With the work of the expedition in Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve back in full swing, a scientific article about five cat species (tiger, clouded leopard, golden cat, marbled cat, leopard cat) in Sumatra has just been published, examining how these species manage to coexist and the implications for their conservation on an island with high rates of forest loss and habitat degradation.
“[Cats] play a significant role ecologically as predators,” Sunarto Surnato, an ecologist with Virginia Tech and WWF Indonesia and the study’s principal researcher, told mongabay.com. “[T]hey control and influence the population number and also the behavior of other animals, especially their potential prey assemblage and this further affects the vegetation and the overall ecosystem, including the landscape.”
Using a large camera-trap study in five forested areas in Sumatra, the study camera-trapped all five species, there was only one location in which all five cat species were photographed together – Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve, the expedition’s study site!
The authors write that their study has important implications for the conservation and management of the various cat species in the study area, and possibly beyond, noting that the remaining forests of Sumatra, including the degraded ones, still have a high conservation value for wild cats and other wildlife.
“[E]ven the critically endangered Sumatran tiger can achieve high abundance in such forests, likely because prey is still supported in these areas,” the authors write. “[D]espite the widespread perception that rainforest animals need intact forest, we suggest that in addition to intact forested areas, protection of secondary, even degraded forests, is highly beneficial to maintaining the increasingly threatened wild cats in Sumatra.”
For us on the expedition, this means that we need to continue to look at the more degraded areas on the fringes of Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve, as well as those hard-to-reach, remoter areas, away from people and disturbance, in our quest for wild tiger conservation. We wait for the next update from Anthony on how things are going…
Surrounded by streams, baseccamp II is located further up the valley closer to the Karakol mountain pass. The local name of the place is ‘Aral’ – island – describing exactly what it is. To get there from the main road a shallow stream must be crossed – I’m glad the truck made it safely through.
Team 3 assembles in time on Monday morning in Bishkek. Peter is with us again on his 2nd slot, there are Suzie and Ellen from the U.S., Nick from New Zealand, four Germans: Anke, Barbara & Michael and Andre, Siv & Duncan, a Norwegian/English couple, Vincent from Switzerland and last-minute joiner Ceire, also from the UK. Placement Nurjan from Bishkek completes the team.
It’s incredibly hot on the training day, so we seek shelter from the sun in the yurt during the afternoon. Some of us are even seen in their swimming costumes taking a refreshing bath in the river – temperature: 8 degrees!
Starting from last slot’s overnighter location, now only 10 minutes away from camp, we survey Kashka Tor valley on the first survey day. Remember this is where we found fresh snow leopard tracks and have set up two camera traps. Kurmanbek has hired a horse from our neighbour and friend Talant – he says that from a horse’s back the well-being of the whole group can be overseen much better! 😉 We split into two groups later on. A side valley is explored – so far unknown terrain – and the camera traps are picked up. No fresh wildlife tracks are found anywhere in the valley, so unfortunately no good reason for setting up more. Older signs of ibex and argali are around, though, marmot calls are heard all day. There are also eight different butterfly species, some of which are not amongst the common species of the picture sheets Amadeus created for us to continue his scientific butterfly data collection. No pictures of snow leopard on the cameras.
We find more signs of snow leopard presence at the very end of Issyk-Ata valley! Peter and Andre make our day, reporting from a long snow leopard track found in the snow and bringing back quite a few very good pictures.
And another exceptional finding is made on Saturday: Manul tracks. The location at an altitude of 3,650 m is at ‘no name valley’ (because it does not have a name on the map), not far from basecamp. Discussing the finding during the daily review, Volodya gets really excited. He explains that the manul has the same IUCN status as the snow leopard, but attracts much less attention. Proving the presence of another elusive and endangered species in the region is a precious piece of information.
A traditional Kyrgyz meal at a herder’s yurt is arranged on the day off (Sunday) with our neighbour Talant.
Takyr-Tor and Choloktor valley are surveyed on the next day. Don Galamish again on Tuesday before the overnighter team settles near base I while Anke, Barbara, Ellen, Michael and Nick drive back to spend the night at base II. Rain pours again when the overnighter teams head for Tuyuk to retrieve two more cameras, and Kumbel valley (= sandy mountain pass) unknown for most parts. Again, no snow leopard pictures on the cameras.
More exploration is done on Thursday. We cross the stream behind base for the first time. Neither on foot, nor by car this area would have been an option for surveys but horses can do it! In the morning Talant’s sons bring over two of them and one by one the team is ‘transported’ to the starting point. We do another short survey on the last day with Peter and Duncan retrieving a camera trap, Ceira, Siv and Nurjan going for interviews and the rest of the team doing a reccee on the other side of the Karakol mountain pass to check for possible overnight locations.
With everyone back at base, something very special is about to happen. Over the last couple of days Kurmanbek and Aman have gathered two teams for a traditional horse game and have set up the playing field right in front of basecamp. The ball must be picked up from the ground and be placed in a goal for points – somewhat similar to American football. Watching the scene from the slope we’re much impressed by the locals’ skills on their horsebacks, the speed and powerful action of the game. More young men on horses arrive while the game is on, but a downpour eventually ends the spectacle. We’re invited for the post-game meal to Joldosh’s hut – he is the undisputed champion of the game.
Back to the expeditions’ core business and the research, we meet in the late afternoon for a final review. During the 3rd slot, 32 positive cells have been recorded, about twice that number have been surveyed. 21 mammal datasheets were added to Volodya’s collection. To everyone’s great excitement, snow leopard tracks were found. Unexpectedly each slot recorded snow leopard tracks this year: in slot 1 at the Karakol Pass in snow, in slot 2 at Kashka Tor valley in mud (where a fowl was attacked last year) and in this slot again in snow at Issyk Ata. The manul footprint found at ‘no name valley’ is another highlight. Direct sightings of ibex were not recorded in slot 3. A very likely explanation for the lack of sightings is that with the snow melt, many, many more herders and their livestock have moved into the valley, pushing wildlife back into more remote areas. On the other hand, the interviews have been greatly boosted during this slot with more local people around. 19 yurts were visited, the age of interview partners ranged between 9 and 73 years. The bird list was extended to 45 species. Big birds of prey such as golden eagle, but also lammergeier have been recorded constantly, indicating a good quality habitat.
In the evening we socialise in the yurt enjoying the warmth of the stove and, of course, a shot of local vodka. To everyone’s surprise Anke, Barbara, Nurjan and Kurmanbek perform a Kyrgyz song rehearsed on a bad weather day. The somewhat wistful melody and the wording about the Kyrgyz way of life contributes to some unique experiences the team has gained over the last two weeks.
It’s time again to thank everyone – it’s been wonderful with every single one of you, slot 3. Special thanks go to Peter for his unwearing dedication over four expedition weeks and his help in many ways. As I said before, this project would not be possible without you passionate people putting time, money and sweat into it. I hope your expectations have been met and you’ve enjoyed the two weeks as much as I did. Safe travels onward or back home and keep in touch. I hope to see some of you again some time somewhere.
Having said alli this, I am now handing over to my colleague Rossella who will be leading this year’s last expedition slot in the Tien Shan mountains. Other assignments force me back to Europe with mixed feelings. A very heartfelt thanks goes to my colleague Volodya and NABU’s gruppa bars members Kurmanbek, Aman and Shailoo. You’ve been my family for two months. Together we did a great job overcoming language barriers and cultural differences with a good sense of humour, flexibility and the odd shot of vodka… all in an effort to save the snow leopard!
Team 4 has arrived and they all looked ready for action and eager to go. Sian has already impressed me with the amount of gadgets she has in tow, portable fan, wireless sound system, not to mention stick-on LED lamps so no spiders in the loos will catch anyone by surprise. She’s really brought our humble jungle lodge into the 21st century.
With the risk assessments, science briefings and lessons on how to use all the technical gear out of the way, we were set, and after lunch on the second afternoon, ventured out into the field for our first taster of the rainforest and to test our newly found skills.
Febri, as ever, found the first tracks…and the second for that matter. Tomorrow we set out in earnest in our smaller groups to try and get some good data for him.
Preparations at base are going well. The river levels have dropped because we are now well into the dry season, but we have access to a fleet of smaller boats. Febri is intending to extend his camera-trapping work and also has more ideas about further survey tasks that the team can perform.
We are also talking to the local communities about hosting us on our overnighters and other activities that are designed to integrate local communities into our work. So far, so good. The trailblazing continues. Remember that this is our inaugural year and that tiger conservation in particular needs long-term solutions. We will keep plugging away patiently, building relationships and conducting our surveys. Thank you everyone for helping with this. You could have gone to the beach or a petting zoo or an easy safari. Instead you have chosen to be trailblazers in search of sustainable solutions to tiger conservation and the elusive animal itself. Thank you for this and we look forward to meeting team 4 tomorrow. Febri will meet you at the assembly point in Pekanbaru and Anthony will see you at Subayang base.
Not long to go now. This is Anthony Lyons, your expedition leader for the post-Ramadan Sumatra tiger slots. Our 4th slot will be with me on Sunday, 26 July, and hopefully raring to go forth into the jungle and the project ahead.
I arrived in Pekanbaru a couple of days ago. There’s a busy week ahead of final preparations. At the moment the plan is for slot 4 to be met by WWF staff in Pekanbaru and then to be transferred to Subayang base, where I will be. But this plan may change – remember that on expedition nothing is as constant as adapting the plan 😉
I’m really looking forward to meeting the team on Sunday and continuing the hard work and effort that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd slots have already put in.
A week of re-org in Bishkek is almost over. I’ve spent some time with our partners from the NABU at their office reviewing the past four weeks and planning ahead for the next two slots. Quite some time was spent at the desk working through a long list of e-mails piled up in my inbox, doing the accounting, printing, laminating – all exciting stuff. I quite enjoyed doing my laundry! 😉
Kurmanbek, Volodya and I went for a reconnaissance drive to Chok Kemin valley on Wednesday. Around this valley, running parallel to the north edge of the Issyk Kol glacier lake, the Grupa Bars has been very successful with camera trapping snow leopard, wolf and bear. We met with Marat, one of the rangers of Chon Kemin National State Park and drove almost all the way up to the valley’s end. Various base camp locations were visited before we were invited for a meal at Marat’s house. It was in the evening when we returned back to Bishkek after a 3 1/2 hours drive.
Today Kurmanbek, Aman, Volodya, Emma and I head off into the Kyrgyz Alatoo mountains again to set up base camp II. We’ve spent the whole day yesterday with food shopping. Two cars will take all supplies today. Once we’ve set up the yurt, mess & kitchen tent, etc., Aman and I will drive back to Bishkek tomorrow and meet team three on Monday morning 8:00 at the Grand Hotel. One more driver will then be requested from the team – please be prepared and bring your driving licences!
Here’s the diary for the second group (22 June – 4 July)
On Monday, 22 June, the second expedition team assembled at the Grand Hotel in Bishkek: John from Canada, Peter from Germany, Yvonne from Switzerland are well-acclimatised after two weeks of travelling in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Then there are Sue and Ben from the UK, Neus from Spain and once more Carolyn & Charlie from New Zealand on their second expedition slot. Two local placements are also joining the expedition team: Rahat, born in the Naryn region, but living in Bishkek, and Amadeus, who has a Canadian passport, but lives and works in Bishkek since 2007. Emma, our cook is present as well as Kurmanbek, head of the ‘Grupa Bars’, NABU’s snow leopard patrol accompanied by his 16 year old son Azim and his colleague Aman. Last minute shopping must be done before we can head off to base. Peter’s luggage has not arrived so Aman, Kurmanbek and I hurry off quickly to get a rucksack. Well done him for packing all other essential gear in his hand luggage!
The convoy of four cars – two of them fully loaded with food 😉 – is then led through the Bishkek city traffic by our locals and after a few stops on the way, we arrive at base at 17:00 in the afternoon. Thanks to team 1 all tents are already pitched so that everyone can move in straight away. We have borscht, a famous local soup, for dinner, kindly prepared by our scientist Volodya who guarded the camp over the weekend. I then talk everyone through the risk assessment – always top on the list of training sessions during the first couple of days.
As usual we start late on the second expedition day, breakfast is at 8:00. Volodya then delivers a comprehensive introduction about the science and research in our study area. He talks about snow leopards being opportunistic predators, classifies ibex and argali as their primary prey and marmot, mountain hare and other smaller animals as secondary prey species. Taking into account that the cat follows its prey, the survey will be focussed on finding prey species and then set up camera traps in the most promising spots. Team members also learn about the Global Snow Leopard Conference held 2012 in Bishkek and a governmental agreement between all attending countries signed in order to streamline efforts to save the endangered cats. Gaining information about the distribution and numbers of snow leopard in the wild has been declared the main aim. Having been amongst the conference attendees, Biosphere Expedtions has taken on the responsibility of developing a research plan together with snow leopard specialist Volodya Tytar and NABU’s Grupa bars.
Kurmanbek then continues with some background information about NABU’s snow leopard patrol, their work on the ground, the snow leopard rehabilitation centre, where injured animals are kept until they can be released into the wild again. At the sanctuary one lynx, one eagle and four snow leopards are currently hosted. The cats have all been saved from leg traps and are so badly injured that they are no longer able to survive in the wild. He also talks about NABU’s other departments such as environmental awareness, monitoring, ecological education and anti-poaching. Enough of the theory – we go straight into equipment training and the datasheets. Aman explains the work with camera traps and we get to see some fascinating camera trap pictures and videos that have been taken over the last couple of years. Amadeus then gives a short introduction to his butterfly project. He is currently working on his PhD, but at the same time is involved with the development of an interactive app for smartphones. Citizen scientists will be using the app for identifying butterfly species, but also help with enlarging the database by uploading own findings. During the expedition the recording of butterflies will be included in the surveys.
The sky is cloudy when we set off with the whole group on Wednesday morning for the first practising survey walk. Once again we head off by foot into Choloktor valley behind base. After three hours we reach the meadow giving us a perfect view into the rocky arena rising in front of us. Only patches of snow are left from what was a huge snow field two weeks ago. Leaving the heavy rucksacks behind, we spread out in all directions for further investigation. Ibex scat is found in the mud – given that the snow melt is continuing we might set up some camera traps in this area with slot 3 or 4. It starts raining on the way back, but still we spot a roe deer track, a rare occasion. And there is another finding: Torsten (slot 1), in case you read this you’ll be happy to hear that we found your lens hood that was lost two weeks ago! I’ll bring it to Germany…
The rain stops in the evening but starts again right at breakfast time on Thursday. Amadeus spreads the news from Bishkek he received via satellite phone: An SMS saying that the bad mountain weather is going to continue for three more days. No one wants to think about it, so we get busy. In a convoy of three cars we leave base following the road further into Choloktor valley towards the river confluence. From what we have seen yesterday, the cars should now be able to make it over the snow avalanches still blocking part of the road and then through the river. It’s a bumpy ride but everyone seems to enjoy true off-road driving. Sighs of relief, though, after the river crossing ;). Volodya’s group leaves the car soon after and continues on foot. Aman and I drive further on as far as the cars can take us. We then walk together with Carolyn, Charlie, Rahat, Sue, Neus and Azim towards the steep & rocky cliffs forming the valley’s end. Using feet, hands and walking poles we climb up entering ibex terrain – signs such as droppings and hoof prints are seen all around. Soaking wet and with numb fingers we assist Aman setting up three camera traps facing obvious animal trails. Back on safe terrain we’re quite worn out, but still no one wants to get their lunch boxes out in the ever pouring rain. After another 90 minutes we reach the car, have a very quick, but at least dry lunch before we head back. We find Volodya’s team seeking shelter in their car for quite a while before the meeting time. Not much has been found on their survey walk, the usual signs of fox and badger – the snow leopard prey is hiding from the rain too. Back at base the yurt stove is started up quickly, washing lines zigzag what has become the drying room and the stove is surrounded by a dozen pairs of soaking wet walking boots and rucksacks. Well done everyone for coping with the rain and cold. In the evening two plans for either good or bad weather are set up for the next day – hope dies last…
We must opt in for the bad weather plan on Friday. Near constant cloud cover and rain forces us into thick layers of clothing and waterproofs again. We go for a reccee drive up the valley towards the Krakol mountain pass. A few more herders have moved in during the last week. On the road we find an Eurasian hobby unwilling to fly as we approach him sitting in the middle of the road. He must be starving and tired – the guess is that he has not had a proper insect meal for days due to the bad weather. Most curious he watches quite a few of us surrounding him and taking pictures before he finally decides to fly off. At the mountain pass we spread out in all four directions for a survey walk in the clouds. We find livestock and fox tracks, but also notice that the snow cover has shrunk a lot. Still closed for cars, the pass is already open for herders to bring in smaller livestock such as sheep and goat. On the way back we pick up some ‘fuel’ for our stove at an abandoned herder’s place – friends of the NABU staff. ‘Fuel’ is compressed cattle dung stored in tile-like pieces, 100% organic! 😉 It’s only 14:00 in the afternoon when we return to camp. With the stove going, we assemble in the yurt for a slide show: a trip around the world to other Biosphere Expeditions projects in sunnier places makes us forget about the pouring rain outside for a while.
Saturday morning: lying in my tent I don’t hear the sound of rain… really? I could be still dreaming. But no – the rain has stopped! The team can’t wait to go out. Ala Archa valley is on the schedule again. This time we want to make it further towards the end into both left and right sidearms. By the end of the day both teams have walked around 20 km each. On one side the valley is crowded with livestock – cattle, horses, sheep – no chance to see any wildlife. On the other side right at the snow line at about 3450 m Carolyn spots 7-8 ibex. Her second name has become ‘Eagle Eye II’ (after Aman being ‘Eagle Eye I’) reflecting her extraordinary spotting skills. Whenever we are able to see ibex it is from a distance of at least a couple of hundred metres. The colour of their fur blends in perfectly with the rocks, movement alone allows us to notice their presence.
Another second is on Sunday. We visit Chon Chikon again, the petroglyphs valley. Thanks to the snow melt over the last two weeks, we are now able to climb far up – one team makes it to about 3700 m – where ibex are sighted and obvious animal trails and fresh tracks are found. Three camera traps are set. Since his walking boots are still soaking wet, John volunteers to go to interviewing herders. Together with Kurmanbek, well known by many people in the valley, Azim and Rahat as local interpreters they make a perfect team. John’s communication skills gained over years of practice as a psychologist is what makes the day. Kurmanbek is full of praise when we sit in the evening listening to John’s entertaining report. Four families were visited, quite a few bowls of Kumiz (fermented horse milk) have been drunk bravely and John’s been made to sit on a horse while people were talking openly about whatever questions were asked. Overall the local people have great admiration for the snow leopard, it is known that they are protected but none of the interview partners has ever seen one. But most of them know someone who has…
We are rewarded with sunshine on the day off. Yvonne and Neus go for a bath up the Choloktor road. A traditional Kyrgyz meal has been arranged at our neighbour herder’s yurt. Rahat, Kurmanbek and Aman leave early in the morning to help with preparing the food. Dressed up Volodya (he hasn’t been seen wearing long trousers before), Peter, Yvonne, Amadeus, Neus and Emma follow at lunchtime. They come back after four hours holding their tummies after an opulent meal. Believing that the sun will be back we once more make overnighter plans for the next day – the whole team wants to go!
The scene is somewhat similar to moving out of camp when the cars are packed for the overnighter on Tuesday morning, 1 July. One car is stuffed with food, another with tents, mats and sleeping bags. We drive towards the mountain pass again to survey Issyk-Ata and Saryk-Kol valley not yet accessible for livestock. During a 10 km walk in and out of Saryk-Kol valley up to almost 3600 m altitude two male ibex are spotted. The team’s walk is accompanied by noisy marmot warning calls. From the number of active holes found off the path, a huge marmot colony must live there – two of us manage to see at least one individual. At Issyk-Ata valley the results are about the same: ibex spotting (7-8 individuals, female & young ones) and many, many marmots. We meet back at the cars in the late afternoon, drive to our camping spot and set up tents for the night. Sue, Yvonne and Charlie find a spot to spend the night under the stars in their bivi bags. We go to bed early when the admittedly very small campfire dies. Located right at the entrance of both Kashka-Ter and Takir-Ter valleys, the overnighter camp allows for an early survey start on Wednesday morning.
Both valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. Facing north, the mountain ridge of Takir-Ter is still completely covered in snow and ice. The valley is surveyed for the first time this year. A snow leopard attack on a fowl was reported last year in Kashka-Ter valley. Pictures were provided from local people for documentation. This, of course, has led our scientist to the decision to survey both neighbouring valleys in hope of finding more evidence of snow leopard presence in this area. And indeed, we find fresh snow leopard tracks in the mud! They are a series of footprints that must be no older than two or three days, left behind after the heavy rainfalls. Excitement is in all our eyes when we scan the area for more evidence, while Aman installs another camera trap. The finding makes all our day – the mountain ghost is out there!
On team 2’s last full survey day on Thursday, we pick up a former plan to research both side valleys of Don Galamish. Postponed because of wet terrain conditions, the ground is now dry enough for driving up grassy meadows to a starting point that allows both teams to reach the valley’s end in a day’s survey walk. It is still a long way to go before ibex terrain is reached. Volodya’s team reaches the peak of the partly snow-covered ridge at 3877 m and walks about 21 km, but also is one hour late due to a miscalculation! They are seen coming down the ridge by team 2, so nothing but a loooong waiting time before all drive back to camp together. Overall, this day’s sightings are rewarding, though: Himalayan griffon, snow cock and fox. Another camera trap is set where many fresh ibex tracks are found.
Breakfast time on Friday. Two options for short surveys are put on the whiteboard but no one has put in their name yet. What’s this all about? Looking around I see tired faces hoping for a less strenuous activity today. Sorry, guys – there is no other option. No interviews today, the staff will start with breaking down the yurt and camp after breakfast. A group of six – Ben, Sue, Neus, Rahat, Peter and Amadeus finally pack a set of equipment and head off. What was supposed to be an easy team survey turns into a kind of stress test as people forget to work as a team. Getting out of one’s individual comfort zone is a good learning experience, though.
After a bath in the stream or a warm bucket shower back at base everyone listens intently to Volodya’s slot review. Team 2 has visited 50 cells. The highlights are the discovery of snow leopard tracks and possibly a lynx scat at Sary-Kol valley, supposedly left over from winter time. Lynx is recorded for the very first time in this area. The number of ibex sightings is extraordinary. This most probably is also because many, many herders haven’t moved in yet into the valley. It also indicates that wildlife recovers quickly when undisturbed. This, of course will be included in the final scientific report’s findings. Nine more camera traps have been installed hopefully clicking as we sit and celebrate our last evening in camp. Thanks to Sue & Ben’s extraordinary bird watching skills the number of species on the bird list has doubled. As to the butterflies, Amadeus then sums up that seven different species have been recorded, five of which have not yet been recorded in the study area. Thank yous go to the team for two weeks of quick learning and great scientific work. After dinner we raise our glasses when toasts are brought out. A taste of local vodka seals the team’s happy reunion while we stand around the campfire.
Thank you team 2 – you’ve been exceptionally great coping with difficult weather conditions and terrain. Thanks for your great spirits and putting your special skills, time and money into this project. Safe travels back home or enjoy your ongoing travelling. I hope to see some of you again someday, somewhere.