Monday, July 30, 2007

Snow Leopard Trust works to develop China program

By Jennifer Snell Rullman, Conservation Program Director

I usually think of myself as prepared for just about anything when it comes to accommodations on my travels, having encountered a variety of interesting circumstances and settings over the years working in Eastern Africa and, since 2003, for the Trust in Central Asia. I was caught a bit off-guard on my most recent trip to China, however, when a legless billiard table was dragged from a nearby horse stall and placed on a cold linoleum floor for Bayara (the Trust's Conservation and Country Development Director from Mongolia) and me to share as a bed for the next 10 days. That was a new one!

We had it easier than our other colleague, China Program Administrator Ge Yun, whose sleeping bag was placed on a very hard tabletop diagonally, so that she would fit! But it didn't occur to us to complain about these accommodations, because the families we were visiting, in the Tomur Nature Reserve's village of Porchenzi, considered themselves so poor they were embarrassed to have us stay in their homes. To them, this room with a billiard table was better than the handsewn mattresses on top of cement or wood-slab beds where they slept.

Bayara, Ge Yun, and I travelled for three weeks through the western part of China to get to know some of the communities we may collaborate with as the Trust begins its community-based conservation work in China. The billiard-table bed was only one of many moments of mild culture shock Bayara and I experienced as we compared China, the world's most populous nation, with the more familiar Mongolia, a small country of just 2.3 million people. Aksu, a Chinese "town" that we visited, had nearly as many residents as all of Mongolia! Aksu greeted us with skyscrapers, neon lights flashing from the city center, traffic jams, and many shops, restaurants, and hotels. A bustling modern city—and quite a contrast from the dusty, crumbling, forgotten-looking province centers we visit in Mongolia.

How will this large human population and access to modern amenities affect the snow leopard, the communities living in snow leopard habitat, and the way the Trust will work in China? I wondered. As we drove three hours from Aksu into the Tomur Nature Reserve, near the Kyrgyz border, I noticed that the roads were very good—not at all like the routes we tend to travel in Mongolia, which are nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding steppe. Good roads mean easier access to remote areas and wildlands, and we learned from local herders that there's increasing pressure from big business to allow harvesting of natural resources within the park, and to build more roads deeper into the park's mountains.

When we began to meet with people living in the small communities near the park boundaries, however, we found a very familiar situation. Although the people in these communities are not nomadic, they earn their living as livestock herders and face many of the same challenges as the herders we work with in Mongolia: poverty; lack of money for children's education or extra food; and loss of their livestock to harsh winters, dry summers, and predation by wolves and snow leopards.

Yet a different economic system also posed some different challenges for the Chinese herders. Instead of owning their land or livestock like many Mongolian herders, the Chinese families rent livestock and land through the government-owned pasture system. At the end of each year, the herders are expected to shear their flock, and are allowed to keep 40% of the wool—their only payment for the year's work. Any animals that die during the year are counted against that payment, a system that has many herders in debt for what will most likely be their lifetime.

Such differences may mean that our conservation programs in this pocket of China end up looking very different from those we have developed elsewhere. But it's clear that just as in Mongolia, protecting snow leopards in China will require sitting down with the local people who share their environment, listening to them tell about their lives, and working together to solve their problems while helping the cats.

FI usually think of myself as prepared for just about anything when it comes to accommodations on my travels, having encountered a variety of interesting circumstances and settings over the years working in Eastern Africa and, since 2003, for the Trust in Central Asia. I was caught a bit off-guard on my most recent trip to China, however, when a legless billiard table was dragged from a nearby horse stall and placed on a cold linoleum floor for Bayara (the Trust's Conservation and Country Development Director from Mongolia) and me to share as a bed for the next 10 days. That was a new one!

We had it easier than our other colleague, China Program Administrator Ge Yun, whose sleeping bag was placed on a very hard tabletop diagonally, so that she would fit! But it didn't occur to us to complain about these accommodations, because the families we were visiting, in the Tomur Nature Reserve's village of Porchenzi, considered themselves so poor they were embarrassed to have us stay in their homes. To them, this room with a billiard table was better than the handsewn mattresses on top of cement or wood-slab beds where they slept.

Bayara, Ge Yun, and I travelled for three weeks through the western part of China to get to know some of the communities we may collaborate with as the Trust begins its community-based conservation work in China. The billiard-table bed was only one of many moments of mild culture shock Bayara and I experienced as we compared China, the world's most populous nation, with the more familiar Mongolia, a small country of just 2.3 million people. Aksu, a Chinese "town" that we visited, had nearly as many residents as all of Mongolia! Aksu greeted us with skyscrapers, neon lights flashing from the city center, traffic jams, and many shops, restaurants, and hotels. A bustling modern city—and quite a contrast from the dusty, crumbling, forgotten-looking province centers we visit in Mongolia.

How will this large human population and access to modern amenities affect the snow leopard, the communities living in snow leopard habitat, and the way the Trust will work in China? I wondered. As we drove three hours from Aksu into the Tomur Nature Reserve, near the Kyrgyz border, I noticed that the roads were very good—not at all like the routes we tend to travel in Mongolia, which are nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding steppe. Good roads mean easier access to remote areas and wildlands, and we learned from local herders that there's increasing pressure from big business to allow harvesting of natural resources within the park, and to build more roads deeper into the park's mountains.

When we began to meet with people living in the small communities near the park boundaries, however, we found a very familiar situation. Although the people in these communities are not nomadic, they earn their living as livestock herders and face many of the same challenges as the herders we work with in Mongolia: poverty; lack of money for children's education or extra food; and loss of their livestock to harsh winters, dry summers, and predation by wolves and snow leopards.

Yet a different economic system also posed some different challenges for the Chinese herders. Instead of owning their land or livestock like many Mongolian herders, the Chinese families rent livestock and land through the government-owned pasture system. At the end of each year, the herders are expected to shear their flock, and are allowed to keep 40% of the wool—their only payment for the year's work. Any animals that die during the year are counted against that payment, a system that has many herders in debt for what will most likely be their lifetime.

Such differences may mean that our conservation programs in this pocket of China end up looking very different from those we have developed elsewhere. But it's clear that just as in Mongolia, protecting snow leopards in China will require sitting down with the local people who share their environment, listening to them tell about their lives, and working together to solve their problems while helping the cats.

http://www.snowleopard.org/news/currentnews/travelsinchina

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