On December 8, 2022, local news about the death of a lone snow leopard on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, went viral. According to the autopsy, the death resulted from a plastic bag found in the animal’s stomach. For Menli Atayeva, a Central Asia Youth Leadership Academy (CAYLA) alumna from Turkmenistan, cases like this are an alarming testimony to human-caused ecological disaster. “Given that there are only about 180 snow leopards left in Kazakhstan, it is essential we do something to battle the extinction of this species,” she says.
As a social activist with a keen interest in ecology, Menli always wanted to launch an eco-conscious social enterprise. After graduating from CAYLA in 2022, Menli co-founded Barys (“Snow Leopard") Yurt Club, a business initiative dedicated to supporting research on endangered snow leopards in Kazakhstan. The team created 10,000 unique illustrations featuring snow leopards and sold at least 60 of them as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) via OpenSea, a cryptocurrency platform. As a spin-off, they also designed and sell a line of snow leopard hoodies. The team shares 20 percent of all proceeds with a Kazakhstani NGO, Wildlife Without Borders (WWB), and the National Institute of Zoology of Kazakhstan to fund the purchase of snow leopard research equipment.
Menli confesses that her initial idea lacked focus. “My husband and I are avid followers of news related to the development of NFTs and crypto [currency]. For some time, we pondered what to do as we wanted our business to embrace these spheres while also being ecoconscious,” she says. “We knew we wanted to make something out of the booming NFT sphere, but we could not decide how to connect our interest to some social cause initiative.”
It was at CAYLA Changemakers Camp, a five-day summer networking camp for CAYLA alumni, where Menli finally shaped her vision of an innovative initiative featuring NFT sale. “The lively atmosphere of the camp and the brainstorming sessions stimulated me to develop my business idea of connecting eco-activism with cutting-edge technology,” she says, smiling. A camp facilitator also advised Menli to “think about diversifying future streams of income.” This prompted her to elaborate the concept of a merchandising business featuring physical items like hoodies.
Upon leaving the camp, Menli wasted no time in getting started. Together with her husband Azamat Kalam, Menli designed an NFT-related social initiative featuring snow leopards. “Since we live in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the snow leopard is the symbol of this town, we decided to make a small token of appreciation [of Almaty] by helping support research [on this species].”
By September 2022, the team had launched an Instagram account, designed 10,000 illustrations, and created their first batch of hoodies for sale. Just a month later, they organized an offline crowdfunding event at the Ayu Say Resort near Almaty with a special guest lecture by a National Institute of Zoology staff member on snow leopard-related research and expeditions. The team sold the first 60 NFTs (totaling $700) as entry tickets for the event and made additional 500,000 KZT ($1,000) from the sale of snow leopard-themed hoodies, transferring 20 percent of all money proceeds to WWB. The event generated a wide social media reaction, with many people applauding the team’s innovative approach to animal conservation.
Menli cites CAYLA’s networking camp and scholarship program as helping her shape the vision of her business. “The three courses I completed [via CAYLA’s scholarship program] really made the difference in making me a better leader and entrepreneur. I came to learn practical things like how to plan ahead, choose the right people, and develop a marketing plan. Starting a business might seem easy in theory, but when it comes to practice, it can be a journey full of unexpected twists, like on a rollercoaster. Thanks to the knowledge [I have gained], I feel more confident when making decisions.”
Dina Konysbayeva, the head of WWB, says she is whole-heartedly supportive of initiatives like Menli’s. “The scientific community is concerned about the state of snow leopards in Kazakhstan,” she explains. “The snow leopard is not just a cultural symbol of Almaty. The snow leopard is not just a cultural symbol of Almaty, it is a part of ecological systems that have a huge impact on human health. [That is why] when [Menli’s team] approached us with their novel idea of raising awareness [about snow leopards], I immediately supported their initiative. I really hope their example will pave the way for others.”
Menli says that she feels the initiative is a “spoon in the ocean,” but it has created a headturning precedent. The project has already featured in Kazakhstani and international media. For the team, this attention is a sign that they are on the right path. “Snow leopards and NFTs? This is not a conventional ‘marriage,’ but we decided to give it a try and it worked,” says Azamat, Menli’s husband and project co-founder. “We keep getting messages of how cool and innovative our project is, and I really hope it will make a difference in people’s attitudes towards [snow leopards],” Menli adds. “Our main goal is to approach preservation of snow leopards from a novel perspective, and I hope we can keep doing our work first in Kazakhstan and then in my home country, Turkmenistan.”
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