Love is blind, and Shafqat Hussain GRD ‘08 learned this the hard way. Despite having devoted his professional life to his passion for saving snow leopards, the closest he has come to one is the zoo gift store.
Yesterday, Hussain, a doctoral student in anthropology and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was officially named one of 10 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2009 for his work with snow leopards in northern Pakistan. The $10,000 research grant, which recognizes adventurers for their contributions to world knowledge, will allow Hussain to continue to work with local communities to ensure the survival of this endangered species.
Hussain first appeared on the international radar when he pioneered Project Snow Leopard in 1998, a self-funding livestock insurance scheme that offers Pakistani villagers compensation for any livestock they lose to snow leopards. But some environmentalists remain unconvinced that insurance is the only way to save the majestic cat.
“Our program is still expanding,” Hussain said in an interview with the News. “We don’t have any grand visions or plans. We just somehow want to see that large conservation projects that are funded by international agencies can see that the approach of separating human society from the environment is not the answer.”
Hussain dreamt up Project Snow Leopard after witnessing the threat snow leopard populations pose to local villages in the Skoyo and Basha valleys of north Pakistan. The cats hunt the villagers’ livestock — their only source of income. The villagers, in return, hunt the cats to protect their livelihood, creating a vicious circle of predation.
The idea has taken off since it was put into effect in Pakistan and serves as a model for similar projects in India, China and Nepal, Hussain said.
“Shafqat Hussain’s Project Snow Leopard is an example of innovative thinking and the ability to balance the needs of individuals, communities and the environment,” said Cheryl Zook, National Geographic’s manager of Emerging Explorers and Special Projects. “It is an example of forward-thinking, holistic conservation work.”
But Hussain is not your average conservationist. With an undergraduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in economics, a master’s in biology — and soon enough, a Ph.D. in anthropology — the son of a Pakistani civil servant has sampled a wide range of disciplines. His heart, though, has remained with the imposing mountain landscape he recalls admiring in his childhood.
“When I was young I used to go to the hills,” Hussain said. “I found out there were these amazing mountains in the north, and I knew that I wanted to go back and work there.”
His own fascination with nature convinced him that the solution to problems of conservation was not to artificially separate humans from their natural surroundings.
This view has shaped his outlook on national parks, which he sees as sources of historical conflict and as an ineffective means of preserving nature.
“The whole idea of the national park is enshrined in this philosophy that there is wilderness and pristine nature and that it’s timeless,” he said. “But historical records show that there is no part of the world that hasn’t been touched by humans.”
But Todd Remaley, chief ranger with the Appalachian Trail, argues that Hussain’s idea — that nature and humans should coexist naturally — is not in opposition to the thinking behind a national park.
While he acknowledged that there is no one right way to tackle all problems of conservation, Remaley remained doubtful that programs like Project Snow Leopard could be entirely effective without the environmental preservation that the national park framework provides.
“On the surface it sounds like he’s found a solution, but what is he doing to preserve the habitat?” Remaley said. “One of the biggest problems facing endangered species today is the destruction of their habitats.”
But Hussain argues that such thinking — conceiving of an animal’s habitat as wilderness — represents a “typically first world view of nature conservation.”
“A habitat is separate from human society,” he said. “Humans have been part of the same habitat for millions of years, so clearly it is not their presence, but their behavior and
practices that are [at fault]. And that is what we are trying to address.”
Only two sightings of snow leopards have taken place in the past fifty years.