By Bianca Rosen
Four-year-old Aruke Atabaev has plump cheeks that devour her face and a smile that makes the toughest of soldiers fall to their knees. She helps her mother—Jamila, wife of Mahan Atabaev who is the leader of a community-based wildlife conservancy in the Eastern Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan—set and clear dining tables, always sporting a goofy grin, chubby fingers stuffed into her mouth. She dons shocking magenta scarves over her head and wears tulle dresses frayed from too much play.
The conservancy is in a town called Alichur, which looks like a plot of cardboard boxes painted shades of indigo and alabaster with streaks of decay smattered here and there. What makes this village particularly beautiful is the mountains that cradle it, their ridges forming an inconsistent scatter plot against blue sky and silhouettes creating an army of sleeping alligators.
Aruke was my walking partner to and fro the small school in Alichur, where I was teaching at a weeklong nature camp for local children with the help of my mother, Tanya Rosen, and her team of biologists who specialize in ensuring the safety of snow leopards in the Central Asian region. What was supposed to be a group of 10 kids turned into 45, ranging from 4 to 15 years old. I was slightly intimidated to see their little faces staring up at me, eyes practically boiling over with hunger for knowledge and passion written as if in thick marker on their faces. But I was confident and overtaken with anticipation.
When we first walked in, they sat at the edges of their seats, backs straight as tabletops; so straight that you began to wonder if someone took an iron and straightened out every slouch. I was followed closely by Shirin Muhametkadyr Kyzy, my mother, and Gulbahor Kaikovusova. Shirin and Gulbahor, who work with my mom, were our main assets since the children spoke either Kyrgyz or Tajik and the two could translate for me. Alichur was a predominately Kyrgyz town. The classroom was sparkly with dust and bleak with neglect, but the children were explosions of vibrancy within it.
We showed them laminated depictions of wildlife in their area—snow leopard, ibex, argali, etc.—and they pressed their fingers right up on the plastic, tracing the animals and muttering the translations in their local language and in heavily accented English, just as we had taught them. The older ones drew the animals free-hand. We played interactive games with them—like guess-the-animal charades—rewarding them with candy. They enjoyed taking the form of a different species, whether it be a bear or a pika. For snow leopards, they simulated hunting and munching on an argali excitedly, running and screaming as if their clothes were on fire.
The kids were content with anything from idly sketching to frolicking like butterflies to simply smiling and clinging to our hands and arms and legs. They were always so excited, and despite our language barrier, we managed to communicate. We both knew the bare minimum of each other’s language, but it was a challenge we accepted.
Even though they live beneath the beady stares of snow-dipped peaks and a myriad manifestations of nature’s splendor, the kids do not have the opportunity to venture outside of the bubble that is their humble, little village. So, we selected 16 members of the older group to hike with us to 4,600 meters to set two camera traps. This was so they could get a glimpse of the Panthera team’s work and have the chance to explore their surroundings.
The location we chose was approximately 1 mile up a steep, jagged peak. It was like attempting to swim up a waterfall. While I was tripping, heaving, and grimacing, they bolted up the slope like rockets, then slid back down to grab me by my clammy hands and proceed to sprint up with me in tow. They loved to take my hands, whether it was to help me down a step or up a mountain. When my breaths lagged, they provided a shoulder to lean on. When I tripped, they caught me. When I fell, they swarmed around me like ants, hands reaching for my arms and pulling me up, whether I liked it or not. When we walked, we walked together, and I imagined we looked like a long chain. One, big, diverse family.
Having grown up in the United States, I was accustomed to endless supplies, having everything at my disposal, and technology. Technology was the centerpiece of my existence. But these children only needed someone to talk to. They weren’t pulling out their iPhones or snapchatting random selfies to their friends when anything got dull. They were content with tossing around a soccer ball or flying a kite. I knew these children for a week, yet I felt closer to some of them then I did with a collection of my friends back home I’d known for years. They were a true community, holding hands and working together like one.
This is not to say that they do not have conflicts of their own, especially between the two nationalities: Tajik and Kyrgyz. I witnessed one: A 15-year-old Tajik boy went up to an 8-year-old Kyrgyz girl and insulted her physical appearance. Though this is not serious, it is common between the two groups. There have also been instances of vandalism, bullying, and physical violence. This is mostly due to their differences in religion, language, and the fact that they are segregated. Tajiks and Kyrgyz children in Alichur are separated by class and live on different sides of the village. Attempting even the skeleton of a friendship is extremely difficult because of the language barrier and the lack of integration. They have almost formed their own two cliques, playing their own games and hanging out only with each other. A solution to this problem is finding a way for them to communicate so that they have the opportunity to converse and develop common interests.
The opportunity I was granted to work with these children was one I will be forever grateful for. I plan on expanding on my work next summer and implementing a year-round program, which will allow the kids to explore beyond the borders of their village. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I have faith that each and every child in my classroom has the chance to make a change in this world, and the ultimate tool for accomplishing this is education.
I hope that my and team’s work helped the kids realize that the unattainable beauty that is the natural world can only be contained and nurtured through conservation. It is imperative that we not take wondrous species like the snow leopard for granted because without the snow leopard conservation efforts that the Panthera team is carrying through, this species would not roam the mountains of the Eastern Pamirs.
Bianca Elena Rosen is a 14 year old girl who lives in Bozeman, Montana and attends Bozeman High School. She is passionate about school, books, writing, policy debate, lacrosse, and horse-back riding. Bianca has traveled to Central Asia a number of times, which developed her love for working with children in impoverished communities.
The “Tajik Kittens – Empowering Children through Snow Leopard Conservation Initiative” is possible thanks to support from the UK Aid through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, The Global Environment Facility and the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.
(a version of this article appears on the Panthera website)