Tien Shan: ulak and interviews

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Aman, our chief ranger, spotted them first, through binoculars. Once he pointed them out to us, they were obvious, even to the naked eye. Around twenty vultures circling over a spot on the far hillside, occasionally landing and pecking at… something. It was a dead horse. This valley is home to many herds of horses – not wild, but roaming free – and they occasionally fall victim to wolves. The vultures we saw might spend a few days getting a meal from what the wolves had left, a reminder for us of the circle of life.

Vultures are not part of our snow leopard expedition, but they are one of the more dramatic creatures that we have seen on this expedition. Our valley seems to have an unusually high population of large birds of prey. We see bearded vultures, golden eagles, buzzards and other raptors every day, often flying or perched on a rock very close to us. On group 2 we have also seen badgers – smaller, lighter coloured and less nocturnal than their European cousins, a mysteriously tame weasel and other mustelids, as well as a host of smaller bird species – wagtails, warblers, larks and choughs have all been seen and identified. The choughs are especially a welcome accompaniment to our high mountain walks, with their acrobatic flight and musical calls.

Most days we spend on hikes, slowly surveying many of the side valleys, peaks and ridges, looking for any evidence of the species we are researching – snow leopards and their main prey species (ibex, argali, marmots and snowcocks). Most days our small teams find something to report – marmots are relatively common on the lower slopes. Footprints or scat of ibex are found on the higher slopes and sometimes – always to great excitement – we see a herd of ibex walking along a ridge or up a slope. All of these findings are photographed and recorded on datasheets according to our research protocols.

We have also been deploying camera traps in suitable places – mostly on high ridges with signs of snow leopards or ibex – and have been able to check some of the cameras already. When we retrieve the traps or their SD cards, the exciting work of scrolling through all the photos begins. Many of them are of moving grass, sometimes even bright sunlight triggers them, so it is painstaking work. But sooner or later we are rewarded and we have happily discovered a handful of images of ibex, snowcocks and two snow leopards so far. These are important pieces of evidence for the research project as well as a source of great excitement for us at base camp. At the time of writing there are still a good few cameras waiting to be retrieved from the mountains by group 3.

We have had a few rainy cold days – this is the high mountains after all. But everyone has brought suitable clothing as recommended in the expedition kit list so our work continues whatever the weather. And the wood burner in our ‘drying’ yurt has proved very welcome when we return to base camp. An especially stormy night ripped a couple of our tents and we also suffered tent damage from a wayward animal. But we have enough spare tents, so no problem.

A new element of our research this year is a survey of the local shepherd families about the potential for ecotourism, which might offer a new source of income for local people, give an incentive to protect and encourage wildlife and perhaps in time allow a reduction in livestock numbers in the valley, which are in competition with the ibex and the argali. The interviews we have been carrying out are intended to assess interest in the idea. So far, volunteer citizen scientists Margot and Kathy have been our chief interviewers, accompanied by our scientist Taalai as interpreter. This team has been welcomed with wonderful hospitality by the women and men they have approached, and ten interviews have now been completed, with a great variety of responses. The great majority of people are in favour of small-scale ecotourism in the valley and at least one respondent said he would give up shepherding altogether in favour of an income from ecotourism.

These interviews have been a fantastic way of getting to know our neighbours. And more widely, it is clear that the Biosphere Expedition is very welcome here – the local shepherds are very hospitable and express a great interest in what we are doing. Last week we were invited to watch a game of Ulak – the national game of Kyrgyzstan, involving two teams of horse riders ferociously competing to score goals with a goat carcass – followed by a generous meal in a local shepherd’s yurt. Many toasts and promises of continued friendship and collaboration were made.

So group 2 has finished with great success and we look forward to starting our third and final group of this year’s snow leopard volunteer project in Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

Felix looking for ibex
Margot & Kathy with local shepherds
Pondering interview questions
Roland, Georg and Taalai on top of a ridge
Mountain survey
At the local natural history museum
Checking a camera trap
Ibex horns found in the field
Group 2

Continue reading “Tien Shan: ulak and interviews”

Tien Shan: Ibex, eagles, marmots and martens

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Group 2 is going well. Covid has not reared its ugly head again, so after getting to base and two days of training, several more valleys have now been surveyed.

We put new camera traps on a high ridge by an ibex superhighway. Whilst doing this, we saw a group of ibex further up the same ridge. We also spotted marmots, stoats, badgers, many many eagles, vultures, buzzards, and many other birds.

We also started doing interviews with people in the main valley to find out about their attitudes towards low-scale / low-impact ecotourism based on intact nature as a means of generating income for them. Our first interviewees were five herder’s wives. We found varying attitudes towards tourism, including some very open to the idea of hosting tourists and providing horses. We have more interviews planned, including with the herders themselves. We are also starting conversations about how livestock numbers are restricted (not very effectively) in the valley and the possibility of creating buffer valleys for wildlife without livestock.

Yesterday, Sunday, we came over the pass and into a local village with a phone signal, which is why I can send this diary update. A fuller account next weekend when we change over to group 3.

We’ve seen many, many butterflies
Mustelids (here a stoat)
And birds (here probably a golden eagle)
Collecting possible snow leopard scat
Collecting possible snow leopard scat
Setting up a camera trap on an ibex superhighway
The going is often tough in these pathless, undeveloped mountains

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Ibex, eagles, marmots and martens”

Tien Shan: Group 1 summary

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

It’s been a memorable two weeks. This has been the first Tien Shan snow leopard volunteer expedition for three years, we have a new scientist on the ground and various new equipment and systems, alongside the challenge of managing Covid risk on expedition.

The eleven snow leopard citizen scientists on this expedition can be proud of themselves as pioneers. The full team – the citizen scientists Jason, Jörg, Valerie, Anke, Coleen, Anne, Pierre, Alan, Nadine & Lydie, expedition leaders Roland and Malika, scientist Taalai, rangers Aman, Beka and Ayan, cook Gulia and placement Kubanychek – got on well from the start. The first two days of orientation and training were busy, but rewarding. After weeks of preparation, it was great to get started.

The snow leopard expeditioners were trained in everything needed for the success of the expedition, from off-road driving to the snow leopard research methods and expedition safety protocols. The new toilet and shower huts are a big improvement. The expedition office, in the back of the truck, worked well as a base for all the science kit and Gulia fed us all well from the start. The new solar power system, to charge all the gadgets and yurt lights was a disappointment for the first few days until Jason (citizen scientist and also an engineer) and Roland spotted and – with a little ingenuity – fixed a loose connection. We now have power as expected. Our new GPS units have taken a lot of effort to set up, but now we have all learnt their eccentricities, they are a vital tool to use for navigation, to mark the locations and camera traps and important research finds, and for satellite communication.

Within a few days we hit a rhythm and stride. One aim of the expedition, amongst others, is to find evidence of snow leopards or their prey over a vast area centred on the Karakol valley. We have a relatively simple and robust methodology to do this – spending each day exploring hidden side valleys, marking the location of any significant finds – sightings, footprints or any other evidence of key species. A lot of time is spent sitting in this beautiful mountain landscape, peering through binoculars. We also deploy camera traps in strategic positions high in the mountains. And we keep a tally of any bird species we can identify. Trekking up these valleys, with river crossings, rocky terrain and steep ground is hard work, especially since there are no well-trodden paths, signposts, bridges or any other mod cons in these rugged and remote mountains. But our efforts have been rewarded with several sightings of ibex, a key prey species for snow leopards, as well as many marmots, eagles and vultures. A highlight was discovering on one of camera traps – amongst dozens of photos of marmots, foxes, stoats (and a few mystery animals) – recorded three photos of a snow leopard walking down a snowy ridge in late last and then ibex in the same spot early this year. The camera trap was placed there by our community camera trapping group and retrieved by group 1 a few days ago.

An unwanted twist to our snow leopard expedition story were two Covid infections early in the expedition, despite all our precautions, and then two more. Our Covid protocol was implemented with the first case and I am happy to report that we managed to stop the virus spreading further.

Towards the end of the expedition, a few hardy expeditioners chose to hike for six hours up to a spot high above base camp and spend a night under the stars, to allow the next day to be spent exploring a remote ridge with a lot of signs of ibex – a great location to place camera traps for both the ibex and, hopefully, any snow leopards that might be stalking them.

Over the past two weeks we have surveyed 100 ‘cells’ on our target map – representing 400 square kilometres of mountain terrain – we have had several sightings of ibex, recorded evidence of many key species and captured images of snow leopards on camera traps – all in all a great success. The team 1 now retires tired, but happy. From Monday, team 2 has big boots to fill and we look forward to exploring the Karakol Valley and add to our research findings. with a fresh team of citizen scientists

Survey walk
Collecting snow leopard sign
Observation stop
Team 1
Taalai is happy with the results
Survey walk
Setting up a camera trap
Overnighter team
Checking camera trap pictures
Ranger Aman showing the way
Observation stop
Base camp in all its glory
On a survey
Recording data
Programming camera traps

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Group 1 summary”

Germany : Farewell & results overview

Update from our Germany wolf volunteer project

Thursday was our last day of field monitoring. For a final time our intrepid wolf volunteers put on their hiking boots and scanned the trails, adding more data to our already sizeable database. After the hot temperatures, the night brought lots of rain and with it much cooler temperatures.

Friday morning, we said goodbye to our third group. We thank also this great team for their effort and enthusiasm in contributing to citizen science and wolf conservation. They hiked no less than 218 km in hot weather and managed to find a total of 38 scats.

Finding scats, especially the fresh ones, remains a task that requires a lot of patience as you need to be in the right place at the right time. The wolves occupy very large territories and are rarely observed, but somehow, we all experienced their presence while doing this work.

After a 2-year Covid break, it was truly rewarding to run this 4th edition of the Biosphere Wolf Expedition in Lower Saxony again in 2022 with a total of 24 expeditioners from 7 different countries for 3 weeks. The final numbers of all groups sum up a truly impressive effort: all teams covered 837 km in nine wolf territories during which a total of 190 wolf scats were sampled. 132 samples were frozen for dietary analyses and 15 samples will be send to the lab for DNA analysis. We also recorded one wolf sighting during group 1 and recorded a 300+ meter track of an adult wolf with (probably) two pups.

During the Covid pandemic, wolf monitoring went through a data depression, so the new and sizeable set of data collected by our wolf expedition will be crucial for an up to date picture of current wolf presence in the study area. Expedition data have just been entered into the German wolf monitoring database by our expedition scientists. Biosphere Expeditions’ contribution from 2017 to today now exceeds 650 data entries, underlining the importance of citizen science for wolf monitoring and conservation.

What makes this expedition truly unique is the variety of wolf stakeholders we interacted with: inspiring wolf ambassadors, the committed Wolfsbüro team, beautiful Kenners Landlust advance expedition base, the showcase Wolfcenter, our amazing scientists and fascinating wildlife detection dog Molly. We also learnt about how humans and wolves can coexist in a densely populated and highly developed place like Germany. For this mighty predator has come back to stay and it is a credit to Germany that the country is making it work, the inevitable trials and tribulations aside. We are proud to say that our expedition plays a significant role in making this so and we thank everyone for making this year a great success. We hope to see many of you again in the future.

Last but not least, a very big thank you to our wonderful hosts at the Herrenhaus Gut Sunder. You truly made us feel at home here and after long days out in the field it was rewarding to get treated to an impressive variety of vegetarian menus. Vielen Dank Anja, Ilka, Claudia, Kirsten and all the others!

On a survey
Here to stay
Third and final group 3
Continue reading “Germany : Farewell & results overview”

Germany : Last few days

Update from our Germany wolf volunteer project

Monday brought a unique addition to our wolf volunteer team: Lea and her labrador Molly, a wildlife detection dog trained to find wolf and golden jackal evidence with her exquisite nose. The Schneverdingen team saw Molly in action in the field, while they braved the rather busy nudist trail on this hot day. Also teams Wietze and Ringelah brought back home wolf evidence, clearly demonstrating all newly trained wolf citizen scientists were up to the task.

On Tuesday our hardcore expeditioners braved up to 35°C during their hikes, but they were unphased and continued the monitoring with enthusiasm and dedication. The overnight team scanned the Amt Neuhaus wolf territory and again found much older evidence. The Ebstorf teams got lucky as they found two fresh scats, suitable for DNA analysis, not that far from the area where group 1 had its sighting. It will be interesting to see what the lab results will tell us about this territory.

With temperatures up to 39°C on Wednesday, we had to shift gears. In Göhrde that meant early morning monitoring between 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. It was clear that chances to spot wildlife in the early, cooler hours of the day are greater and working conditions less sweltering. We saw several roe deer, hares and four adult wild boar with no fewer than eleven piglets that made their way through the forest understory. Meanwhile at Gut Sunder the team visited the nearby wolf-proof fence of the livestock protection project in the morning.

Wednesday afternoon we decided to stay indoors to escape the heath and process photos, GPS tracks and take a rest.

Andreas sampling
Ben scanning
Caitlin & Michael resting
Caitlin scanning
Lea, Molly & Stefania surveying
Planning a survey
Molly and her quarry
Overnight camp at Ghörde
Continue reading “Germany : Last few days”

Germany : Third and final group underway

Update from our Germany wolf volunteer project

This Saturday we welcomed our third and final group of Germany wolf volunteers travelling from the US, Australia, UK, the Netherlands and Germany to the beautiful expedition base of Gut Sunder in Lower Saxony. The usual training visit to the Wolfcentre allowed our expeditioners to take a closer look at our target species, the European grey wolf.

Once arrived at expedition base, the team went into full training mode learning about wolf monitoring and how to collect and record evidence of wolf presence in accordance with to the standardised state data collection protocol protocol. The GPS devices now no longer hold secrets for the team.

On Sunday afternoon we went out for a trial hike nearby to test our newly-gained skills and find our bearings in the pine forests and heath. Sure enough Michael found the first wolf evidence which was meticulously documented by the entire team. We were also treated to some first sightings of local wildlife. Ben, who is a regular Biosphere Expeditioner, spotted the first roe deer, Kathrin saw some cranes during her early morning run and while testing our GPSs, two grass snakes and a common toad crossed our path.

While looking for wolf evidence, we heard and saw several ravens flying over. They are known as allies of the wolf and alert the wolves to potential prey to then get a share of the reward after a successful hunt. Before dinner, Theo Grüntjens, one of the first wolf commissioners of Lower Saxony and an excellent photographer, shared with us his experiences, gorgeous images and incredible footage of the local wolf pack in his region, which without a doubt is the second best to a close encounter with the species. We ended the evening with a nice dinner and lively debate on how to promote coexistence between wolves, shepherds, farmers and hunters. An inspirational day and everyone is ready for full-on wolf monitoring in the coming days.

Monitoring training
Welcome & introductions
Training at the expedition base
Documenting wolf evidence
Theo & Kathrin
Peter & Stefania
Monitoring training
Monitoring training
Continue reading “Germany : Third and final group underway”

Tien Shan: Training in the rain and cold

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

The first group of snow leopard volunteer citizen scientists were there, all Covid-free on Monday. The drive to base was over a rough pass, which is almost free of snow now and just about passable for 4×4 cars.

At base, it rained and was cold. This did not change for the next two days of training, so it was tough going. When the rain stopped for a while, we put up the third yurt and put a stove in it. This helped.

With training (science, equipment, offroad driving, data collection etc.) complete, we went for a first survey as one group on Thursday. Today, Friday, the sun has come out and we are surveying in several groups for the first time.

Everyone’s in good spirits, healthy (except for a bothersome contact lens courtesy of which we can send this short diary entry) and having fun. More news when we get to a signal next. This might not be until changeover on 24/25 July, so please be patient.

On the way to base
Setting up the “hot” yurt
Setting up the “hot” yurt
Indoor training session
Programming camera traps at base
Setting up a camera trap

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Training in the rain and cold”

Tien Shan: One week to go

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Preparations begin long before our snow leopard citizen scientists start their journeys. This expedition especially involves A LOT of preparation. Our partners in Kyrgyzstan have been getting things ready and I, Roland, have now joined them in Bishkek for the last week’s push before the expedition starts.

Bishkek is located in one of the few parts of Kyrgyzstan that is not mountains and the weather here is hot hot hot and hazy. We will be heading up into the mountains in a few days to set up base camp and recce our expedition area, which will be much cooler – we may even have snow at base camp on some nights.

In the meantime, there is shopping to be done, kit to check and 4×4 vehicles to prepare. And meetings to be held too. Our base in Bishkek is the headquarters of NABU Kyrgyzstan, our main partner here, and this is where I have been spending my time when not shopping. I have been joined by Amadeus, a veteran of the Tien Shan expeditions (and former placement) and Taalai who is our new scientist directing the snow leopard research this year. I have also met Gulia, our base camp cook and Aman, our chief ranger, as well as Jirgal, Jengish, Ayan and Bek, the NABU rangers from the Grupa Barz (the NABU ranger group tasked with protecting snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan), who will be joining our groups on a rota system.

I am happy to say we are on target with preparations. Most of the shopping is now done and we have been through most of the kit – everything from tents, cooking stuff and fuel to a full mobile office and various gadgets for communication, navigation and safety. New this year are wooden huts for the toilet and shower (the tents used in previous years were not up to the job) and a set of GPS devices that give us digital mapping (for general navigation), a tool for research and a means of communication in an emergency in a region with no phone signal. We have also invested in a solar power system so that we can charge all the gadgetry properly. Tomorrow we will be joined by Malika, also a veteran of many a Tien Shan expedition and our expedition leader for the first group starting next Monday. But first, there is base camp to set up. I for one can’t wait to get up into those mountains.

We’ll send another diary entry once we are back in Bishkek. Happy packing, group 1!

From left: Tolkunbek (boss of NABU Kyrgyzstan), Ayan (NABU Grupa Barz ranger), Roland (expedition leader), Bek (NABU Grupa Barz ranger), Jengish (NABU Grupa Barz ranger), Jengish (NABU Grupa Barz ranger), Taalai (expedition scientist).
Amadeus and Aman food shopping
NABU truck that will get all the gear to the mountains
Container for gear storage and “flatpack” shower and toilet blocks
One thing the pandemic has taught is is meeting online more. Here Biosphere Expeditions executive director Matthias with the team in Bishkek

P.S. Roland now has a local SIM card and his number is +996 9972 07208 . This will only work when he’s in Bishkek though, so for example for group pick-up and changeover, but not when he’s in the mountains, where there is no mobile phone signal.

Continue reading “Tien Shan: One week to go”

Tien Shan: Base camp awaits

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Base camp is now ready for the first group of snow leopard volunteer citizen scientists arriving on Monday. After a week of preparations in Bishkek, the team were ready to head up to our base camp location on Thursday first thing. The Ala-Too mountain range towers over Bishkek, offering an enticing view of jagged snowy peaks, but also a formidable obstacle to anyone wanting to travel to the Karakol valley on the other side – which is where our expedition base sits. Our usual route is over the infamous Camel Pass and through a 2 km tunnel drilled through the very top of this pass. But an accident in the tunnel earlier in the week meant the tunnel was out of action for a few days. Option 2 involves taking a different route from Bishkek and heading up the Karakol Pass – no tunnel on this route but a very steep road winding up the mountain side, almost certainly still snow-bound and too high a risk for our truck. In true expedition style, we came up with a plan C, a third route – taking an especially long and circuitous route involving many kilometres of driving on dirt tracks following all points of the compass. But it would get us to base camp without substantial obstacles. And so our fleet of vehicles set off with confidence, a truck and two 4x4s, one with a trailer. We spent the day following dusty roads winding down steep valleys hugging wild rivers, over sparse sheep-clad hills and always surrounded by huge rocky mountains any one if which could be home to snow leopards.

Finally, after a day and a half of driving, home for the next few weeks came into view. The spot sits in a long, wide valley of endless pastures overlooked by snow-capped peaks. The pastures are the summer home for many herders alongside the few permanent residents. We passed many yurts and herds of sheep, cattle and horses on our long journey up the dirt track. The air is clear and cool, a relief compared with Bishkek. Base camp is right next to the river and partly hidden from the main track.

The team are well practiced at setting up base and it was not long before our yurts, tents and (new for 2022) shower and toilet huts were up. Gulia cooked up our supper and we declared base camp open and ready for the first snow leopard expedition group starting on Monday. See you in Bishkek!

Base camp central
…with luxury ablutions
Lots of gear and a yurt
Staff dinner
Spot the nod to Bavaria and the Alps – ask Malika for details if unsure

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Base camp awaits”

Germany : Team 2, 327 km later

Update from our Germany wolf volunteer project

Thursday was the last day of wolf monitoring for group 2. While the sun has been our faithful companion through all surveys thus far, it was our first day in the rain and mud. It was a refreshing last hike and the motivation of all teams was high to bring back more wolf sign from the territories of Walle, Wietze and Ebstorf.

In Walle we came back empty-handed, in Wietze more fresh scats were found in the same area as several days ago and in Ebstorf also multiple scats were documented and collected. Each survey counts regardless of its outcome for in science the zeros are as important as the ones. Every kilometre walked by our wolf citizen scientists is valuable and would not have been covered if it was not for this dedicated annual wolf conservation expedition. Wolf evidence or the lack thereof gives relevant up-to-date real-time information on wolf presence or absence. With highly mobile predators that have home ranges up to 100-200 square kilometres per pack, it is only normal that it takes several monitoring days and multiple 10 by 10 km grids surveyed in the same territory before we can narrow down the core area of a wolf pack, which can of course also shift over time.

On Friday morning our expedition scientist Peter summed up the results of this intense but rewarding week: A total of 327 km were surveyed, covering 13 grids in nine wolf territories. Our wolf volunteers’ efforts resulted in a total of 69 scats, of which 52 were kept for further validation and dietary analyses. Out of these 52, seven fresh samples are being considered for DNA analysis, of which some might be from wolf pups. These are only preliminary results as the findings will be validated by other experts first too.

Many thanks to all for your efforts, enthusiasm and good sense of humour during this week of true team work. We also had one special sighting during this group: Sylvia’s surprise appearance in her wolf Halloween outfit that put smiles on everyone’s faces. It was nice to hear that several of our citizen scientists are keen to walk paths near their homes to see if they can find wolf evidence there as well. Keep up the good work!

Our expedition now takes a one week break to start afresh Saturday week when we welcome our third and final Biosphere Germany team of 2022.

Anne downloading images
Team 2 2022
Liam documenting wolf sign
The first rainy day of the expedition
Continue reading “Germany : Team 2, 327 km later”
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