It feels strange and somehow wrong to be sitting on a long-haul flight again. Strange because it’s been a good while, thanks to the pandemic, and wrong because so much has happened since then in terms of the planet sending very clear signals that we are doing a great job in cutting off the branch that human civilisation sits on. So we at Biosphere Expeditions have decided we will only fly if absolutely necessary. If we can’t avoid flying (such as to the Maldives), we now try to pack as many jobs as possible into a flight. So I am here on the non-too-shabby resort of Baros, not far from Male’, to train their dive centre staff and the resident marine biologist in Reef Check so that they can conduct surveys themselves and eventually also train other Maldivians (and on the way back, I will stop off in Dubai to work on our forthcoming Arabia expedition).
Shuga, the Maldivian marine biologist I am training here, will also join us on the expedition, alongside two other Maldivians, as part of our placement programme.
Anyway, I am Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions and I will be your expedition leader for this Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition, next to our esteemed expedition scientist Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt. We’re both old and frustrated codger-biologists, so you have been warned! 😉
I arrived to grey, stormy weather and rain. Jean-Luc’s codger message to me on take-off was “enjoy the rain, old man”. I wasn’t surprised.
But underwater made up for it. The Baros house reef was in a bad state three years ago, but it has bounced back somewhat. There is quite a bit of coral regrowth and within two 40-minute dives, I saw all fish indicator species (grouper, sweetlips, butterflyfish, snapper and more), three shark species, a turtle and all substrate types (hard coral, soft coral, rock, sand, rubble etc.). Not expecting much, it was a pleasant surprise to see the reef not dead, but fighting back. I wonder whether this is a good omen for the forthcoming expedition? It will certainly be interesting to see what state the reefs are in. Don’t get your hopes up high, though. We may just be documenting humankind’s cancerous effect on this part of our planet too. We will see. Jean-Luc will be telling us, without mincing his words, what it all means and I can guarantee you that he will open your eyes to reefs and help you see them like you’ve never seen them before, no matter what state they will be in.
The itinerary he has set for the expedition is below and a visualisation of the places we will survey and visit is here.
I will write again in the next couple of days. In the meantime, happy packing and travels. I hope you have swotted up on Reef Check. The more you can do now, the easier the whirlwind of the first two training days will be, trust me.
Group 3 started dramatically with a mountain storm erupting without warning within hours of the team arriving at base camp. 30 minutes of high winds destroyed one of our three yurts and many of our tents, necessitating two prompt actions – a hasty arrangement to hire a yurt from a local shepherd and a long drive back to Bishkek for expedition leader Roland to buy some more tents. Both missions were completed successfully. Then expedition leader Roland tested positive for Covid. Leading an expedition while self-isolating proved to be a novel experience, but group 3 was a strong and dependable team and the expedition continued largely as planned. Another expeditioner then also tested positive for Covid a day after Roland, but thanks to the implementation of our Covid protocol, the spread stopped there.
Despite these setbacks and some challenging weather in the first few days, the expedition team pulled out the stops and achieved some good scientific research over the two weeks. We visited most of the camera traps already located in the mountains, to replace SD cards and to retain, move or bring back each camera. We surveyed many 2×2 km cells – many of them covering new valleys we had not visited before. We saw ibex, high up on ridges. We discovered many instances of ibex footprints and scat and – excitingly – some snow leopard footprints too. We also found large carnivore scat on a few occasions.
It is not easy to directly tell whether such scats are from snow leopard, wolf or even lynx, but the location and neighbouring clues often help. Wolf predation of livestock is common here – much more than with snow leopard who favour ibex as their main prey and we came across a few horse and cow carcasses and accompanying wolf scat on at least one occasion. Even more excitingly, we found likely snow leopard scat a couple of times and we have a total of six potential snow leopard scats from the three groups, ready to send off for DNA analysis to confirm their identity.
Group 3 also had the task of checking the camera traps that were put up by the previous two groups. All the camera traps were placed in strategic locations, often on high ridges, where we have found good evidence of ibex at least. Some of these cameras have captured good photos of ibex and snowcock, amongst other snow leopard prey animals. And two images of cameras have given us images of snow leopards – just a few days old in each case. This revelation never fails to being much excitement and celebration at our debrief sessions each evening.
Alongside our surveys of snow leopards and their prey, we naturally look out for any other interesting wildlife and other finds. We are always accompanied by buzzards, eagles and vultures. And often we come across petroglyphs, which are common in this valley but no less intriguing because of it. These are rock carving line pictures, depicting local animals, made many thousands of years ago in some cases. Most of the petroglyphs show recognizable animals (but some are not at all obvious and invite imaginative interpretation). Simple line drawings of ibex are especially common and we have also seen carvings of Argali sheep, camels, dogs –and occasionally snow leopards.
In group 3 we have also continued our social research into attitudes to the opportunities of eco-tourism amongst the local shepherd families. This involves visiting our neighbours up and down the valley, in their yurts and tents, always being received with great hospitality and courtesy. With our multilingual Kyrgyz scientist Dr Taalai Mambetov acting as interpreter, our expeditioners interview the shepherds, loosely following a prepared series of questions, but largely enjoying a free-flowing conversation. The interviews gave us a good insight into the realities of shepherding life in the upper Suussamyr Valley – and a strong appetite to host adventurous tourists here in the future.
The 2022 Tien Shan snow leopard expedition has brought some memorable challenges but was ultimately very successful, with a total of 30 expeditioners achieving an impressive amount of citizen science over six weeks in Suussamyr Valley: We have surveyed seventy six 2×2 km cells, many more than once, collected six samples of likely snow leopard scat ready for DNA analysis, discovered three sets of photos of snow leopards on camera traps, found snow leopard footprints, seen herds of ibex on mountain ridges on several occasions and we have interviewed twelve local shepherd families. And alongside all this, we have immersed ourselves in the wild mountain environment, scrambled up rocky ridges, seen a lot of local wildlife, discovered ancient and intriguing rock art, watched crazy games of ulak (the national sport of Kyrgyzstan, with horse riders fighting over a goat carcass, in a mad chaos of hooves and mud) and made new friends.
As one expeditioner reflected – “A once in a lifetime experience! This was a great way to deep dive into a country, push yourself outside your comfort zone and save some wildlife. The science we do here may not seem like much on a single day, but it adds up and contributes to a wonderful research project.”
So I end this diary by thanking all expeditioners, whose time and funds make this expedition possible, our partner NABU Kyrgyzstan and its snow leopard rangers, our head ranger Aman and his wife Gulia, our amazing cook, our expedition scientist Dr. Taalai Mambetov and everyone else who helps to make this expedition a success. Thank you all. You all contribute to making this expedition what it is.
Aman, our chief ranger, spotted them first, through binoculars. Once he pointed them out to us, they were obvious, even to the naked eye. Around twenty vultures circling over a spot on the far hillside, occasionally landing and pecking at… something. It was a dead horse. This valley is home to many herds of horses – not wild, but roaming free – and they occasionally fall victim to wolves. The vultures we saw might spend a few days getting a meal from what the wolves had left, a reminder for us of the circle of life.
Vultures are not part of our snow leopard expedition, but they are one of the more dramatic creatures that we have seen on this expedition. Our valley seems to have an unusually high population of large birds of prey. We see bearded vultures, golden eagles, buzzards and other raptors every day, often flying or perched on a rock very close to us. On group 2 we have also seen badgers – smaller, lighter coloured and less nocturnal than their European cousins, a mysteriously tame weasel and other mustelids, as well as a host of smaller bird species – wagtails, warblers, larks and choughs have all been seen and identified. The choughs are especially a welcome accompaniment to our high mountain walks, with their acrobatic flight and musical calls.
Most days we spend on hikes, slowly surveying many of the side valleys, peaks and ridges, looking for any evidence of the species we are researching – snow leopards and their main prey species (ibex, argali, marmots and snowcocks). Most days our small teams find something to report – marmots are relatively common on the lower slopes. Footprints or scat of ibex are found on the higher slopes and sometimes – always to great excitement – we see a herd of ibex walking along a ridge or up a slope. All of these findings are photographed and recorded on datasheets according to our research protocols.
We have also been deploying camera traps in suitable places – mostly on high ridges with signs of snow leopards or ibex – and have been able to check some of the cameras already. When we retrieve the traps or their SD cards, the exciting work of scrolling through all the photos begins. Many of them are of moving grass, sometimes even bright sunlight triggers them, so it is painstaking work. But sooner or later we are rewarded and we have happily discovered a handful of images of ibex, snowcocks and two snow leopards so far. These are important pieces of evidence for the research project as well as a source of great excitement for us at base camp. At the time of writing there are still a good few cameras waiting to be retrieved from the mountains by group 3.
We have had a few rainy cold days – this is the high mountains after all. But everyone has brought suitable clothing as recommended in the expedition kit list so our work continues whatever the weather. And the wood burner in our ‘drying’ yurt has proved very welcome when we return to base camp. An especially stormy night ripped a couple of our tents and we also suffered tent damage from a wayward animal. But we have enough spare tents, so no problem.
A new element of our research this year is a survey of the local shepherd families about the potential for ecotourism, which might offer a new source of income for local people, give an incentive to protect and encourage wildlife and perhaps in time allow a reduction in livestock numbers in the valley, which are in competition with the ibex and the argali. The interviews we have been carrying out are intended to assess interest in the idea. So far, volunteer citizen scientists Margot and Kathy have been our chief interviewers, accompanied by our scientist Taalai as interpreter. This team has been welcomed with wonderful hospitality by the women and men they have approached, and ten interviews have now been completed, with a great variety of responses. The great majority of people are in favour of small-scale ecotourism in the valley and at least one respondent said he would give up shepherding altogether in favour of an income from ecotourism.
These interviews have been a fantastic way of getting to know our neighbours. And more widely, it is clear that the Biosphere Expedition is very welcome here – the local shepherds are very hospitable and express a great interest in what we are doing. Last week we were invited to watch a game of Ulak – the national game of Kyrgyzstan, involving two teams of horse riders ferociously competing to score goals with a goat carcass – followed by a generous meal in a local shepherd’s yurt. Many toasts and promises of continued friendship and collaboration were made.
Group 2 is going well. Covid has not reared its ugly head again, so after getting to base and two days of training, several more valleys have now been surveyed.
We put new camera traps on a high ridge by an ibex superhighway. Whilst doing this, we saw a group of ibex further up the same ridge. We also spotted marmots, stoats, badgers, many many eagles, vultures, buzzards, and many other birds.
We also started doing interviews with people in the main valley to find out about their attitudes towards low-scale / low-impact ecotourism based on intact nature as a means of generating income for them. Our first interviewees were five herder’s wives. We found varying attitudes towards tourism, including some very open to the idea of hosting tourists and providing horses. We have more interviews planned, including with the herders themselves. We are also starting conversations about how livestock numbers are restricted (not very effectively) in the valley and the possibility of creating buffer valleys for wildlife without livestock.
Yesterday, Sunday, we came over the pass and into a local village with a phone signal, which is why I can send this diary update. A fuller account next weekend when we change over to group 3.