Saving the Endangered Snow Leopard and Economically Empowering Local Communities

Saving the Endangered Snow Leopard and Economically Empowering Local Communities

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

We seek to change the negative relationship between herders and snow leopards in rural Mongolia. Snow leopards are an endangered big cat and important apex predator throughout Central Asia. Mongolia is home to the second largest population of snow leopards in the world, concentrated in rural area dominated by herding families. These families live below the poverty line and rely heavily on raising livestock. They come into conflict with the cats over livestock depredation, which causes severe economic hardship that fuels poaching and retribution killing of snow leopards. To change this relationship, our project helps herders increase their income from raising livestock in conservation-friendly ways linked directly to protecting snow leopards.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

We engage rural herders living in snow leopard habitat in Mongolia. Over one third of the Mongolian workforce is herders, most of whom rely on a cash/barter economy and practice subsistence living. The plight of this population has been well documented by UNDP Human Development reports. The 2003 report concluded that nearly 85% of herders have less than 200 animals and almost 63% have less than 100 animals, far below the 200-300 animal threshold necessary to meet the basic needs of an average family. The 2003 report also described herders’ lack of market access, stating that “economic isolation” made herders “vulnerable” and forced them to “either sell or barter their products to itinerant traders at unfavourable terms or incur high transport costs to urban markets.” Poverty in turn has affected rural quality of living. The Human Development Index for Mongolia’s rural areas is lower than for urban areas. For example, over one third of the rural population has not completed secondary school and the 2003 report found that the cost of education is a very real barrier to the poor. Poverty also stresses the relationship between herders and wildlife. While communities respect snow leopards, they cannot financially accept livestock losses to depredation. In 2009, an adult male snow leopard was shot by a herder after the cat killed over two dozen livestock. The hardships of subsistence living have also led herders to engage in illegal poaching, which has been estimated at more than 100 snow leopards per year with pelts valued for as much as $250 per meter length.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

For decades conservation efforts have focused on top-down protection for threatened species. However, this approach is inadequate and hard to sustain in economically depressed regions, such as rural Mongolia. In Mongolia, over 80% of snow leopard habitat falls outside of protected areas and, although poaching and retribution killing have long been illegal, sufficient enforcement of these laws fell with the decline of Communism. Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) is is a grassroots initiative, created in collaboration with local people to create a community-level network of protection for snow leopards. The conservation contracts at the heart of SLE create an innovative ‘neighborhood-watch’ system. If anyone in the community violates the contract—even someone not actively making products—no bonus monies are distributed. This makes protecting snow leopards a community-wide concern and allows participants to move in and out of SLE without disrupting its conservation effectiveness. Two other unique features of SLE are its product line and its micro-credit program. The product line is flexible and leverages materials women readily have on hand. When participants reported an abundance of yak wool, traditionally considered waste, we trained them to spin yak wool yarn. When participants reported a frustrating lack of equipment, we developed a micro-credit loan program. These loans are unique in that they can be repaid in cash or handicrafts, and they offer lower interest than bank loans.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Our project, Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), is a grassroots program that helps herders in snow leopard habitat increase their income in exchange for conservation commitments. Building on basic skills herders possess for making everyday wool items (such as rugs and clothing), SLE holds multiple ‘upskilling’ trainings each year to help them create related products developed by US and Mongolian artisans that meet higher specifications, appeal to international markets, and are 15-20 times more valuable than raw wool alone. We guarantee to purchase products at mutually agreed prices and coordinate product collection. We market and sell products worldwide to raise awareness for conservation and generate program revenue. We offer herders low interest micro-credit loans so they can purchase special equipment, such as spinning wheels and drum carders that make it faster and easier to turn raw wool into marketable products. Each year, we sign and/or renew “conservation contracts” with each participating community. The contracts specify that, in exchange for our constant, dependable product purchases, herders will stop the poaching of snow leopards and key snow leopard prey species within their community. Local government agencies, protected area administrations and environmental inspectors help monitor conservation contracts and educate SLE participants about conservation-related laws. At the end of the year, communities receive a 30% cash bonus (based on the value of their products) if no one in their region has violated the contract.
About You
Snow Leopard Trust
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name

Snow Leopard Trust

Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for more than 5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Snow Leopard Enterprises was founded by Bayarjargal Agvaantseren (Bayara). Bayara was born and raised in Mongolia. She is fluent in Russian, English and Mongolian and before working in conservation was a Russian and English language teacher and tour guide. In 1996, he was hired by a group of scientists to conduct and translate interviews to explore the relationship between local herders and snow leopards. During these interviews she heard the same problems repeated: families earned very little, could not get fair prices for their goods, and suffered when snow leopards took their livestock. She was moved by their stories and from that point forward dedicated her life to developing solutions to address these problems. In 1998, working directly with a small handful of herders, she created Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE). Since then she has worked tirelessly to grow SLE and develop her own capacity to run the program. In 2002, she attended a program entitled Economical Tools for Conservation Ecology, coordinated by Conservation Strategy Fund. That same year, she enrolled in a program entitled Small Business Enterprise Development presenting ORAM Small business and market economy management training. Finally in 2004, she found funding to travel to Dublin, Ireland for one year to participate and eventually complete her Masters in Development Studies from the Kimmage Development Studies Center. In 2006, working with the Snow Leopard Trust, she created her own Mongolian NGO, called Snow Leopard Conservation Fund, to manage SLE and other conservation activities.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

SLE began with a handful of herders. Today, it has 250 participants across 26 communities covering an estimated 50,000 sq km of snow leopard habitat. In 2010 SLE families earned about $105 (>3% of the national per capita GDP) and each community earned an average of $186 in bonus monies. This offset livestock losses to snow leopard predation, which were about $124 per household. Last year 21 women received micro-credit loans and the repayment rate was 81.4%.

More than 90% of SLE participants are women, and surveys show SLE is contributing to female empowerment in three main ways:

1. Pride: Many SLE participants identify ‘having a job’ or ‘learning a skill’ as important reasons for belonging to SLE.
2. Respect: Women have wider spending choices, giving them more control over their own and their families’ lives. This helps them gain respect from the wider local community.
3. Voice: Making decisions on environmental matters is an area traditionally dominated by men, and one from which women have largely excluded. Through SLE women are attending workshops, discussing ways to improve SLE’s conservation links, and using SLE’s small grants for community conservation projects.

Snow Leopard Enterprises is also protecting snow leopards and their prey. Since SLE’s inception, there has only been one case of snow leopard poaching in a participating community. A small handful of key prey species have been killed (<20), and all communities involved with these incidents had their bonuses withheld.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?


How will your project evolve over the next three years?

We plan to develop new products and grow our sales outlets in order to sell more products and increase our ability to include more herders in conservation. We hope to reach the specialty pet market with more products specifically targeted for domestic cats and dogs (who seem to love the smell of our wool). We are also targeting US schools who use our snow leopard curriculum in their classrooms. Our curriculum contains a service learning component that guides children to sell SLE handicrafts to raise money for snow leopards and their school. Having just piloted the curriculum, we believe this is a large area for growth. Finally, we will create a strong internal market by working with tourist companies, the Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce, and other interested organizations.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

We have seen that Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE) is successful at meeting the needs of herders and snow leopards, and that is it scalable. Our greatest barriers to growing the program are 1) finding more sales outlets, 2) involving more herders, and 3) measuring the program’s effects on snow leopards. If we cannot sell more products, we cannot involve more herders in conservation; however involving more herders requires extensive time and travel. At the same time, while we know that SLE is reducing instances of poaching and retribution killing of snow leopards and their prey, we do not yet have a way to measure this. Baseline snow leopard estimates are not available for most SLE communities, making it difficult to assess how to further refine the program, or whether certain components of the program are more successful than others.

To overcome these issues we are actively developing new relationships with wholesalers, and working to target new markets for SLE products, as described above. To involve more herders, we plan to survey new areas with high human-snow leopard conflict, and to also reach out to more households in communities where some members are already active in the program. Finally, we are working with other international NGOs to test new types of snow leopard surveys that we hope will yield a cost effective way to measure snow leopard populations.

Tell us about your partnerships

Within Mongolian we strive to build strong relationship with local officials and organizations. When possible, we work with regional government officials so they realize the value and benefit of SLE, and can support its operations. We work with protected area administrations and environmental inspectors to provide education and monitor conservation contracts. We also collaborate with trainers at Wool World Training Center in Ulaanbaatar.

Internationally, to help market and sell SLE handicrafts, we have developed long-term partnerships with over 30 zoos that house snow leopards and also manage gift shops for the public. These partnerships are extremely valuable as they enable us to educate zoo visitors and then offer and outlet for them to support snow leopard conservation through the purchase of SLE products.

Our research towards snow leopard monitoring is in partnership with Panthera, an NGO dedicated to big-cat conservation, and in collaboration with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, the Mongolian Academy of Science, and the Mongolian State University of Agriculture.

Explain your selections

We received donations from individuals around the world, which we use to support SLE. We also received grants from foundations for SLE and for research related to monitoring snow leopard populations. Over 70 retail outlets purchase SLE products at wholesale prices and then sell them to the public. They provide valuable feedback on product quality and saleability. Regional government officials in Mongolia support our work with herders. They received our SLE newsletter, attend meetings, advocate for conservation, and help monitor conservation contracts. National government provides permits necessary for snow leopard research, and operates at a policy level to enforce laws protecting snow leopards. Customers purchase snow leopard products and help spread awareness for snow leopard conservation.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

SLE is only covering about 50% of snow leopard habitat in Mongolia. Our long-term (10+ years) goal is to expand to include more families and cover 70% of snow leopard habitat. By taking the steps we have outlined above to target new markets and involve more herders, we believe this expansion is realistic and possible. However, we have found that to make such as expansion sustainable (reduce herder attrition rates) over the long-term requires a dedicated and supportive education component for SLE families—i.e. herders need a thorough understanding of why the program is important, how it benefits communities, and how it protects snow leopards. Therefore, to strengthen the SLE program over the next three years, we will focus on creating and implementing a multi-stakeholder environmental education program. This program will include activities for children and adults to build their appreciation for wildlife and the environment; trainings for herders to help improve herding practices (and reduce losses to snow leopards); and workshops for officials in charge of wildlife monitoring to help them keep abreast of the latest developments in snow leopard conservation and monitoring techniques. Many of these activities will be combined with SLE training or product collection trips, or be rolled into the bonus distribution process.

Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.


Restricted access to new markets


Lack of skills/training


Lack of access to information and networks

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

SLE opens up new markets for rural herders Before, participants lacked the capacity to reach markets to sell their goods and were forced to sell raw wool to passing traders for sub par values. To solve this problem, we come to them to collect all goods and provide services. We also assume the responsibility for marketing handicrafts, particularly online, letting herders focus on their role as artisans and conservationists. While many herders posses ‘raw’ skills, we help them upskill by providing trainings and patterns for products with proven salability. We also work to build awareness among herders for the importance of conservation and protecting snow leopards, and to connect them to supportive functions within the country, such as local park rangers and environmental inspectors.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.


Grown geographic reach: Global



Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

In the immediate future, we want to reach more sales outlets and consumers. This is a global goal that will not only increase revenue for the program, but raise awareness worldwide for the plight of herders and snow leopards in Mongolia. To accomplish this, we plan to continue growing the SLE program in Mongolia by expanding to reach more herders and more communities. To support this expansion, we will make strategic improvements to offer complimentary services, such as environmental education for SLE members and their families.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

Collaborating with these entities has helped Snow Leopard Enterprises mature and reach new audiences. At critical times, nonprofits and NGOs have provided the funding to accelerate SLE. For example, they were responsible for the seed money that started SLE, and in 2009, three non-profits joined together to make it possible for SLE’s local coordinators to all meet for the first time. Technology providers have given us the tools we need to market efficiently. For example, Google Ad Words has offered us subsidized online marketing and World of Good has welcomed us into an online community of artisans and environmentally and socially-conscious consumers.