From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (

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.

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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!

Snow leopard track (c) Peter Sporrer
Snow leopard track (c) Peter Sporrer

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.


Pictures below (c) Peter Sporrer

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

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