The Man Who Used To Hate Snow Leopards

Amarsaikhan is a herder in the Tost Mountains of Mongolia. Everyone here calls him Amara. He has spent his entire life living alongside the elusive snow leopard – not seeing the cat very often, but feeling its presence much more frequently than he’d have cared for. Every year, snow leopards killed several of his horses and fawns—an expense he and his community could hardly withstand. Amara not only feared these cats – “to be honest, I think I hated them”, he says. On several occasions, he attempted to kill snow leopards that had come near his camp. Luckily, he never succeeded.

In the summer of 2009, in a small dusty community meeting room a dozen or so miles from Amara’s camp, Amara’s attitude – and in fact his entire life – would begin to change.

After more than a decade of community-conservation work in the area, Tost is home to a stable snow leopard population. Photo: SLCF / SLT
After more than a decade of community-conservation work in the area, Tost is home to a stable snow leopard population. Photo: SLCF / SLT

Our Mongolia team had called a special herder meeting with the goal of brainstorming ways to prevent livestock losses without killing snow leopards. Amara was skeptical of these people who’d come here to protect the snow leopard, but he decided to take part anyway – because he’d had an idea.

What if herders could somehow be compensated for their livestock losses?

To his surprise, Amara’s idea took hold immediately – in fact, it fell on open ears with our Mongolia team. They knew their colleagues in India had successfully initiated livestock insurance programs with communities in the Himalayas, and were eager to explore this idea in Tost.

The other herders at the meeting were more than open to the plan as well. They quickly agreed to give it a try.

The people of Tost depend in livestock for their livelihood. To them, the snow leopard is a potential source of problems. Photo: Charles Dye
The people of Tost depend in livestock for their livelihood. To them, the snow leopard is a potential source of problems. Photo: Charles Dye

On the spot, Amara was elected to be part of a committee that would work with our team to develop Mongolia’s first-ever community-managed livestock insurance program.

A few months later, Amara’s idea had become reality – the insurance program was launched.

The idea behind livestock insurance is simple enough: It helps herders pool their resources and receive compensation for livestock lost to predator attacks. Thanks to the generosity of donors across the world, the Snow Leopard Trust can provide seed funding to jumpstart the program in each participating community – then, herders begin paying premiums and slowly building a sustainable insurance fund.

The community of Tost chose Amara as one of the first program leaders. This herder, a man who had never in his life held such a position, quickly embraced this opportunity to grow and become a leader. He attended numerous workshops where he learned bookkeeping, program reporting, and communication. In 2014 and 2016, he also received trainings in small business management and financial recording – life skills that helped him manage the community insurance fund competently and transparently.

The program he helped start has grown with him. For five years, 30 herder families paid insurance premiums and upheld conservation contracts. Elected committee leaders like Amara worked with livestock owners to verify losses, and communities held regular insurance meetings to discuss livestock depredation and decide compensation rates.

Review Shows Positive Impact

Five years after the first premiums were paid into the livestock insurance pool, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, who had helped fund the program in its pilot phase, conducted an external review to find out how effective it had been.

They found that a total of 18,326 livestock had been insured. Of those, 464 livestock were lost to carnivore predation during the first five years of the program. Their owners were compensated with a total of $7,716 from the insurance fund.

The community-led insurance committees – in which Amara has played such a key role – did an excellent job managing the insurance funds. Today, the program is self-sustained and robust.

The vast majority of participating herders are very satisfied with the program’s impact: 80% say they’ll continue to take part in the next years, and 93% say they support snow leopard conservation activities and believe these activities are helpful for the Tost environment!

Given these encouraging results, our Mongolia team is prioritizing further expansion of the livestock insurance program to include more families in Tost, and hopes over time to reach other herder communities in Mongolia.

Amara has come a long way. The herder used to hare snow leopards. Now he advocates for their protection. Photo: SLCF / SLT
Amara has come a long way. The herder used to hate snow leopards. Now he advocates for their protection. Photo: SLCF / SLT

As intended, new leaders that he had helped recruit have since stepped up and taken on larger roles in Tost’s livestock insurance program.

Amara himself continues to be a conservation champion in his community, advocating for coexistence with wildlife, and encouraging fellow herders to join the program instead of resorting to retaliatory killing. He’s also just been nominated as a representative of the Tost community with the local government – the first herder to be nominated for this role.

When visitors come to Tost, Amara is usually the first to volunteer as a guide and explain all the conservation work the local community is leading in the area.

This February, he took part in a training to learn how to use GPS and observe and monitor wildlife. Now, in addition to leading the livestock insurance program, he’s a volunteer ranger and participates in our research programs in Tost, collecting data on ungulates, and setting up research cameras to look for snow leopards. He’s also part of a team of community rangers  who help manage the Tost protected area, which, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Amara and the community, has just been elevated to National Nature Reserve status.

2 Comments

  1. I really admire your work. I live in Peru, where we are trying to ban ‘trophy hunting’ and stop wildlife trafficking. We have a very long way to go. I learn so much from your work.

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