Sorry for the longs silence. We’re in the back of beyond and communication is difficult. And being away from the internet and the reachable-24/7 is a blessing too! Anyway, here’s what has happend since my last update.
There was heavy rain last Saturday (4 August) morning. It is frustrating for everyone who wants to get up into the mountains. The snow level dropped again overnight and is making its way inevitably towards our camp. Slot 5, I will say it again, COLD/WET WEATHER GEAR IS ESSENTIAL, we are in Siberia after all! We took a journey away from camp today to visit a local museum. It was small but packed with interesting things; the Altaian owner was very knowledgeable. The ground squirrels are out despite the rain, ripping up one of my best base layers that had fallen off the washing line. The rain continued into the afternoon and everybody was keeping warm in the mess tent. The rain eased in the evening and we were all treated to a wonderful sunset with a double rainbow over the camp.
The sun came out on Sunday (5 August)! The air is still very chilly, but it gave us a change to get out into the hills. We split out into two groups; group 1 was with me surveying the valley floor, group 2 made it up onto the high ridges with Jenny and Oleg just north of basecamp. My group traversed a previously unknown valley to Biosphere. The river was up, so we all got wet feet (and some a bit more than feet), navigating through the trees and rocks. We found evidence of prey animals living in the valley including deer scat in the woods. The ridge group had some more tricky terrain through the snow. Camera traps 5 and 6 revealed ibex moving up in the high ridges. The day ended with hot showers and everybody in high spirits!
We had big plans for Monday (6 August). The whole group moved away from camp to access some of the valleys to the East. This involves setting up an advanced camp in some of the most breathtaking scenery I have evers seen. After a late 09:00 breakfast, we set off stopping a few times for photo opportunities (it’s not all work!). We arrived just before lunch and had the afternoon to organise camp. A few of the team scouted out the lakes and hills nearby. Campfire and early bed, it’s an early start tomorrow.
On Tuesday (7 August) everyone was and ready to go by 08:45. More (weak) sun means the snow is melting on the lower slopes of the mountains. We split into three groups, the lake group, the valley group and the ridge group. The lake group set off to survey the lower lakes in the valley to the West of camp. This group contained our Russian biology student and scholarship winner Lena and retired biologist Cornelia. So they were well qualified to look for tracks and signs on the lake shore and observe the valley sides for prey animals. The second group contained Jenny and I and our objective was to complete a stiff walk to the end of a nearby valley to observe prey animals and look for snow leopard signs in the scree. The ridge group had the enormous task of keeping up with our resident mountain goat/guide Oleg to collect camera trap data and set cameras up in snow leopard country. Oleg’s group spent a massive 11 hours climbing the ridge to an altitude of 3400 m next to the glacier to fulfill their objective! When we all eventually retuned to camp, everyone had stories of seeing prey animals. Each group spotted herds of prey and incredibly up to a 50 strong herd of argali sheep. Argali are a rare and endangered species and it was thought that only around 20-30 survived on this mountain range! We will relay this information onto WWF and other relevant bodies (in fact they are reading this right now along with you). The ridge group reported finding snow leopard scrape with scat, a great find. They also set up camera traps 9 and 10 along the highest ridge. Besides 22 ibex, two more herds of 9 argali were spotted by the valley and lake groups. So we are very happy to announce that we observed at least 90 prey animals in only one (long) day of surveying. Well done everyone!
After such a long day yesterday, I allowed everybody a later breakfast this Wednesday (8 August) morning. We had packed up camp and were ready to go at 10:30. An easier day and a drive back to camp allowed us to stop at some local yurts and interview local people about the surrounding area, its wildlife and to try and gauge attitudes toward the snow leopard. We will continue with interviews in a different area tomorrow.