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.
So group 2 has finished with great success and we look forward to starting our third and final group of this year’s snow leopard volunteer project in Kyrgyzstan on Monday.