the women of Uch Koshkon, Ak-Shyirak and Enylchek learned a brand new skill, needle-felting,from Sharon Costello. “It’s a technique that’s much softer on the hands than the traditional wet felting method these craftswomen have been using”, Sharon explains.
During the workshop, several women talked with us at length about the impact Snow Leopard Enterprises has had on their lives, their communities, and their attitudes towards snow leopards.
Elza, from Ak-Shyirak, is an English teacher at the local school, and has been an SLE participant since 2006. She has three children and the supplemental income is really helping ends meet. Elza told us that she passes on what she has learned about snow leopards to the children at her school. “Although the children have never seen a snow leopard,” she says, “they know all about snow leopards and are really proud to share their home with them.” Elza was thrilled to learn how to make Sharon’s needle-felted pet toy designs. “I can’t wait to teach all 50 children at school how to make them.”
Elza also told us that her husband saw a female snow leopard with two cubs just a few years ago. “He was completely awestruck by such a beautiful scene. ‘There are simply no words,’ he told me.”
Raya has been the local SLE coordinator for Enylchek for three years. She has four children and came to the workshop with her eldest son, 21 year-old Suyunbek. He has helped Raya make handicrafts for two years, and loves the work so much he aspires to be a handicraft designer one day. Raya also enjoys making handicrafts and says that SLE is a huge help for Enylchek herders who have little or no opportunities for employment.
Raya told us that a few months ago a snow leopard killed a herder’s yak near the village. “We were upset but we didn’t retaliate. We kept our promise not to harm snow leopards and instead we reported our losses to the Program Director.”
Around 15 participants from the three villages couldn’t make it to the workshop because they didn’t have anyone to take care of their children or their livestock. However, many of the women who did participate have volunteered to teach those who had to stay at home everything they learned.
“We wanted to at least make sure we still paid all these women a visit”, Gina says, “so we decided to travel to their villages after the workshop. We brought some samples of the new products and talked with them about their experiences, and they expressed their appreciation of us ‘remembering them’”.
Gina is looking forward to marketing the new products that will help to strengthen the Kyrgyzstan program for wildlife and for people – first at trade shows around the US, and later in the Snow Leopard Trust online retail store.
“I am really excited to see how buyers respond to our new Kyrgyz line, and I hope we can start placing orders for new handicrafts by the end of the year,” Gina says.
While you wait for the new designs, browse the current collection of Snow Leopard Enterprises products in our online store!
Thanks to the Rufford Foundation (UK), Punta Verde Zoo (Italy) and many individual donors for their generous support that made the Kyrgyzstan SLE design workshop possible.