Elusive, Exquisite, Endangered; Saving Snow Leopards through Innovative Zoo Partnerships
Product Development and Sales Coordinator, Snow Leopard Trust
“That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain- that is enough.” – Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Exquisite, elusive, and endangered, the snow leopard makes its home in some of the harshest, most remote environments of our world. Uniquely adapted to the high mountains of Central Asia, their thick spotted fur makes them virtually invisible to the naked eye while keeping them warm in sub-zero temperatures. With long, muscular tails (up to 40 inches long) that act as a rudder, these felines often leap spectacular distances to catch prey and balance on the most precarious of rocky ledges- some have been seen roaming at elevations of over 16,000 feet (4,877m)! For centuries, snow leopards have ruled the mountains, thriving in the snowy peaks. Today, however, they walk a delicate path between life and extinction. Listed on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species, snow leopards share the same status as the giant panda and the tiger. They face threats of illegal hunting by poachers for fur and bones, loss of habitat as humans and their livestock take over more space,
and the decline of natural prey. Scientists currently estimate as few as 4000 cats remain in the wild, distributed across twelve countries in Central Asia.
Background of the Snow Leopard Trust
Founded in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the endangered snow leopard. The oldest and largest organization focused solely on snow leopard conservation, SLT currently partners with 72 zoos worldwide and is a member of AZA, EAZA and WAZA. SLT has received the highest ranking possible for 4 years from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent evaluator of charities, for its sound financial management. SLT has more than 35 staff world-wide, most of whom are nationals of snow leopard range countries.
Most importantly, over the past 30 years SLT has implemented successful conservation and/or education and research programs in 5 of the 12 high-priority range countries that snow leopards inhabit-–Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India and China. At the core of SLT’s work is the understanding that economic and ecological systems are mutually interdependent. SLT’s conservation programs operate on a community-based
level, collaborating with local people to understand and meet their needs for survival. Working in collaboration to make the value of a living, breathing snow leopard mutually beneficial and keeping these amazing cats alive for centuries to come is paramount to the Trust’s philosophy. Through innovative programs, effective partnerships, and the latest science, SLT is saving this magnificent animal and improving the lives of people who live in the snow leopard countries of Central Asia.
Over 160 zoos worldwide have snow leopards on exhibit, with 71 zoos exhibiting snow leopards in Europe and 68 zoos in North America. Millions of individuals watch these beautiful cats in awe and amazement every year. SLT’s Natural Partnerships Program (NPP) bridges these inspiring moments with powerful contributions to snow leopard conservation in the field. Imagine the impact on snow leopards and their future if all 160 zoos joined together to support SLT’s conservation, education and research efforts!
There are numerous ways to help.
- Snow Leopard Focused Events – Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) launched the first ever International Snow Leopard Day in 2007 and due to its success, the event has become an annual affair. Activities include crafts for kids (snow leopard puppets, drawings, face painting, etc.), traditional music from the Southeast Asian regions, puppet shows and educational talks by SLT staff members and/or zoo keepers. In 2009, the birth of 2 snow leopard cubs at WPZ enhanced the event greatly and brought media attention to both SLT and the Zoo. The Zoo even held a “name the cubs” contest for guests! Santa Barbara Zoo hosted a snow leopard themed day and even trucked in 4 tons of donated crushed snow for animal (and guest!) enrichment. Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, VA, hosted an event called “Zoobilee” and raised money for snow leopards through several carnival type games, recruiting donated prizes from local businesses. Cape May County Zoo and Cape May County AAZK group teamed up and joined in last year, promoting awareness and raising money for SLT through talks and activities for the whole family. There are many ways to make an event a success (SLT is always happy to share and develop ideas!) and if your Zoo has snow leopards, a special event is really a wonderful way to get visitors to connect with these cats, understand their plight and be inspired to make a difference.
- Educational Tools and Activities – Several years ago SLT collaborated with Facing the Future with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and developed a curriculum intended to introduce children in grades 5-8 to snow leopards, their unique ecosystem and the conflicts that exist where people and snow leopards overlap. The 1-2 week curriculum unit as a whole or with a focus on specific sections engages students in the creative process of developing conservation solutions and helps them feel like they, too, can make a difference for snow leopards. The curriculum packet is free and offers a great opportunity to schedule a teacher’s workshop or a learning lab at your zoo! In addition, scheduling a presentation or a conservation talk with an SLT staff member is a terrific way to attract visitors to the zoo and get them engaged in conservation. SLT staff is always thrilled to visit our partnering zoos.
- Support Snow Leopard Enterprises – Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) is the flagship community-based conservation program of SLT, forming partnerships between SLT and impoverished herding communities that live in snow leopard habitat. Participating communities increase their income by selling their traditional handicrafts through global markets that SLT provides and manages. In return, the community members agree to keep snow leopards and their prey species from harm. These communities benefit directly from the income they earn, helping them obtain medical care, food, shelter and education. Currently, over 250 families across Mongolia participate in SLE with several more in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. SLE continues to expand each year, as awareness grows and marketing channels increase. At least 46 zoo gift stores and over 50 other retail outlets across the world sell the unique and sustainable SLE handicrafts that truly are saving snow leopards. However, gift stores are not the only avenues folks can take to get involved with selling SLE merchandise! Individuals and zoos have created customized events offering Trust merchandise to their local communities through one-time sales events- and at holiday time, many docents have organized holiday sales amongst their staff. Purchasing an SLE product can help a zoo guest or community member feel like they are making a tangible difference in conservation, without becoming a long-term donor.
Zoos play a powerful role in reaching out to the public and docents have special opportunities to educate zoo visitors of all ages about how important conservation is, especially for an endangered species such as the snow leopard. Any steps you take to inspire people to make a difference will help ensure that snow leopards reign over their mountain ecosystems for generations to come. Thank you for all that you do for wildlife everywhere!
Gina Robertson e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: 206.632.2421
Product Development and Sales Coordinator
Snow Leopard Trust
4649 Sunnyside Ave. N. #325
Seattle, WA 98103