Tien Shan: group 1 trailblazers

The first of four expedition groups has finished, with the team arriving back at Bishkek on Saturday late afternoon. Together with Bek and Beka, the local NABU guides, Guma (cook) and Volodya the citizen scientists Christa & Manfred, Simone & Uwe, Christiana, Lothar and Stefan (Germany), David, Kurt, Tessa and David (UK), Michele (US) and Guillaume (France) spent another wonderful week in the mountains full of research work, adventure and fun.

Right now the valley meadows are carpeted in flowers of all colours, everything is lush and green and moist. Most days are sunny and warm, streams of snowmelt feed the Karakol river and soon the sun will have cleared the Karakol pass road from snow. In the first week, our camp stood solitairy in the vast valley but it seems that on 1 July the summer pasture season started and the herders, one after the other, set up their yurts.  Herds of sheep, goat, horses and cattle came into the valley, our neighbour Kanat moved in a couple of days ago and invited Volodya, Guma and myself for a welcome visit.

On our surveys we’ve been concentrating on snow leopard hotspots – locations where their presence has been proved in the past. Large snowfields still cover the upper parts of the side valleys, none of the former camera trap locations is yet accessible. Nonetheless, we set up four camera traps, two each in Kashka Tor and Isyk Ata as high up as possible. We went out in three or four smaller teams each day, recorded snow leopard prey species and other interesting mammals, birds and petroglyphs. Every evening during the daily review, Volodya assessed dozens of pictures, mostly of scat and footprints, and marked all findings in the overview map before taking over the completed datasheets. Our study area is divided into 2 x 2 km cells for statistical reasons, a scientific methodology that is used widely.

Here is a brief summary what we achieved over eight survey days:

  • We covered 36 cells, 11 of them three times, 15 twice and 10 once
  • We identified 34 bird species, four of them new additions to the bird inventory we have created over the years
  • There were 41 recordings of marmot, 6 sightings and 17 indirect ibex signs (scat, track), 4 recordings of snow cock, one of wolf and one of hare
  • We recorded 23 petroglyphs showing the historical significance of the area
  • We recorded 5 species of butterfly

We collected data on all but one day. That day we saw bad weather approaching from downvalley – thick and grey and unfriendly. We went out all the same and were rewarded for our folly with heavy rain and snowfall. Volodya’s team made it back to camp around 10:00 before they were hit (well done, Volodya!), team 2 & 3 returned shortly after, dripping wet from a very cold rain & snow shower. The kitchen yurt offered shelter, hot tea and a shot of vodka to warm up the body system while wet clothes, boots and rucksacks were spread around the stove in the drying yurt, which soon became a steaming sauna. When the rain stopped later on, the involuntary day at camp had become a full-blown party including dancing, singing and a hilarious yoga lesson led by Stephan later on.

Only team four (Christiana, Michele, Lothar and Bek) were still out on their mission in Pitiy valley, on the Eastern side of Karakol pass – or so we thought. No sign of them until 17:30 when, in accordance with our safety procedures, a search party went off to look for them. On the way up to the pass, we received a radio call from Christiana and returned to camp. And there they were telling about the adventures of getting wet during a river crossing, heavy snowfall and vain attempts to drive the car back up and over a pass on snow covered ground. Driving all the way around the mountain range was the only option to get back to camp, and that’s what they did: a full 6 hour drive! The team’s reunion was worth a celebration that lasted until late at night…

Thank you, team one for being the trailblazers and reccee team on this year’s Tien Shan expedition. Many thanks for your support, time, sweat and exceptional team spirit that made the last two weeks a unique experience. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Safe travels to wherever you are heading. I hope to see you again some time.

Team 2: I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday morning at the Futuro Hotel.

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