February 2014

Sacred Ground

A shared mission to protect a remote region of southern Siberia brings together Susan Alexander ’78 and Jennifer Castner ’93.

By Kathy Bocella

Together with local partners, The Altai Project reached out to known poachers and trained them in the use of camera traps and snow leopard surveying techniques in order to convert them into allies. Their first success story was Mergen Markov, of Argut village. He recently joined the team and began placing camera traps in his old hunting grounds to capture images like this one of snow leopard cubs.

Together with local partners, The Altai Project reached out to known poachers and trained them in the use of camera traps and snow leopard surveying techniques in order to convert them into allies. Their first success story was Mergen Markov, of Argut village. He recently joined the team and began placing camera traps in his old hunting grounds to capture images like this one of snow leopard cubs.

Many Americans have never heard of Altai—the remote yet beautiful southern region of Siberia where towering peaks and wild mountain rivers give way to the wide-open steppe of western Mongolia, and where unique horned sheep called the argali and a few dozen rare snow leopards roam.

But this unlikely place halfway around the globe has forged a common bond between two Mawrters who graduated 15 years apart but came together through a documentary that promoted their common goals of preserving Altai’s natural splendor and the culture and sacred lands of indigenous people.

Jennifer Castner ’93, who majored in Russian at Bryn Mawr, fell in love with this semiautonomous region of Russia after her first visit in 2003.

“It’s a really interesting and complicated place,” she says. “The people, once you get to know them, are incredibly friendly and full of life.”

Today, Castner is the director of a small nonprofit called The Altai Project. At least once a year, she makes the arduous journey there—as long as 24 hours on multiple airplanes, followed by an 8-to-12-hour drive—to guide tourists who track snow leopards and support conservation, and she works with local activists who oppose environmentally destructive projects such as a proposed natural gas pipeline.

That project brought her together a couple of years ago with Susan Alexander ’78, a longtime communications consultant who was working with a nonprofit called the Sacred Land Film Project on Standing on Sacred Ground, a four-part film series that documents the struggles of indigenous people trying to protect their lands. The first episode features Altai and an environmental activist named Danil Mamyev. At the time, Castner and Alexander were both based in Northern California and knew of each other through their work on the film—but weren’t aware of their college connection.

They ran into each other on the Bryn Mawr campus during Reunion 2013—it was Castner’s 20th and Alexander’s 35th. Recalls Alexander: “She looked familiar, and then I looked at her name and said, ‘I know you.’”

Susan Alexander ’78 and Jennifer Castner ’93 came together in a project to help preserve the nature and culture of the Altai region of southern Siberia.

Susan Alexander ’78 and Jennifer Castner ’93 came together in a project to help preserve the nature and culture of the Altai region of southern Siberia.

Alexander was collaborating with the Sacred Land Film Project’s Toby McLeod, a filmmaker who had already worked with Castner to translate Russian and local dialects from his raw footage. Last October, McLeod brought Mamyev to California for the film’s premier and called upon Castner to translate for the audience.

Castner’s interest in speaking Russian was nurtured while growing up in Columbia, Md. “My dad and stepmom used Russian in their work for the federal government in the early days,” she says. “We used to sort of kibitz in it at the dinner table.” If she wanted to keep up with them, she had to learn the language. Castner ultimately decided to challenge herself by studying Russian at Bryn Mawr, and she has never looked back. She spent time in Kiev, Ukraine, right after the breakup of the Soviet Union and then ran the Russian conservation program for the nonprofit Pacific Environment before joining The Altai Project in 2006.

When she’s home in Michigan, where she recently moved with her husband, a senior physicist at Michigan State University, and six-year-old son, Castner is often on Skype, strategizing with Altai locals who oppose the gas pipeline backed by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She also leads small eco-tours there—sleeping in tents and using squat toilets—and last summer had the thrill of a lifetime when her group of four women sighted a rare snow leopard.

“[One of the women] said, ‘Guys, look!’” Castner recalls. “We turned our heads toward a ridge, and we could see the snow leopard’s body silhouetted against the sky, maybe 50 meters above us and several hundred meters beside us. We all involuntarily shrieked.”

Alexander, who majored in classical studies at Bryn Mawr, has built a wide and diverse portfolio in strategic communications consulting for environmental and other nonprofits after a stint with The Wilderness Society, partly spent in Alaska. She says that “from the time I was 12, I felt my calling was to save the environment.” In her younger fellow alumna, Alexander has clearly found a kindred spirit. Says Castner of their Altai documentary work, “It’s been fun to have the Bryn Mawr connection as we both work the different angles of this project.”

 Learn more about the Altai at www.AltaiProject.org and StandingOnSacredGround.org.

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