Tien Shan: Wolf scat, snow leopard photos and petroglyphs

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Nobody could accuse this snow leopard volunteer expedition of being dull, and the interesting times have continued with the third and final group for this year.

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.

Snow leopard image

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.

Ibex petroglyph
Snow leopard petroglyph

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.

Group 3
Karin, Walter and Sarah recording evidence of ibex footprints
Haley & Aman
End of workday briefing
Haley, Lars and Irving outside the hired drying yurt
A game of ulak about to start
End of expedition dinner
End of expedition dinner
Dismantling base camp

Update from our Kyrgyzstan expedition to the Tien Shan mountains, volunteering in snow leopard conservation.

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