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A Sweet Solution – Honey Production Empowers Snow Leopard Protection in Kryrgyzstan

SHAMSHY, Kyrgyzstan — Asanbek Sasukilov, a 62-year-old beekeeper and herder, vividly remembers his first encounter with a snow leopard when he was just nine years old. Sitting near a cage, he witnessed the majestic big cat roar, sending him fleeing in fear. This experience left an indelible mark on Sasukilov, and he has since dedicated his life to the conservation of snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in the region.

In the area surrounding the Ala-Too mountains in northern Kyrgyzstan, snow leopards have long been a part of the lives of the local communities. However, efforts are underway to engage these communities in conservation programs led by the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) and the Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK). These initiatives promote alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping, agroecology, and ecotourism to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife, particularly the endangered snow leopards.

The villagers of Shamshy, including Sasukilov and fellow beekeeper Beisheukaz Belsay, have embraced these conservation programs. Shamshy, a village with approximately 1,000 inhabitants located a 90-minute drive from the capital city of Bishkek, serves as a crucial hub for these initiatives. Surrounded by picturesque landscapes, including snowy mountains and grazing livestock, the village lies in the northernmost region of Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopard habitat.

Covering nearly 200 square kilometres (77 square miles), this area is a shared habitat for various wildlife species, including ibex, lynx, wild pigs, wolves, and jackals. The Shamshy Nature Reserve, jointly managed by the Kyrgyz government, local communities, and the two snow leopard NGOs, now acts as a sanctuary for snow leopards. Formerly a hotbed for trophy hunting, the reserve is now a centre for research, community education, ecotourism, and the training and compensation of wildlife rangers.

Kyrgyzstan, the fourth most mountainous country globally, provides a habitat for an estimated 300 to 400 snow leopards along its highest peaks. The species faces numerous threats, including poaching, mining, roads, hunting, and competition with livestock. Climate change exacerbates these risks, forcing both snow leopards and herders to adapt to changing conditions and encroaching on each other’s territories.

To assess and monitor snow leopard populations, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) spearheads a collaborative effort across the 12 Asian countries where these big cats reside. However, despite advancements in population studies using modern techniques such as camera traps and genetic analyses, gaps remain in understanding population trends and precise densities.

Bastien Chaix, a science educator for OSI-Panthera, emphasizes the importance of involving local communities in long-term conservation strategies. By integrating nature conservation with the local economy, communities can reduce their dependence on domestic livestock and foster a greater appreciation for wildlife, gradually eliminating conflicts. The conservation efforts in Shamshy have successfully integrated beekeeping as an alternative source of income for the villagers.

Asanbek Sasukilov and other beekeepers are vital participants in the SLT’s beekeeping program in Kyrgyzstan. Supported by the program, each village receives 50 beehives, with each farmer producing approximately 4-5 kilograms (9-11 pounds) of honey per hive. The income generated from honey sales significantly boosts the local economy. Moreover, beekeeping enhances pollination services for orchards and improves nutrition by promoting the consumption of honey.