Hello from the bush hospital with news of our first leopard capture of the expedition!
A gastro-intestrinal virus is going round and seven of us have gone down. All the rehydration sachets have gone, as have the bananas. There weren’t many people around the dinner table last night. To make things even more uncomfortable, a cold front has moved in, so group 2, don’t forget to bring at least one layer of warm clothing.
These minor inconveniences aside, we’ve had an interesting time over the last three days. Saturday’s box trap team Liz, Stacey, Jay and I found trap BT3 closed. At first it did not look like there was anything inside, but when we approached on foot, we could tell immediately from the noise that there must be a leopard inside. What a great start to the expedition! Pictures from the camera trap next to the trap also showed us that this was a popular place attracting a rhino, a hare and “our” curious leopard who was caught candid-camera-like walking right in on Friday night and then looking somewhat sheepish inside about twelve minutes later.
We called a vet for the sedation, the rest of the team and then set up our field lab. The first (female) leopard of this expedition was named L038, is about 18-20 months old and weighs 25 kg. Her neck circumference is 35 cm; too small to wear a collar (adult females measure about 40 cm). Once we had taken all the samples and given her the wake-up shot, we left her alone for about three hours before coming back to release her. Guess what happened when we opened the gate: nothing! We sat around for 90 minutes waiting for her to come out, everyone with their cameras ready to get THE release shot. Still nothing. And you can’t blame her for being put off by four Land Rovers full of people facing her. So we left her in peace and found the trap empty when checking two hours later. So long L038, we’ll be on your heels from now on, and what a great start for group 1!
Four box traps are in place. Everyone worked hard to build leopard-proof kraals around the trap entries by cutting and arranging thorny Acacia branches. The ground was then flattened and the bait hung up in a tree. Leopard-woman Kristina co-ordinated the workers from above (see picture). For the leopard the only way to get to the ‘lekker’ meat is to walk into the trap (‘lekker’ means tasty, good, nice – my favourite Afrikaans word!).
Kirsty, Philipp & Giles were the first to check the traps this morning. They reported fresh leopard tracks around one of them – very good news! If the leopard doesn’t eat today, he might be hungry enough to walk into the trap later..
Cate, Sanya & Brian also reported fresh leopard tracks on one out of seven walking routes they were on yesterday. Led by Jesaja, one of two local trackers here to share their knowledge with us, they bravely walked 9 km and finished the survey only when it was dark.
Leopard calls were heard at base early in the morning today – they are all around, we only have to catch the buggers if we can ;).
It was a sunny morning again yesterday, so we set out on the first day in the mountains. Breakfast was early, so we could make good time up a nearby valley. As we ascended we were on the lookout for prey species – this is always hard with such a large group, as prey will flee at the smallest of noises. However, it was important we stick together on the first day.
The main objective of the day was to recover camera trap data from the high ridges and survey the upper valley moraine for scat and scrape evidence. When we reached the moraine we were in luck, numerous scrape marks were found as well as scat. Data and samples were recorded, more evidence for previously unknown presence of snow leopard in this area. Part of the group stayed in the valley to continue surveying and those feeling strong tackled the ridge. It took an hour of climbing up the scree slope to reach the ridge and set our first camera trap. We walked along a short way and found the previously set camera. No luck with leopard, but to our surprise we captured another Pallas cat, a very rare species of small cat not usually known to be up this high. A further walk along the ridge presented us with another scrape and a chance to set another camera trap.
After a very successful day we managed to return to camp at around 18:30 just in time for dinner. Nina cooked up a vegetable stew with rice for our return as well as organised a few celebrations for those with birthdays this week!
This morning it started to rain steadily at around 02:00 and continued until 09:00. A quick look up the mountain revealed that the snowline has dropped around 300 meters. Although the rain stopped, there was low cloud and my decision was that conditions on the ridges were too treacherous. This gave Jenny time to work with some of the group to sift through yesterday’s data. The afternoon brightened up, so some of the group went for a trek with Oleg to look at some ancient rock art nearby.
The summer is short here in the Altai and predictions are that it is going to get colder in the coming weeks, so warm weather gear is essential (note this group 5)!
The pictures below show survey teams (1) trying to get the elephant herd telemetry signal before leaving base so that they know where to drive to ;), (2) finding the elephant herd and observing its behaviour and (3) filling in the datasheet (what do they feed on?). This is one of the questions we want to answer with your help this year as surprisingly little is known about the feeding ecology of these magnificent animals.
Everyone was tired last night, but very relieved to be at camp (in record time!). We appreciated the leisurely 09:00 breakfast, but after that the training started straight away as we hope to be out tomorrow for a climb up a nearby valley to check some camera traps. The weather is hot and sunny, allowing us to crack on with the introductory talks, presentations and compass/GPS training. We haven’t had to wait long for the wildlife either; we have seen marmot, fox, eagle and already one of the main preys of the snow leopard, the ibex, from the camp! At time of writing Jenny is going through some of the datasheets to be filled out and we have another presentation later.