Hubert Burda Media

Call Of The Wild

One vodka brand is on a quest to save wild snow leopards…definitely a philanthropic take on drinking responsibly.

Here’s a fact: There are as few as 7,000 snow leopards in the wild today and they need our help.
Unlikely assistance has come by way of Stephen Sparrow, a 44-year-old Briton and former vice-president of the Allied Domecq liquor group, who founded Snow Leopard Vodka, a high-end spirit made from the rare spelt grain, in 2006. As part of Sparrow’s philanthropic vision, 15 percent of profits are channelled to The Snow Leopard Trust UK, a charity he established the same year, which supports the conservation of snow leopards in Asia.
The call to save the big cats came in 2005, when Sparrow (a travel, wildlife and adventure enthusiast) was gallivanting the world upon leaving Allied Domecq. After having spent one month skiing in Denver, Colorado, playing polo and learning the tango for five months in Argentina, as well as spotting lions in Tanzania and Uganda, dugongs in Mozambique and silverbacks in Rwanda, he arrived in the Himalayas where he learnt about the plight of snow leopards.
“I was entranced by the beauty of the animal and knew I had to help. Since I had already been toying with the idea of doing something entrepreneurial then, I decided to give it a shot,” he says, pun well-intended. “I like to have a bit of fun in life —who says conservation cannot be enjoyable? So I created a beverage that brings people together in good times and hopefully, also unites them to save the snow leopard.”
But, it was not until June this year (seven years after the founding of his good-doing vodka label) that Sparrow sighted his first wild snow leopard in Mongolia — in itself a rare feat, given how elusive the wild cat is known to be. It took a four-day road trip in -50 degree C weather from the country’s capital of Ulan Bator to reach the isolated snow leopard habitat. Nonetheless, the journey was well worth it when Aztai, a four-year-old male suddenly materialised just 2m away from Sparrow and his crew.
“There he was, calmly lolloping up a ridge. I felt raw excitement, peace and great happiness all at once,” he recalls fondly, whipping out a photograph he managed to capture of an unaware Aztai with his eyes trained on the ridge.
These large-tailed big cats live in the remote mountain ranges of South and Central Asia, spread out between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, to Afghanistan, China and India. The sleek beasts are mainly hunted by poachers for their beautiful light grey fur and their bones, which are used in traditional Asian medicines. Poor herders who share the land with these creatures also kill them to protect their livestock.
“They are not the mafia, but good, fundamentally peaceful people who only kill the cats to protect their livelihood,” says Sparrow of such herders. To combat this, a livestock insurance programme has been launched by the Trust, where participating herder families are compensated for the loss of livestock taken by the predatory cat. In return, they promise not to conduct any retribution killings.
Other programmes have also been introduced, such as teaching the women from poor herder families to create traditional handicrafts, which are then sold internationally to boost the families’ household income. Also, the Trust organises summer camps for children who live in remote snow leopard territory. There, they are taught about the snow leopards, in addition to Elementary education.
Funding from Sparrow’s vodka sales also goes to research projects that increase knowledge about the cat in order to secure the species’ survival.
But the biggest obstacle to conservation work is the threat of mining to snow leopard habitats. As most mining initiatives are government-led, it is often difficult and tricky to intervene, Sparrow says. “Take China, a resource-hungry nation that funds mining all over the world. It will be tough to keep the mines out of the equally resource-rich snow leopard environment,” he explains. His hope is the Chinese government will someday pursue snow leopard conservation the way it has protected its pandas.
“I truly feel the marvellous creature can be rescued from extinction. The vodka business is a significant contributory resource to the cause, but what I find very meaningful as well, is helping to improve the lives of families from trying to save the snow leopard.” It helps, of course, that his vodka is not just delicious but has supporters the likes of Prince Harry and Prince Albert of Monaco.
It is, after all, the only vodka brand in the world to be made exclusively out of spelt grain, which costs five times more than other grains such as rye, and is also completely pesticide-free. It is also the spelt that gives the award-wining spirit its signature nutty vanilla flavour. Made in Polmos Lubin, Poland, the vodka is distilled six times for extra smoothness using natural spring water.
So far, US$100,000 has been raised solely through vodka sales, but Sparrow intends to donate an annual $1 million to the Trust eventually.
“The key for conservation to work is patience. Stick with it in the long haul and it will reward you with results.”