It was in the thick of winter when Samat and his wife Shirin first started washing the coarse, rather dirty wool of their dozen or so sheep in front of their modest house in Ak-Shiyrak village, a community high up in the Kyrgyz Tian-Shan mountains. In the freezing cold, the pair were outside, elbow-deep in buckets of water, scrubbing and cleaning piles of wool. Until then, most people in Ak-Shiyrak had never bothered to wash and process their wool – there was simply no market for it. “Our neighbor saw us wash the wool, and called us fools”, Samat recalls. “He thought there was no point in doing this work, let alone in the cold.”
A couple of weeks later, however, when Shirin and Samat came home from a visit with friends late at night, they passed by that same young neighbor’s house. Peering inside, they saw him with his arms in a bucket of water, furiously washing his own wool! “He was doing it inside the house”, Samat says. “Perhaps because of the cold, but I think mostly because he didn’t want us to see him.”
Within a few weeks, dozens of denizens of Ak-Shiyrak began doing the same thing. What was going on in this mountain hamlet?
Raw wool had long been one of the few natural resources available to many families living in Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopard habitat. In the last decades, however prices had been so low that it wasn’t worth for families to process it and bring it to market. “I used to see piles of wool just lying around in stables, or outside people’s houses in the villages around here. Nobody bothered to do anything with it”, recalls Kuban Jumabaev, our Kyrgyzstan program director, who visits these mountain communities frequently.
The people of Ak-Shiyrak have been participating in our successful handicrafts-for-conservation program, Snow Leopard Enterprises, since 2003. They make unique felt products such as rugs, children’s booties, and slippers, which are sold internationally through the Snow Leopard Trust (click here to browse our online shop). These products provide participating families with a steady income – and in return, they pledge to protect wildlife in the area from poaching and illegal hunting.
“The local wool that’s produced in our snow leopard conservation partner villages is very coarse. There wasn’t much people could do with it”, says Kuban Jumabaev. So in the past, Kuban and his team would bring in high-quality wool from elsewhere for the people of Ak-Shiyrak to make products from. “Purchasing wool elsewhere cuts into the participants’ earnings, so they have been hoping we could find ways to use their own wool instead”, Kuban says.
In 2015, a solution began to take shape. “Thanks to the support of the Rufford Foundation and Punta Verde Zoo, we were able to organize a product design workshop for Snow Leopard Enterprises participants in Kyrgyzstan”, says Gina Cantara, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Manager of Sales and Marketing. “One of our trainers at the workshop, the wool artisan Sharon Costello, had a great idea: she recognized that the coarse local wool could be used for needle-felting.” Needle-felting is a technique to turn wool into a much more solid fabric, and is often used to create 3D objects such as animal ornaments. Unlike traditional felting methods, it works very well with coarser, rougher wools.
At the workshop, Sharon introduced the women of Ak-Shiyrak to the technique, and helped them come up with cute product designs: adorable needle-felted pet toys in the shape of monkeys, owls, and hedgehogs.
Since the workshop, participants in Ak-Shiyrak have produced hundreds of these new products, all made 100% of local wool, and needle-felted. “It’s incredible to see the difference these small products have made here”, Kuban says.
On his last trip to the village, Kuban met his old friend UIan, a ranger a nearby Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. Ulan’s wife Altynai is a participant in Snow Leopard Enterprises, and has been making needle-felted monkeys and owls since the spring.
“I had thrown our wool into the livestock corral last year to make a soft bed for our newborn lambs”, Ulan told Kuban. “Now, I’ve dug all that old wool out and washed it, so Altynai could turn it into these beautiful products.”
The number of participants in Ak-Shiyrak has doubled, and the community has produced more handicrafts than ever. “The people here are more aware than ever of the value of wildlife, and more engaged in conservation”, Kuban tells us.
When he paid a visit to distribute the participant’s annual bonus, which is awarded if there is no poaching of snow leopards or their prey in their area during the year, Kuban was shocked: “People were waiting in line. I’ve never seen anything like it before!”
Kuban was particularly surprised to see Erkinbek, a former ranger he knows well. Erkinbek was in line with his wife, Mairamkan. They had both made products – and they both pocketed their bonus individually. “Erkin proudly showed me his first ever products, a handful of felted owls. They looked quite well”, Kuban says.
Quality control is an important part of Snow Leopard Enterprises. “Our local community leader checks all the products thoroughly, and sometimes returns them to the artisans if there are issues with them”, he explains.
“Making eyes, beaks and other details requires the skill and concentration of an artist. Some toy owls and monkeys look angry, some look sad, other seem happy. Some are really funny, with eyes looking in completely different directions. At the end of a purchase day, you have hundreds of owls and monkeys looking at you, almost like babies. It looks like they are asking you to ship them to US so they can be adopted by a pet and their owner as soon as possible.”
If you would like to purchase Snow Leopard Enterprise products and support the people of Ak-Shiyrak in their efforts to protect snow leopards and their prey, please go to our online shop, or visit one of our retail partners in your area.
This work is supported by Woodland Park Zoo and Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature. The product design workshop for Snow Leopard Enterprises was made possible by the Rufford Foundation, and Parco Zoo Punta Verde.