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How a Snow Leopard Conservation Project in Spiti Valley Paved the Way for Empowering Local Women

How a Snow Leopard Conservation Project in Spiti Valley Paved the Way for Empowering Local Women

Since 2013, project SHEN has empowered women in Spiti Valley, engaging them in wildlife conservation and community development.

The snow leopard is one of the world’s most beautiful, albeit elusive animals. Concentrated in the mountainous regions, these arresting animals can be spotted by the fortunate few in countries like China (where the bulk of the population resides), Bhutan and India.

In Himachal Pradesh, the snow leopard enjoys the distinction of being the state animal.

Image source: Eric Kelby/Wikipedia Commons

With their inherent reclusive nature and shrinking natural habitats, the number of snow leopards in the wild has dropped over the years. In the Himalayas, Nature Conservation Foundation (NSF) and Snow Leopard Trust have been working to conserve the local population of snow leopards for over 15 years.

Spiti is one of the most iconic travel destinations in the country, and home to diverse wildlife, including not just snow leopard but also wolves, ibex and bharal. In more than a decade, the project has expanded in multifarious ways, not merely to benefit animals but also the local communities whose contribution is imperative in the conservation process. SHEN is one such project, which has brought about a radical change in the lives of the local women.

In the Spitian dialect, shen means snow leopard. It is also the name of an enterprise started by the women of the Spiti region’s Kibber and Chichim villages.

Image courtesy Munmun Dhalaria

Project SHEN has been in operation since 2013, when the pilot was launched with women from the two villages. According to Kulbhushan Suryawanshi, there were two reasons for the programme to be initiated.

He says, “The first (reason) was the results of a study we had done about the attitudes of local people towards the snow leopard and the wolf. We were surprised to find, among other factors, that women had poorer attitudes towards these wild carnivores than men. It was perhaps because women are more affected when snow leopards or wolves kill their livestock. It can lead to increased working hours for women, increased stress, and generally the non-monetary costs of such instances could be higher for women. The second was a realisation that in our decade-long conservation in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, we had not engaged the women into conservation directly.”

Taking these observations into account, the team started SHEN with the aim of enabling the rural women to engage in conservation efforts while enabling them to earn an income as well. Due to their work in Kibber, Kulbhushan and the NCF team had many friends in the village, which made it possible for them to convince the local women to join in the initiative.

“There is mutual trust and respect, which is necessary when embarking on a new venture together,” says Kulbhushan. “After we discussed this idea with the women in Kibber they were very excited. They organised themselves into a self-help group and named themselves Ama Chokspa.”

Today, 56 women are part of the project, engaged in making handicraft products and participating in community development and wildlife conservation efforts.

Image courtesy Munmun Dhalaria

As the women also work in the field, SHEN works according to a seasonal cycle. Between April and September, the women are farmers. Once the harvest is complete in September, they switch jobs to showcase their handicraft skills, fine-tuned with help from the NCF team.

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NCF starts their workshops every October, training the women in knitting and crochet, and aspects of accounts and administration. Kulbhushan says, “After the training, we plan the number of products that can be made in the following winter. We give them necessary raw materials and the women make the products in the following months. We collect the product in March and sell them through different crafts festivals and online stores.”

The SHEN range of products includes stationery and bookmarks, woollen socks, jewellery and crocheted items.
Every year, 10 women from the programme participate in Delhi’s popular Dastkar festival to showcase and sell their products. The event gives the women an opportunity to interact with customers and also learn about running a business enterprise.

As the women carve their path toward self-sufficiency and empowerment, they also step forward to protect their local ecology and wildlife.

Image courtesy Munmun Dhalaria

“They are the custodians of their pastures and mountains,’ Kulbhushan says about the community. As part of Project SHEN, the women also participate in awareness activities on local wildlife. They commit to protect the animals from poaching and also engage in preventive measures by speaking to the poachers, or reporting them.

The women are compensated with an extra 20% conservation incentive for fulfilling all their conservation commitments. They also support the NCF’s other awareness programmes and nature education camps.

The project has led to sweeping changes in the lives of the participating women. Not only have they learnt new skills, but found the means to become changemakers and broaden their own horizons. In one instance, they took it upon themselves to speak to a camp of labourers who, they thought, had hunted birds around their village. They have also organised cleaning drives in their village to reduce the number of free-ranging dogs that depend on this garbage in the village.

Kulbhushan adds, “After the first year’s payments were made to the women, we were very surprised to see that they hired a vehicle and went on a pilgrimage tour to Riwalsar. For many of the women, this was the first time they were stepping outside the Spiti valley. We were very satisfied to see that the income they received had made a valuable contribution to their lives.”

The NCF team envisions SHEN to be a strong model for conservation in the future, led by women of the local community.

Image courtesy Munmun Dhalaria

In keeping with the small operations of the enterprise, managing their costs is one of SHEN’s biggest challenges. “Right now, because of the small scale, our costs are high and we are still subsidized by external funding,” says the NCF team. We would like to see this change where the profits from the sales of the products can sustain the whole operations.”

The enterprise has so far sustained itself with grants and donations. NCF also invites volunteers to participate in the programme.

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However, what can really stabilize the project is increased sale of SHEN products. Kulbhushan says that the operations are so small that he wouldn’t be surprised if most people reading this article have no knowledge of the label. “We have a small presence online where people can buy SHEN products. But we will soon have greater presence in the crafts events around India,” he says.

Browse and buy SHEN products online. To contact Preety Sharma, the project manager of SHEN, please click here.

Featured image courtesy Munmun Dhalaria

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