The mountains of Tajikistan, with 7000-meter summits towering above roaring river valleys, is one of the most isolated yet diverse regions in Central Asia. For centuries, the people here believed that snow leopards were messengers of mergichan, mountain spirits sharing their power and knowledge of the natural environment.
Today, these species are faced with the threat of extinction. Local women are increasingly becoming champions of the conservation efforts in the country, as they train to become rangers, guides and conservationists.
In Tajikistan, men have traditionally been regarded as the breadwinners. Women are discouraged from entering the labor force, and as such they suffer disproportionately from poverty. The situation is further aggravated by the mass migration of Tajik men abroad in search of better lives for their families.
Nonetheless, numerous women in the country are taking matters into their own hands, pursuing fulfilling careers and becoming impact makers.
Bibi Rahimova, 55, is known among the local people as the woman who is not afraid of wolves. She is also one of the first and only woman in her district to hold a forestry managerial position.
Bibi has worked as a ranger since 2007, inspired by her love of nature and her hope to build a better future for her four children. Now, she manages a team of 34 men and leads anti-poaching, reforestation and ecotourism development efforts.
The rugged terrain of the Khatlon Region feels like home to Bibi. She enjoys working in the field. “I usually go around the area on a horse, and meet many wild animals such as bears, wolves and boars, so they are like relatives to me,” recounts the ranger.
Although Bibi is the only woman in a leadership position here, she believes that the future for the next generation of girls is looking bright.
“Our women have become very active. They strive to send their children, including girls, to good schools and to give them an education so that they could have a future,” she says.
Safarbi Davlatova, 46, joined the ranger team of the Dashtijum forestry five years ago. She took part in an wildlife monitoring training delivered by UNDP, and today is fighting poaching and helping conserve nature.
Safarbi takes pride in her uneasy but purposeful job. “I am not intimidated by the difficulties. Of course, it is not easy to walk long distances everyday, it is physically hard, but you get used to everything,” she smiles.
The cause of women like Bibi and Safarbi extends beyond conservation. They aim to inspire a generation of active women who contribute to the preservation of the environment and the livelihoods of their communities, especially when it comes to the economic empowerment of local women.
UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) carry out projects in eight snow leopard range countries. In Tajikistan, their work specifically focuses on directly involving local communities in protected areas and helping them make a living out of it.
“We are very interested in participating in the initiatives of the project, especially in developing eco-tourism, which will provide additional income for people and motivate them to treat the nature with greater respect,” believes Bibi Rahimova.
In the meantime, she proudly recalls her multiple encounters with snow leopards, typically known for their rare sightings. This gives Bibi hope that the critically endangered snow leopard populations would recover.
It is her personal and communal responsibility, reminiscent of the respect for the wisdom of the mountain spirits that appear as snow leopards.