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Souvenirs help save snow leopards in the Altai

The only souvenir I found with a snow leopard design in over 2 weeks of searching the markets of the Altai, Siberia, Russia in 2010. Now, only 2 years later micro-finance projects help local women create many such items to earn an income and help save the remaining endangered Russian snow leopards. Photo Sibylle Noras.

During my trip to the Altai in Siberia, Russia, in 2010 it took 2 weeks of careful and determined scouring through local markets, shops and remote hilly roadside stalls to find one small tourism souvenir with a snow leopard on it. It was as if the cat wasn’t even known in its own homeland.

Now as part of a project to help the cats, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has partnered with Citi Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Citibank) to fund projects to raise awareness of the revenue that could be generated from eco tourists coming with hope to see the snow leopard. Part of this project includes souvenir making, a common microfinance project for people in developing economies.

Microfinance is a concept helping people in developing nations all over our globe. Money is provided as loans, savings accounts and insurance rather than donations to villagers, small business people, herders and others who don’t normally qualify for bank loans. Often loans as small as $50 or $100 help people earn income for food, clean water and education for their children.

With support of WWF in the Altai microfinance is helping people create tourism businesses such as accommodation, souvenir hats, scarves and clothes etc. These are all alternative revenue sources to illegal poaching. Animals like the snow leopard have been brought to the brink of extinction but perhaps these initiatives might just help the cat survive in time.

“The idea is for people to understand that it is profitable to protect rare species,” said Mikhail Paltsyn, the Altai co-coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund, who has studied snow leopards for two decades.

Aiyara Yerkemenova, a 20 year old woman who with the help of micro-finance has built a museum aimed at tourists in the snow leopard habitat region of the Altai. Photo Howard Amos, MT.

The rare snow leopards once roamed the vast steppes of the Altai republic, but during the 1990’s were poached even by wildlife rangers as their incomes collapsed along with the former communist system.

Just one example is Aiyara Yerkemenova, aged 20, who has a child and an army husband often away. She was awarded a 70,000 ruble ($2,200) microloan from Citi Foundation to build a small museum on land near a beautiful river attractive to Russian tourists from the big cities. She has to pay the money back within 18 months but with the increase in tourists recently this is looking very possible.

The good news is, I’m told there are many snow leopard souvenirs. Hats, scarves and paintings with snow leopard motifs and designs are now at the roadside stands I found so bare of signs of this beautiful local animal only 2 years ago.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • nolan October 6, 2012, 9:01 am

    Its good to see women in the villages getting money for snowleopard souveniers and tourism

  • Nolan October 6, 2012, 9:10 am

    Ive heard snowleopards are facing a hard time in Russia. At least the locals are helping

  • Jennifer October 18, 2012, 3:46 am

    Good piece! This micro-finance partnership is really important, both for local economic development AND a way of linking wildlife conservation to local communities.

  • Sibylle October 18, 2012, 10:00 am

    I agree Jennifer, it’s especially heartening to see women being able to develop their incomes with it. Keep up all your great work in Altai, it is truly one of the most amazing places on earth.

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