Raisins, dark purple and transparent gold, the currency of the Silk Road, fill a small plate on the rough-hewn table top of our Tien Shen mountain lodge. Central Asian fruit is in season and Marco Polo might have written a chapter on the flavor alone. In the first moment the raisins feel crispy in my mouth, but quickly they dissolve into a heavenly flavor so rich they seem like dates except with a lightness as if a warm sun rolled across my tongue.
It is coffee break or rather tea break on our arrival day. The Worldwide Indigenous Science Network and the Snow Leopard Conservancy have called a gathering of indigenous shamans, scientists and documentarians. Our purpose is to come up with information and a strategy to provide input on the policies forming the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Plan, a landmark declaration to be signed by 12 governments within the Snow Leopard range at a meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, this October. To our absolute astonishment, we have succeeded in getting the United Nations process to include traditional knowledge and the participation of Snow Leopard shamans in the conservation policies.
This is a preparatory meeting including shamans from Kyrgyzstan, the Altai, Mongolia, and Tibetan Buddhist Soyot from Buryatia (See below for full introductions). Journalists from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan join Indigenous Mind students Kathleen Doody and Beth Duncan. Kygyz filmmaker Meret rounds out our documentation team. Rodney Jackson, the leading world expert on Snow Leopards, and author Darla Hillard head up our science team.We have just arrived at the Ashu retreat center. Situated in rolling green foothills, the walled compound is a friendly mix of three rippled-metal roofed, white stucco dorms and a large two-story building housing a dining room on the second floor. Pine planks floor all the rooms, traditional felted wool rugs and wall hangings adorn each room and add an element of coziness and culture to the experience.
Its simply one of the best days of my life; a culmination of thirty years work to bring western and indigenous sciences together and create innovative solutions to pressing global problems. As the Elders have pointed out: Ilbris, the Kyrgyz term for the sacred cat, is the power of unification.
In 2008, just as I was leaving Kyrgyzstan, I happened to walk into a tourist yurt and into an encounter that would change my life. Bright red latticework climbed the walls of the white felt interior. Florescent tapestries and bags covered in the brilliant scrolled designs of Central Asian tribes draped the upper half of the walls and a hammered silver bride’s chest assumed central position opposite the door. I glanced to my left and instantly fell to my knees in tears, before me hung the pelt of a Snow Leopard–sacred animal for Central Asian shamans and leaders, and guardian of the door to the other world. Why, I anguished, would anyone kill this solitary, greatly endangered species just for a decoration?
Over the next few months, the Snow Leopard began coming in my dreams. These dreams led to my work with healers and then the Snow Leopard scientists who had come to terms with a terrible situation–western science is failing to protect Snow Leopards. Thinking and praying about this, an answer came: link western conservation science with Indigenous Science and do it at a sacred site, one dedicated to Snow Leopards. And that is exactly what we are doing. The major scientists and Snow Leopard shamans are meeting in the Tien Shen mountains now, looking and praying for a breakthrough, one that restores Snow Leopards and their cultures to the flow of life. I invite readers to join in prayers and visualizations for our success.
Rakmat, thank you, from Kyrgyzstan. – A.C.
Meet the Participants
The first day of the Bringing Indigenous Cultural Practitioners into the Planning For Global Snow Leopard Forum Workshop has started with informal introductions of each participant, telling about their backgrounds and reasons that led them to this gathering. Scientists, ecologists, journalists, traditional healers and shamans from all different parts of the world gathered to put their knowledge together and accomplish one mission.
Norbu Lama, a Buryat Buddhist Monk. He is a follower of traditional knowledge that preserved indigenous practices related to Snow Leopards. He believes that conserving Snow Leopards is not limited to the conservation of only big cats, but will help to conserve unique ecosystems in which Snow Leopards have survived.
Mairamkul Asanaliev, an artist and interpreter of Kyrgyz national patterns and petroglyphs. He also a founding member of a NGO that works with traditional hunting methods and raise hunting eagles and a special breed of dogs called “taigans”. With his paintings he continues a centuries-long tradition in his family, who were healers, Manas reciters, and traditional hunters.