from the president
Baltistan, a rural region that makes up part of the remote Northern Areas of Pakistan, lies in the jagged, breathtaking Karakoram Mountains, in the shadow of K2, the world’s second-highest peak. Still largely isolated from the outside world, the Balti people make their livelihood from mountain agriculture, growing crops in the valley bottoms and taking goats, sheep, and yaks to high pastures in summer. They share their habitat with the snow leopard, an elusive and endangered cat native to the Himalayas.
Shafqat Hussain, who joined Trinity’s faculty last fall as an assistant professor of anthropology, was born in Pakistan’s lowlands, but he was always attracted to its mountains. “After I did my bachelor’s,” he says, “I went back to Pakistan to work with a rural development organization based in the northern mountain region. It is a very remote area, very harsh climatically and environmentally, and there is very little infrastructure. Part of my job was to talk to the communities about their needs—roads, bridges, schools. But often I would meet people who complained that snow leopards had been eating their livestock. Poor farmers suffered losses from wild predators, and it was a legitimate problem, but as a rural development organization, we could not address it.”
Hussain originally trained as an economist, and his encounters with the Baltistani villagers inspired him to work with IUCN—The World Conservation Union, one of the world’s largest conservation NGOs, to protect natural habitats and endangered species like the snow leopard while promoting sustainable human development. But he soon grew frustrated with the bureaucratic nature of the organization.
“Their standard response was to create parks and protected areas, which meant that people would not be able to take their livestock on high pastures as they had for centuries,” Hussain says. “All over the world, the standard response to wild predation of livestock has been to separate the human population and the animal population. That, in this region especially, is not feasible. We are imposing our social values of conservation ethics on farmers, and they are the ones who actually have to bear the cost of something we hold dear.”
A new conservation paradigm
To better address this age-old conflict, Hussain developed a new conservation paradigm that protects the snow leopard while also ensuring the survival of the people who share its habitat. In 1998, he started Project Snow Leopard to offer low-cost insurance that protects farmers from the costs of snow leopard predation. Farmers are not only financially invested in the project, they also participate in every level of its operation. In return, they promise not to retaliate against the leopard or hunt its primary prey species.
According to Hussain, “A conservation approach that does not take into account the needs and perceptions of local people is doomed to failure. Conservation failures occur because there is a disconnect between local and official visions of conservation.” Project Snow Leopard’s innovative approach has been largely successful, and it has spread to about 10 villages. In 2006, the project received the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise, worth $50,000, and Hussain was named a National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer in 2008 for his groundbreaking work.