From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

The training and induction days of the final slot went off without a hitch except to say that, due to a problem with the partner organisation’s cars we got to base camp a car short. It was expected to arrive the next day, driven by NABU’s Aman, after being repaired. When it did not arrive we waited, thinking that the serious nature of the problem might have resulted in a delay in Bishkek. When, by the afternoon of the next day Aman still hadn’t arrived, we set out to find a phone signal about an hour down the road towards Koshkor. We discovered that the car had left Bishkek the previous day. We discovered also that he had reached his birth village at the foot of the range that day. At this point I became concerned that he may have run into trouble, so we went on into the village to ask around.

The concensus in the village was that he had left that morning, but he had not made it to the base camp. All this took quite a while and it was dark by the time we all agreed that we would need to search. A slow and poorly lit drive back yielded no results despite numerous stops to peer into the deep gorges in the moonlight.

The next morning I told the team of the situation and the need to mount a potentially grizzly search for our colleague who had dissapeared without a trace. To their immense credit, everyone on the team stepped forward to participate in what could easily have turned into a very unpleasant task. A basic plan was formed and with the ready collaboration of the entire team we honed the search on the fly with one car canvasing locals while the other two slowly cruised the valley stopping to scan the deep floor at the bottom of the precipitous valley walls. Wherever a view of the bottom of the slope was not possible from the car, the car would stop and the searchers would fan out to investigate the valley floor. The other car would pass them and do the same at the next occluded view point. In this way they leap-frogged each other to the end of the valley. At the bottom of the range, as we gathered and I prepared to push further on into the flats below and raise an official search, a car appeared and we quickly realised that it was Aman. His breakes had begun to fail after leaving the village, as had his mobile phone, fully in line with Murphy’s law. For safety sake, he had headed back to fix this second car issue but no-one was the wiser. Needless to say he was surprised by the overly happy welcoming party that had come down the mountain to meet him. A very good ending, all things considered.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

How to Set up a Box Trap in 5 Easy Steps

1. Gather 9 citizen scientists

2. Fill buckets with sand and make a nice floor for leopards to walk on

3. Do leopard-liking landscaping inside and out

4. Hang Fresh Meat

5. Install Doors and Activate Trap!

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

The best laid plans… The teams returned late yesterday with stories of awesome landscapes, uncrossable glacial torrents, bits of horse left rotting and some interesting interactions with curious wildlife…but no snow leopard.

The team that went to the original base camp valley had hoped to make camp in the general vicinity of the attack on the horse. When Rhys looked around his possition, he actually found a leg and then another a bit further away a third was found.

Pieces of horse

They had the spot and spent two days surveying out from there into any likely habitat they could reach. Unfortunately to no avail as far as the leopard was concerned. They were compensated, however, by the occurance of another major herders’ games event. During the last slot we were informed of an “annual” Herders’ Olympics downvalley from us. Well it seems that “annual” means fortnightly in these parts and so the team were met with huge crowds and even a media presence from Bishkek there to cover the games.

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The other team returned to the valley in which I had heard a the coughing sound and conducted a couple of days of hard survey, but again did not find any evidence of our animal. They did remark on the beuty of the place though and were accompanied by Talant our very helpful neighbour and some of his horses to carry gear and due to his seniority within that particular group, Meinhard got a horse to ride along with Talant and Kurmanbek (spelled correctly this time), one of our NABU participants.

Jhong Wen on horse Kyrgyz games5

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

We have decided to strike while the iron is hot. As you know, as a result of our recent interviews with local herders, we have discovered two very recent incidents involving alleged leopard attacks on young horses in two of the bigger and more remote valleys in this system. Each were within the fortnight or so and in response to the more local account, we investigated on horseback the site of an atttack. As we placed a camera beside a heavily used pass, the unmistakeable cough of what we surmised to be a big cat in the cliffs above could be heard. Whilst none of the party saw the animal, we are now fairly certain that there is a snow leopard in that location.

The more distant and more recent incident is in fact in the valley of the original base camp. The stories are very similar, with a young horse discovered dead with large puncture and crush wounds to the throat. This is highly typical of the leopard method of killing large prey, gripping the throat and asphixiating the quarry (there is a photo sequence of this killing method on http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/20/the-first-ever-successful-snow-leopard-hunt-and-kill-caught-on-camera/). The fact that a snow leopard will apparently abandon the kill at the slightest disturbance has led to the almost ubiquitously believed folk tale that the snow leopard is in fact drinking the blood of its prey rather than eating its flesh. Either way, large dead animals with “vampire-like” neck wounds can only mean one thing and the consistency of the stories as told by the herders who recently lost their horses, and by the wider community of herders throughout our huge survey region who’ve simply heard about those losses, suggests that we are not being led on a wild goose chase by folk who just want to tell us what we want to hear.

So, the hot iron… We have decided to split the team into two overnighters who will each attend an incident site and attempt to make a more thorough investigation of the environs surrounding the two kills. One team has returned to the valley of the original base camp and will atempt to get to the bottom of that story before heading further into the valley with Volodya. The other team has been deployed back into the valley that was the subject of my recent experience and will spend two days making a careful survey of its upper reaches. We have sent the FLIR thermographic equipment with the second team as they will be camping closer to the cliffs and will have a better chance to use the gear to best effect. The first team have a powerful spotting scope to scan the wider valley ends that they will face.

Your truly has remained at base camp with our awesome chef, Emma, as it represents a “central” point of contact that either group will be able to find me at should the need arise, rather than trying to locate me in either of the large ranges that each group will be negotiating.

For some reason I feel like this will be an exciting next couple of days… For the team at least. At least I’ll eat well…

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Amazon rainforest in Peru, South America (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/peru)

I am at Lima airport waiting to board my flight back to Europe. Time to write this year’s final Amazonia diary entry. Team 2 left the ARC on Saturday morning. A big boat was sent up from the Tahuayo Lodge to ferry ten team members, four helpers, Alfredo & I, the equipment boxes and everyone’s luggage. See on the team picture (front, left to right) Ramon, Jayden, Shelley, Keiran, Alfredo (middle, left to right) David G, David H, Neil, Julian, Ashley, Andrew (back, left to right) Oscar, Segundo, Julio.

AM team 2

Overall the project has made a big step forward this year. We were able to expand the survey area significantly by exploring and recording hitherto unknown trails benefiting from the combined knowledge of Julio, Segundo, Oscar and Ramon. GPSs were used to record the tracks that will be included in our map and will help to expand and deepen research. It will take a few more years of data collection before the comparison of results will give a clearer picture of what is going on in the forest. As Alfredo said, it is a long-term project, but it is vital for the sustainable management of the whole reserve.

Thank you to everyone involved in the Amazonia expedition. Thanks for your contribution, your time, work and sweat. A special thank goes to David Hausmann for donating a brand-new pair of binoculars to the project. They will be put to good use in the future. Many thanks also to Brigitte and David Glossop for providing your personal camera traps to contribute to the research. I hope that you’ve all enjoyed your time at the ARC and the forest work as much as Alfredo & I did.

The camera trap pictures are now available:

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I hope to see some of you again some time!

Malika

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Team 1 has arrived and has already had one day of briefings so far. We’ve stuffed their brains full of useful information on bush safety, using GPSs, rangefinders, compasses and other equipment, and right now Vera is going over the datasheets. After lunch everyone will learn how to change a tyre in case of a flat, even the non-drivers. Then we’ll move on to the 4WD training, then straight into field work, because we have three open box traps on Okambara and they need to be checked twice a day.

We spent the afternoon learning how to change flat tyres then went out into the field for our 4WD training. Late afternoon tasks included a briefing on how to check the box traps and some animal identification practice. Tuesday will be our first full day working in the field.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Our neighbours from a yurt down the road reported that one of their young horses was killed by a leopard about two weeks ago. He offered to take us to the site of the attack on horseback to set up some camera traps. Today we took him up on his offer and what ensued was a hard ride up a long valley in sometimes driving snow and other times baking sun. When we got to the end of the valley, we ascended on foot beyond the moraine to a vegetated pass in a protected hollow below a small glacier. Signs of leopard prey were common and fresh with footprints and scat everywhere. While we were setting up the third camera, a small disturbance high above us sent some stones tumbling and a second or so later a percussive cough, characteristic of a leopard was clearly heard. The local guys believe that a mother and cubs are resident in this place from where they make hunting forays into the valley propper. I can’t wait to pick up those cameras with the last slot….

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Amazon rainforest in Peru, South America (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/peru)

Another day of many, many sightings on Thursday. Titi, saki, squirrel and brown capuchin monkeys were spotted and recorded all over the place. David H. and Julian made their way to the Yarina lake together with Ramon and were rewarded by spotting owl monkeys in a tree hole and a black caiman at the lake. A giant river otter was also spotted today from the Ramon/David G/Anh canoe survey team only to mention the new sightings on our list.

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The ‘list’ is the summary sheet of target species being recorded. Divided into three groups (cats, primates and other terrestrial mammals) we so far count 10 out of 14 different monkey species that have ever been recorded in the Amazonian rainforest, evidence of 5 different species of cats (jaguar, puma, margay, jaguarundi, ocelot) and 15 other interesting terrestrial mammal species such as tapir, different species of deer and peccary, paca, agouti, tamandua, coati, tayra, the amazon red squirrel (that is about three times bigger than the well-known European species), sloth, etc.. Birds, reptiles and insects are not being taken into account.

On Friday, our last survey day, the teams retrieved eight camera traps set up from team 1 eleven days ago. Neil and I teamed up to go for the long walk to terra firme. Plenty of water in our rucksacks, bananas and a sandwich, we followed Alfredo first walking the trail grid to its end and then making our way through a massive palm swamp over to the other side, the non-flooded forest. The palm swamp stretches out for about 2 km, then all of a sudden the trail leads up a steep slope and the vegetation changes. Massive high trees stand close to each other, palm trees fill most of the open space underneath. We retrieved two cameras, had lunch at the campsite, explored another trail from there and arrived back at base in the afternoon.

David and Anh brought back two cameras from Yarina lake, David H collected two cameras from the trail grid and one more from the trail grid was brought back by Shelley, Andrew & the boys. Are you keen to hear what we found? NOT a jaguar – although a jaguar sighting was reported from one of the Tahuayo Lodge guides near Yarina lake and one of our teams heard the cat calling during a day survey over there. BUT one of the terra firme cameras captured a tayra, maybe the best series of pictures of this animal that has been taken so far as Alfredo commented. Other species captured in the camera traps are opossum, collared peccaries in different locations and another quite small mammal that couldn’t be identified yet. Pictures will be posted soon.

On our last evening at the ARC we received a delicious cake dessert from the kitchen to say goodbye to the Biosphere Expeditions team and most of us went out for this year’s very last night boat drive. More soon, including pictures, in my final diary entry in a few days.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

With a population density of one animal per 100 square kilometers, our chance of stumbling upon a snow leopard are rather low. Nevertheless, with the gear at our disposal and in the hands of this motivated team, we can go a long way towards assessing this landscape’s potential for harbouring our target creature. With the various optical scopes and binoculars we have seen many of the animals on the leopard’s menu and we’ve even seen fellow peak predators in the form of a lone wolf, sighted yesterday. It was a young wolf, which suggests a population in the active state of sustaining itself. The other predators we’ve seen are mostly eagles, which still speaks of a landscape capable of supporting a reasonable number of predators.

Testing our FLIR unit, we find that it will clearly display warm marmot mounds with their nervous tennants in the dead of night from over a hundred metres away, so I have high hopes that the upcoming overnighters will put it to good use on the cliffs and crags (leopard habitat) that their temporary camp will be established within easy sight of.

Yesterday, the team on the interview detail went out and visited a number of yurts. Kyrgyz hospitality is famous and also quite socially impossible to refuse. At each yurt we were invited inside and stuffed with bread and fermented horse milk and other delights until a number of us felt much the worse for wear. We discovered a great deal of consistent reportage of recent leopard incidents and the result is a fairly good idea of where a snow leopard and cubs are currently residing. We are heading there on horseback in the next few days to place camera traps, inching ever closer to our object of desire. Will we get there during the 2014 expedition?

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Biosphere Expeditions diaries/blogs/pictures available on https://biosphereexpeditions.wordpress.com/ | www.facebook.com/biosphere.expeditions1 | https://plus.google.com/103347005009999707934/posts.

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