It’s been a memorable two weeks. This has been the first Tien Shan snow leopard volunteer expedition for three years, we have a new scientist on the ground and various new equipment and systems, alongside the challenge of managing Covid risk on expedition.
The eleven snow leopard citizen scientists on this expedition can be proud of themselves as pioneers. The full team – the citizen scientists Jason, Jörg, Valerie, Anke, Coleen, Anne, Pierre, Alan, Nadine & Lydie, expedition leaders Roland and Malika, scientist Taalai, rangers Aman, Beka and Ayan, cook Gulia and placement Kubanychek – got on well from the start. The first two days of orientation and training were busy, but rewarding. After weeks of preparation, it was great to get started.
The snow leopard expeditioners were trained in everything needed for the success of the expedition, from off-road driving to the snow leopard research methods and expedition safety protocols. The new toilet and shower huts are a big improvement. The expedition office, in the back of the truck, worked well as a base for all the science kit and Gulia fed us all well from the start. The new solar power system, to charge all the gadgets and yurt lights was a disappointment for the first few days until Jason (citizen scientist and also an engineer) and Roland spotted and – with a little ingenuity – fixed a loose connection. We now have power as expected. Our new GPS units have taken a lot of effort to set up, but now we have all learnt their eccentricities, they are a vital tool to use for navigation, to mark the locations and camera traps and important research finds, and for satellite communication.
Within a few days we hit a rhythm and stride. One aim of the expedition, amongst others, is to find evidence of snow leopards or their prey over a vast area centred on the Karakol valley. We have a relatively simple and robust methodology to do this – spending each day exploring hidden side valleys, marking the location of any significant finds – sightings, footprints or any other evidence of key species. A lot of time is spent sitting in this beautiful mountain landscape, peering through binoculars. We also deploy camera traps in strategic positions high in the mountains. And we keep a tally of any bird species we can identify. Trekking up these valleys, with river crossings, rocky terrain and steep ground is hard work, especially since there are no well-trodden paths, signposts, bridges or any other mod cons in these rugged and remote mountains. But our efforts have been rewarded with several sightings of ibex, a key prey species for snow leopards, as well as many marmots, eagles and vultures. A highlight was discovering on one of camera traps – amongst dozens of photos of marmots, foxes, stoats (and a few mystery animals) – recorded three photos of a snow leopard walking down a snowy ridge in late last and then ibex in the same spot early this year. The camera trap was placed there by our community camera trapping group and retrieved by group 1 a few days ago.
An unwanted twist to our snow leopard expedition story were two Covid infections early in the expedition, despite all our precautions, and then two more. Our Covid protocol was implemented with the first case and I am happy to report that we managed to stop the virus spreading further.
Towards the end of the expedition, a few hardy expeditioners chose to hike for six hours up to a spot high above base camp and spend a night under the stars, to allow the next day to be spent exploring a remote ridge with a lot of signs of ibex – a great location to place camera traps for both the ibex and, hopefully, any snow leopards that might be stalking them.
Over the past two weeks we have surveyed 100 ‘cells’ on our target map – representing 400 square kilometres of mountain terrain – we have had several sightings of ibex, recorded evidence of many key species and captured images of snow leopards on camera traps – all in all a great success. The team 1 now retires tired, but happy. From Monday, team 2 has big boots to fill and we look forward to exploring the Karakol Valley and add to our research findings. with a fresh team of citizen scientists