Phil, Bekbolot, Shailoo, Ismail, Emma and Volodya are on their way to Karakol valley, two cars packed with food and other supplies. They will be setting up base camp for slot 2 and return on Sunday to Bishkek. Writing this, I am at the Futuro hotel waiting for two more expedition vehicles to be delivered and preparing to leave on Sunday morning.
After a lovely last night dinner on Saturday (21 July) with slot 1 at Supara restaurant located a few kilometres outside of Bishkek Bekbolot, Volodya, Phil & I went to Ala Archa National Park for a day visit on Tuesday (26 July). What was supposed to be a short, easy walk turned out to be a 9 km hike up to a waterfall with spectacular views on the way. The entrance to the National Park is only about 25 km from the city center of Bishkek and is worth a visit if you have some spare time.
On Wednesday Phil and I, accompanied by Ismail, went to Ananyevo at Issyk Kol lake for a visit of the NABU rehabilitation centre. Three snow leopards, a lynx, three golden eagles and a black kite are currently hosted there. The centre is located in a remote place in the mountains. Buildings include a wooden hut – the ranger’s home – a few stables, enclosures and a tiny stone house for staff and guests sleeping over (which does not happen often as the centre is not open to the public). For some of the animals it is a temporary home to recover from injuries (such as the Pallas’ cat that was released back into the wild two weeks ago). For others, such as the snow leopard Alsu who has lost a paw from being trapped in a foot snare, it has become a permanent residence.
We went along with the ranger feeding the animals early in the morning on Thursday (28 July), had ‘chay’ (tea) at his hut and arrived back in Bishkek after a five hour drive in the early afternoon.
Friday (29 July) was our shopping day. Emma, Volodya, Phil and I very efficiently tasked shared at Frunze supermarket: Filling two baskets at a time (Emma & I) paying & loading the car (Phil & Volodya) while the next baskets were being filled. We were done in under four hours! 😉
So, now it is time form me to say goodbye. Thank you again to everyone who has contributed and helped to make this expedition happen. It has been a great pleasure to be out in the field with team 1 and also to continue working on the ground together with the NABU staff. Thanks for your hospitality, support and good humour!
Dawai teams 2 & 3 – I hope you’ll enjoy your time in the Tien Shan as much as I have. May the sun shine for you for the next four weeks!
The first group of our Sumatran Tiger expedition has come to an end. It has been a successful 12 days surveying a total of fourteen cells for tiger prey species and signs of illegal logging and poaching. We have also placed a total of seventeen camera traps, which the next group arriving on Sunday will be busy retrieving. It was often tough going, tromping through deep water, up steep muddy hills, cutting our way through dense jungle, and all whilst leeches were enjoying our blood. What a great effort by all!
Interviews were also conducted with members from villages, or rubber plantation workers that we met in the field. Most local people are scared of tigers, but there seem to be strong mythical beliefs that tigers are the guardians of the forest and that when a human is killed by a tiger, it is because they have done something bad.
“I wish there were more tigers as there are too many bad people these days,” said the vice-headmaster at the elementary school on Batu Sangan village!
The large number of wild pigs is also a reason that many of our interview subjects expressed a wish for increased tiger populations. We see signs of wild pigs everywhere and often spot them along the river. The locals do not hunt wild pigs due to their Muslim faith, and wild pigs are a nuisance as they eat the villagers’ crops.
We also visited two schools, talking to the children about tigers and the importance of their habitat and prey in the area. Illegal logging and poaching for deer is common and on the fringes of the Rimbang Bailing Wildlife Reserve forest is being clear-cut for palm oil plantations. Our school visits were well received, and both teachers and children were excited to see us.
Now a day to recharge and reorganise in Pekanbaru before the next group is ready to head into the jungle on Sunday morning.
After two challenging weeks in the Tien Shan mountains team 1 arrived safely back in Bishkek last Saturday in the late afternoon. We were all happy to escape the bad mountain weather including thunderstorms, wind, rain and snow, but at the same time felt sad that we had to leave the truly stunning mountains. Luckily the sun came out when we broke down base camp in the morning, so that we didn’t have to wear rain gear for the team picture. Driving up and over the Karakol pass to Kochkor everybody got a final glimpse of peaks and glaciers covered in fresh snow.
But let me start this report at the very beginning on, 11 July. We arrived at base that Monday afternoon after seven hours of convoy-driving from Bishkek via Kara Balta, the tunnel and Suusamyr. While everyone was moving into their tents, Emma immediately got busy in the kitchen tent.
The first team consisted of Michael (Germany), Carola (Germany), Amanda (Australia) and Dietmar (journalist, Germany), Volodya, the expedition scientist and old hand of our snow leopard conservation project from the very beginning in the Altai mountains of Russia more than a decade ago, Aman & Bekbolot, members of the NABU Gruppa Bars (snow leopard patrol), the team’s mountain guides, camera trap & tracking experts, Emma, master of the kitchen in her third year, as well as four placements: Machabbat (NABU), Ismail and Aigerim helping with translations – or, if you like, bridging cultures – and finally, Amadeus, butterfly expert joining the expedition for the second time, also as a placement.
The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with a risk assessment talk by the expedition leader. The whole of Tuesday was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment such as GPS, compass, map, etc., how to fill in datasheets, what to take on the survey walks, what the safety procedures are and how a PLB (personal locator beacon) can be used in case of an emergency. To give everyone’s mind a rest, the yurt was set up in between theoretical lessons.
On the first survey day on Wednesday the whole group went to Chon Chikan valley for practicing the newly-learnt skills and collecting four camera traps that were set up by NABU staff in the beginning of June. I would call it a perfect showcase training day: The sun was shining when we started off at an altitude of about 3,000 m, a couple of hours later and further up we were hit by hale and rain forcing us into rain gear, hats & gloves – as if the risk assessment had come to life: ‘Rapid change of weather is a high risk in high mountain environment”…
But the day was not only successful in these terms. Two ibex were spotted on top of a ridge by Aman, just when most of the team had sore legs sore and short breaths. This very exciting and satisfying moment made our day. Apart from the ibex, fox and marmot tracks were found and all four camera traps were collected. The traps had taken hundreds of pictures, some quite nice ibex and bird shots, but no snow leopard.
On Thursday (14 July) this year’s first set of snow leopard tracks was found in Issyk-Ata valley. And we found a second track the next day at Kashka-Tor and even a third track a week later on the last survey day at Don Galamish! Most excitingly the locations are quite some distance apart from each other. Camera traps were set in all locations, in Issyk-Ata one of them facing the end of the glacier morane has been set to field mode taking a picture every 30 minutes. Team two: You’ll be the ones collecting them! Evidence of ibex (scat & tracks) were found in all valleys, so there is a good chance that the snow leopard is around too.
On Saturday (16 July) the whole team attended a very special event: The release of a Pallas’ cat into the wild. A boy found it in very poor condition about a month ago near his family’s yurt close to the village of Doeng Alysh in East Karakol. It was taken to the NABU rehabilitation centre by the Gruppa Bars to be cared for and nursed back to strenght. We arranged a meeting point in Doeng Alysh with the NABU people bringing in the cat, but had to overcome an obstacle first: Some part of the pass road was still blocked by snow and ice. Using a pick and shovels, the male part of the team cleared the road and basically opened the only Eastern/Western Karakol connection for everyone else, including herders and their livestock.
Apart from our team, quite a few local press people were present, as well as neighbouring herders and their families, a great number of NABU staff handing out educational material and giving a talk to the local people. Apart from being able to see a truly wild Pallas’ cat, it was great to witness NABU’s important work on the ground.
Emma gave us a look of reproach when we arrived at camp late. But we made her happy again by emptying the large pot of delicious soup she had cooked for us. Sunday (17 July) was our day off. Aman and Bekbolot had organised a traditional Kyrgyz horse game for the next day. The ‘playball’ is a dead goat, head and feet cut off (I agree, it sounds terrible). Placed in the middle of the playground, the goat must be picked up and laid down in a marked area. Doesn’t sound that difficult, but the players are on horseback and the goat weighs about 20 kg! Between rivaling valleys the game is a serious clash – luckily the players we saw were all friends. We were also invited to ride their horses – some of us did – but only Michael was brave enough to to try to lift up the goat from the ground. Although the operation failed, it was great fun for the rest of us watching the show.
Next we were the guests of our “neighbour” Talant. In his yurt, we chatted with Guelcan, his wife, and tried her Borsok – fresh, homemade bread and sour cream. Thanks to our local team members, we learned a lot about Kyrgyz customs and traditions.
Back to research work on Monday (18 July), two teams surveyed Chon Chikan valley and set four camera traps in different locations at an altitude of around 3,750 m. It was raining most of the afternoon and when we came back to camp the wind had picked up in such a way that the toilet & shower tents had fallen over. We found Carola and Phil, who had stayed behind, in the mess tent, both retaining it from being blown away. Equipment, books and other items stored on benches & tables along the sides were on the ground. The yurt was crushed on one side and out of balance. Rubbish bins, buckets and other small camp equipment were scattered all over the place. What a mess! It was a great relief when the wind finally calmed down an hour or so later and the clearing up could start.
Making use of the newly opened pass road, we went to Donguruma and Pitiy valley in East Karakol on Tuesday. From last year’s results these valleys seemed to be promising spots. Fresh tracks and scat of ibex and snow cock were found in Donguruma, no sightings, though. Aman, Aigerim, Michael & I heard and saw marmot and found some interesting petroglyphs on the way displaying hunting scenes. Apart from the core research of snow leopard and their prey, we have been collecting data on petroglyphs, butterflies and birds using a smartphone app that was developed and created by Amedeus in collaboration with his partners. Having used pen & paper in 2015 to help creating a database that includes a species list with pictures for identification, smartphones were taken out this year for extensive field testing. So far it has worked very well and smartphone data collection is to be continued over slots 2 & 3 and the final results will be included in the expedition report.
The Pitiy team was very successful: A group of eight (!) ibex including young ones was spotted. Thank you, Phil, for carrying your long lense the whole day so that the exceptional sighting can now be shared with everyone.
More camera traps were set on Wednesday (20 July) and two teams walked from base to explore a short but quite steep valley just opposite. Rain poured down from midday on, so that all teams returned back to base early in the afternoon, the datasheets pretty empty. A fire in the stove was lit quickly, the washing lines in the yurt closely packed with dripping clothes. Around the stove two circles were built: the inner one consisting of walking boots, the outer one, very close by, where the girls stretched out their hands & feet towards the warmth of the fire. This was when I first saw Machabbat putting her feet into socks and plastic bags before putting on her sandals… or was it a couple of days ago?
It continued raining for most of the night, but stopped Thursday morning (21 July) when we left base for our last survey day. Tuyuk – the valley where base camp 1 was located in 2015 – and Don Galamish, the next valley leading to the same ridge only from the other side, were Thursday’s survey tasks. Both teams arrived at their side of the ridge around lunchtime when heavy rain and thunder literally washed away hopes of beautiful views and exploring the surroundings. The Tuyuk team turned around to get out of the danger zone, in Don Galamish the team sought some shelter under rocks while Aman & Bekbolot climbed a bit further to collect a camera trap. That was when snow leopard tracks were found again, this time in the mud.
We were wondering by now whether it could get any wetter? My boss Matthias would say: “Skin is waterproof.” I’d say Yes: Wet AND cold! 😉 The Tuyuk group consisting of Volodya, wearing his shorts as usual, and Aigerim, Amanda, Carola and myself got as wet as you can get, but the girls also got as cold you can get. We sat in the car for a short while, struggling to open our lunch boxes with fingers stiff and numb. In our wet clothes even one hour of maximum heating on the drive back couldn’t make us stop shivering. Only a couple of hours around the scorching hot stove in the yurt made us come sort of back to normal.
But Thursday wasn’t just our last survey day, it was also Michael’s birthday! While we were out in the field Machabbat and Emma did a great job decorating the mess tent and preparing a special dinner for celebrations.
The table was stuffed with nicely decorated starters, hot soup and a delicious chocolate cake. Showing foresight, Michael brought a bottle of vodka, so we all had to have a shot. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but everyone was then supposed to sing a song representing their country of origin – great fun! ϑ
On Friday (22 July) morning two teams each accompanied by a translator went out to interview local people. Seven yurts were visited in total, the teams were warmly welcomed, hosted and fed and came back with a lot of interesting information. Most surprisingly it was mentioned on several occasions that foreign countries shouldn’t be allowed to sell weapons to Kyrgyz people. No weapons, no poaching, no more threats to snow leopards. If only saving the snow leopard would be that easy…
After reviewing the interview datasheets, Volodya gave us a summary of what has been achieved during the first slot: Biologial results were found in 22 cells – a great result considering that we were a relatively small team going out in two groups. Most important were the findings of three snow leopard tracks in different locations. Nine camera traps, set by NABU staff in cells of high possibilities were checked and retrieved, ten cameras were installed in new places. As to the most important prey species, six direct observations of ibex were made. As regards the locations, the sightings fit into the model built in last year’s report. An comprehensive bird list has also been created during the first two weeks: 42 different species in total including seven bird of prey as indicator of habitat quality (53 different bird species were recorded during all slots in 2015.)
Directed by Amadeus, fourteen different butterfly species were recorded along the way (a total of 20 in 2015), four burial mounds and over 50 different petroglyphs, four of which include humans, camels, horses and red deer. Most commonly displayed are ibex and snow leopard.
Many more anecdotes could be told, but I have to come to an end. Thank you everyone for contributing to a very successful first slot in many ways. You’ve done a great job coping with altitude, steep terrain, wind, rain and snow. But most importantly I want to thank you for your enthusiasm, high spirits and openness to new experience and other cultures. I hope you got as much out of the expedition as you have put in!
I’ll be in touch again in a couple of days with some more preparational info for slot 2 before saying goodbye and handing over to Phil.
We have completed the week with six full Reef Check surveys under our belt and some fascinating variations in what we are seeing underwater. Jean-Luc, our expedition scientist, formed a theory early on in the week that it was the corals on the outer reefs that were doing better than the more sheltered inner-reef corals, and it is a theory that has held true in the areas that we have been surveying.
We have gone from Rasdhoo at the north end of the North Ari Atoll, we have dived Bathalaa, Kuda Falhu, Dega Giri and all the way to Holiday Thila in the South Ari Atoll. Quite a journey involving a lot of travelling between sites in some lumpy seas, but with a great group of divers as company and some really lovely food to eat, it has not felt like that much of a journey.
Our week ended with a whale shark survey, led by Iru who is one of the local placements on the boat who works for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.
She talked us through the work that she does and how we could help with the survey, but unfortunately we didn’t see a whale shark this year. Instead we added in a lazy drift dive on the outer reef, which looked really healthy and Jean-Luc managed to throw in an extra substrate survey as he could not resist adding to his data (he thinks of little else)!!
The week was completed by a visit to Dhigurah Island with Aru (another of our local placements) leading the group, showing us his home. What a beautiful island! We had a fascinating visit, seeing the school and meeting Aru’s biology teacher, seeing the dive base where Aru (aged only 19) is completing his diving instructor training, and seeing how the local Maldivians live. Thank you Aru (and Iru, who is is based there as part of her whale shark work) for showing us your home!
All that was left on Friday was to take the boat back up to the north where we began. The captain set the boat off early for what should have been a five-hour journey, but with force 7 winds picking up, it took a lot longer (some vessels could not get to Male’ that morning). Thanks to our captain for getting us safely back with everyone leaving on time for their flights. And thanks to all the team for a great week. We achieved a lot in a week, with everyone working hard, but we also had a lot of fun – the night time chair fishing will stick in my memory! Final thanks go to Shaha for her dedicated contribution to the science tuition, to Jean-Luc for doing an amazing job working far too hard throughout the week, and to our two dive masters, Chakku and Atho, for helping out with the survey dives and contributing their wealth of local knowledge. And finally the team, who could have just gone on an ordinary dive holiday, but instead chose to go diving with a purpose, giving their time and money for reef conservation in the Maldives, where it is badly needed.
All the best to everyone and hope to see you all again.
Everyone arrived safely at base on Sunday. After a couple of days of training, we’ve had our first field surveys, all successful and good fun. We’ve had sunshine, evidence of animals, torrential rain, amazing swims in the river and much more. Everyone is well and enjoying their time. A sample survey result is below. More in 10 days or so, or earlier, if I can get a message through 😉
CELL AND SURVEY SUMMARY
AB130 (village cell)
Surveyors: Giovanni, Irfan, John, Steve, Matthias
Survey date: 19 July 2016
This cell is east of the village of Tanjung Belit with some parts of the village extending into the western edge of the cell. The border of the Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary runs through the cell and the sanctuary starts just east of the village. There are good rubber plantation paths that lead into and across the cell, which is not overly hilly. There was also a relatively wide river with good sand or rubble banks to walk on.
Survey description and access:
Our survey was for about 3.5 km, along rubber paths and the river, which took us about 3 hours to cover. This was an easy cell to survey with flat ground and good paths or rivers to walk along. Access to the cell is simply via Tanjung Belit and then walking into the direction of the cell along a concreted path until the cell starts and then onwards on rubber paths and along the river.
There where rubber plantations everywhere we went and some evidence of logging, such as stumps of large trees and an abandoned logger’s camp. We also heard some chainsaw noise. Once the concreted village path ended, so did the litter and humans, and we only encountered one rubber worker, as well as a couple collecting tree bark for drying and selling onto a factory to produce insect repellent.
Evidence of wild pigs is common, particularly rootings. We discovered one mineral lick in the cell with evidence of good use, which we set a camera trap at. We also encountered a local breed of cattle, the sepi cow, which was domesticated in Java from a forest bovine only 50 or so years ago, according to Febri. These roam freely in the forest and are periodically claimed by their owners. We encountered two of them, about 2 km as the crow flies from the village, wearing bells and running from us as soon as they became aware of our presence. Other than widespread evidence of wild boar and the sepi cows, we saw water buffalo, macaques, goats and chicken, the latter three all close to or in the village.
Human/tiger dimension (interviews):
The above suggests that the villagers do not fear tiger attacks in this cell. This was corroborated by an older man we met when walking into the cell. He did not want to do a formal interview, but he told us that when he was a child, villagers used to send tiger hunting parties into the forest once a week. He never saw a tiger himself and we estimated him to be around 60, so the tiger hunting parties would have happened in the 1960s.
We have arrived at Subayang Field Station and started some initial surveys to get the lay of the land. It is tough going through the jungle and despite following a creek bed it took us one hour to cover only one kilometer. We encountered armies of leeches and we all donated some blood today, luckily the little buggers are harmless. WWF is building a water-lab next to the station, so there is some construction going on at the moment, but disturbance should be minimal as they will only work the heavy machinery when we are out in the field – or so we hope and have been told. Two girls from Tanjung Belit, the closest village and jump-off point for the station, Elsi and Ari are cooking us our food. It has been absolutely delightful so far, you are in for a treat. Now I look forward to meeting the first group in Pekanbaru on Sunday morning.
Everyone passed all the tests, both land-based and the in-water ‘pointy’ tests, where the trainers do indeed point at things and ask people to write on their slates what they think they are. We also completed our first Reef Check survey at Rasdoo, an exposed outer reef site, and encouragingly reefs were less affected by bleaching – the first reef check survey dive acts as a kind of final dress rehearsal, but if all goes well we use the data. It all went well.
One of our fish teams, however, did look a bit distressed when they came up from the dive. Rajiv had a wide-eyed stare and blank expression and when asked what happened, he just said that everything was ok until near the end and then ‘I was overwhelmed’. ‘What do you mean?’. ‘I was overwhelmed by fish!!’. It seems that the abundance was a bit of an issue. So we’ve done a bit more work on estimating schools of fish in case it happens again…
The dive itself was a really nice one, with a relatively flat reef down to about 4 m and then a wall going down below our survey teams. With low current and good visibility in our favour, the work was done very efficiently by all and several teams managed to see the eagle rays, turtles and sharks that cruised past and even lay undisturbed (in the case of one of the turtles), right next to our transect line.
It seems the faster-growing species have been more severely affected than slower-growing massive species. It appears that even within the same massive species (e.g. porites), some are much more affected than others, at the same depth, side by side. Is this because some have bleaching resistant zooxanthellae (their symbiotic algae) and some don’t? We don’t know the answer, but we are trying to find out…
So today was the usual whirlwind of checking equipment, shopping, repacking, reviewing datasheets and the research, safety, evacuation and all sorts of other plans A, B, C and D.
We are mostly done – perhaps just another morning tomorrow – and then off into the field. Our research plan for the expedition is:
1. Conduct wildlife survey (tiger and other species) in the following cells. Surveys include visual transect surveys as well as camera-trapping. Cells include those with and without villages for comparative analysis of the areas of tigers and their prey animals prefer.
Cells with villages in them: W137 or X136, Y131, Y132, Y135, Y136, Z131, AA130, AB130
*surveying these cells is likely to involve multi-day trips, carrying tents, hammocks and food, and staying with a local community. Participants can volunteer for these multi-day trips.
2. Conduct interviews with local people in the area (not necessarily in cells above) to ascertain human-tiger encounters and conflicts, as well as attitudes of local people towards the tiger.
3. Visit schools in the area (not necessarily in cells above) and conduct tiger educational activities, including distribution of tiger educational materials.
4. Document illegal logging and poaching activities (such as snares, traps, gun cartridges, etc.) for analysis by WWF and to be passed on to the national park authorities and rangers.
5. Work with local village headmen and communities to establish community bases for multi-day surveys. Also work with headmen and villagers to identify community members who can be trained to help with community-based tiger surveys using camera traps and other survey methods. The aim is to train and establish teams of community surveyors to assist in year-round tiger surveying and anti-poaching activities.
6. Opportunistically survey for birds, using existing skills amongst participants, and create a bird list as another indicator of local biodiversity.
And finally, for good measure, some pictures from the Red Planet breakfast room. Given this is a fairly religious Muslim country, where talking about sex and alcohol is not very high on the agenda, we are guessing that not many people realise at all what’s hanging up on the walls.
Greetings from Pekanbaru. Ida has landed, suitably zombified after a 42 hour trip and three flights from Seattle via China and Jakarta. She’s checked into the Red Planet hotel and tomorrow will go to the WWF offices to prepare the expedition, then go shopping (amongst other things for a SIM card, the number of which we will give you) and do all the little things that need to be done.
It’s 30 deg C in Pekanbaru and humid, as expected. We’ll be back with more news tomorrow, but before we go we wanted to share this gem with you: A new pizza place has sprung up opposite the Red Planet.
Yes, you read right, it’s “Panties Pizza”. And it gets better when you read the tag line…
…”I love Panties, as I love U”?!? Perhaps they slipped in the dictionary from “pasta” to “panties”?!….
We’ve completed the second day of training and everyone has passed the first Reef Check test. The test was about identifying particular types of fish that are good indicators of reef health – and is generally considered to be the hardest test that we’ll do – so well done to all the team!
Our training has so far all been done at Baros, where the resort is a partner in our work on reefs. During the training we have found, unfortunately, what we expected – a great deal of bleaching. Bleaching is extensive down to at least 20 m. Particularly hard hit are the more ephemeral branching corals, with significant (more than 50%) bleaching of most of the older, slower-growing massive corals as well. Total coral cover used to be 45% at the Baros house reef.
That fell to only 10% in mid-May. Hopefully we’ll see less severe effects in our other survey sites from tomorrow onwards, but this is all we can do at this stage – hope. In the meantime, the life on the reef is still abundant.
The team is having a great time, with some glorious veggie food being provided on board our very comfortable live-aboard. We’ll be doing more tests tomorrow and a full mock/practice Reef Check survey in final preparation for doing the real thing from Tuesday onwards.