After what has seemed like a very short time in the mountains over the last two weeks the third and last team all arrived safely back in Bishkek late on Saturday afternoon (27 August). Perhaps the time has passed quickly due to the amount of work we had to do. There were 12 camera traps set out in the field and we set several more during the first few days. All these needed to be gathered back in and their many thousands of photographs monitored and sifted for signs of snow leopard or prey species, a task that consumes time. We also had many other objectives that we had to squeeze into the time we had, more on those in just a moment. We’ve had quite a bit of rain, hail and snow, but nothing like as bad as what the first team had to endure. The weather during this third group has been much colder, though, with frequent hard frosts in the mornings.
So here is an account of our last couple of weeks in the field with group three:
After writing up the expedition dairy last Sunday morning (14 August), I then spent the whole day shopping for expedition food with Emma. We loaded up two cars full of food ready for departure in the morning.
And at 8:00 am on Monday (15 August), team 3 all met-up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA) for his second slot, Nigel (Belgium), Trevor (UK), Tristan and her grandparents Mary and David (Canada), Manuela (Germany), Laura and Nicola (UK) who both participated in the Altai expedition several years ago, Kenny (USA/Hong Kong), Deborah (Germany/Netherlands), Miyana (Japan), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan joining for her second slot. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot, Shailoo, Emma and myself met up at the hotel, Volodya stayed at base camp.
As team 2 arrived and left the mountains via two different routes, I thought it a good idea for team 3 to do the same. That way everyone gets to see more of this astonishing and stunningly beautiful country, and as we were going to have to drive the truck out through the tunnel (as it would have been too dangerous to drive it over the pass), I chose to drive team 3 in via the Kochkor/Karakol pass route. The route is longer than the tunnel route, but the roads are much better for driving. Hunter is now quite proficient at negotiating traffic on these manic roads, so he drove the whole way. David volunteered to be the fourth driver, and he displayed his years of experience of driving to get us all safely to base camp, where Volodya was waiting with a huge pot of hot Ukrainian borsch that he’d made for everyone.
The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with a risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday (16 August) 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.
On the first survey day on Wednesday (17 August) the whole group went to Kashka-tor for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record in the lower parts of the valley. The group then split with Nigel, Miyana, Tris and Phil climbing up one side valley with Volodya and the rest heading further up the valley with Shailoo and Bekbolot, where they split again to recover the camera traps. One trap could not be found. Nobody saw a great deal that day except for Volodya’s group who investigated the area where we had discovered leopard scat the previous Thursday. It had rained heavily the day before and a little more during the night, so when we found fresh snow leopard tracks (lots of them), we knew that these were only laid down that same morning! There were plenty old leopard tracks too along with ibex tracks. This is probably the best opportunity we have to capture snow leopard on camera trap, so we set three of them there before getting rather wet on the way back down. That place is quite special with huge cliffs on each side of the glacier. It is so easy to imagine leopards up there looking down on us.
As we were all wet and cold after our day in the rain, we lit the yurt fire to warm ourselves up again.
On Thursday (18 August) the team split into three groups: Two groups headed off to Chon-chikan, the one walking up the left of the valley consisting of Manuela, Nikki, Nigel and Bekbolot saw a red fox and two eagles. The team that headed up the right, which consisted of David, Miyana, Kenny and Volodya saw a white-winged redstart. The third group – Mary, Tris, Laura, Deborah and Trevor headed off to Kosh-tor to recover traps and saw an eagle and marmot.
The wildlife is now scarcer down in the valleys compared with previous slots. Most noticeable is the absence of small birds and butterflies now that the spring nesting has ended and the flowers are all but gone.
We took a day off from surveys on Friday (19 August) to watch a game of Kok-boru, which was to take place right beside our base camp. This was not a big game such as we had witnessed during the previous slot, rather a small game with just a few participants. They also included various other games such as arm-wrestling on horseback. Hunter played a few one-on-one games of Kok-boru with the boy from the neighbouring yurt and he won most of them. I have to say that Hunter really looks quite professional playing this game now, a potential future Californian professional player, he looked good partly due to having a fast horse this time around. Several people had a horse-ride for a while including Kenny and Deborah, but only Miyana and Tris rode horses all day long. We were later invited over to the neighbour’s for a meal.
On Saturday (20 August) the whole team headed out to the Issik-ata valley, passing playful and watchful marmots on the way.
On Sunday (21 August) Nikki, Deborah and Laura put in a special effort to get another couple of transects covered, while everybody else other than David and Mary headed off to the NABU snow leopard rehabilitation centre at Issyk-kul lake, where we would spend the night. We took our time getting there and it was too dark to see the cats that evening, but we all got some pretty good views the following morning prior to heading off back to base camp on Monday (22 August). While we were away, David repaired some of the camp tools and tents, while Mary put in some hard work cleaning and tidying the camp.
Surveys conducted on Tuesday (23 August) revealed very little, mainly due to bad weather. A strong wind hit the camp and we had to hold onto everything to stop the camp being blown away. I found a noctule bat lying cold in the grass so we moved it to a warm dark place in the yurt, and later that evening it had gained enough strength to fly away.
We split up into two groups on Wednesd (24 August). An all-female group headed off to Dungarama where they managed to see a stoat, an eagle, a lammergeier, an ibex and a wolf scat. Volodya, Phil, Nigel and Hunter hiked in Pitiy, where they were not so successful, but they did see the first swallowtail butterfly of the expedition.
Thursday (25 August) was the big day where we all returned to Kaska-tor, the place where we had found snow leopard footprints, scrape and scat previously, and where we had set the three camera traps on 17 August. The party consisted of Phil, Hunter, Miyana, Tris, Manuela, Trevor, Niki and Laura, and this was our very last survey day with the objective of collecting those last three traps. We had high hopes that these traps were going to capture active snow leopards, but on arrival we could not find any fresh footprints, so there was much disappointment. But also on arrival, sitting on the rocks behind the cameras, was a lammergeier, which immediately took flight over our heads. A vulture sitting there like that suggested there was a carcass there somewhere. We collected in the cameras, then after lunch a few of us explored the area and Miyana discovered the remains of an ibex, which we could clearly see had been killed by a snow leopard. Typically, a snow leopard will leave the nasal passage and eye-sockets of the prey intact, in contrast to other predators such as the wolf for example. We also saw a Saker falcon flying over the camp upon our return that day.
Other parts of the team also conducted interviews with some of the herders in the yurts further down the valley. An interesting pattern of responses from herders is the opinion that snow leopards only suck the blood of animals. The origins of this myth are probably based on the fact that a leopard caught with a fresh kill will be holding the animal by the throat before it is scared off. One herder actually said that the meat from an animal killed by a leopard is white after the leopard has sucked all the blood out.
And then, back at base, when we thought our chance to capture a snow leopard had gone, there it was after all! A rather poor quality, but nevertheless very great reward for all our efforts over the years, honing in on the ghost of the mountain, until we have finally caught it on camera! So the ghost does exist and roams these hills.
With a spring in our step and hearts full of pride, we disassembled the yurt and much of camp on Friday (26 August) and packed it all away in the truck, ready for departure Saturday morning. Thank you to everyone for helping with this so much.
All together this has been the most successful year ever here in the Tien Shan. But this is no coincidence as each year has built on the other. The results of interviews with the herders and the surveys during the first year identified suitable snow leopard habitats. In the second year, a snow leopard distribution model was defined based on the data collected and a plan was made to hone in on the ghost of the mountain. And finally this year those places identified by the model were targeted to culminate in definite proof of snow leopards roaming these hills. Well done to everyone who has made this possible over the years!
Thank you for all your hard work! All of you over the years have contributed to this success and you can feel justifiably proud. Team 3, have a safe flight home, and I hope to meet you all again someday.
Best wishes to you all and thank you again.
Quick summary group 3
Snow leopard captured on a camera trap (photo and video) for the first time on a Biosphere Expeditions Tien Shan expedition; a fresh leopard kill, which shows a very clear pattern and example worthy of publication of how snow leopards eat their prey; and many clearly defined leopard footprints found.
Slot 3 added five new species of birds to the list of 57 compiled by the previous slots; one new swallowtail butterfly observed in the mountains.
13 cells covered, compared to 16 cells covered by group 2. This reduction is due to the large number of camera traps that needed to be recovered during the last slot.