Tien Shan: Group 3

Group 3 is back in Bishkek, with amazing stories to tell! This hard working group consisted of Clemens, Gerd, Marcus, Nadja, Ulf and Helena (Germany), Andi (Austria), Geoff, Amelia and Lyndal (Australia) and Stuart, James and Anjum (UK), in addition to myself (Amadeus), our excellent cook Gulya, our two local NABU guides Zhyrgal and Zhengish, as well as our scientist Volodya.

Leaving Bishkek as soon as possible on Monday morning was probably one of the best things all of us could hope for as the temperature was already in the high 30s at only 09:00! After a (thankfully) uneventful drive, we reached base camp in the late afternoon, had a quick tour around, and proceeded to set up our tents before a good first supper.

Once our training day was done, we got right into things with a day into the Sary Kul valley, putting our training into practice. Apart from some marmots and ibex bones, we didn’t get much out of our first day out, but it was great fun all the same. Everyone was super excited to get into the thick of things.

One funny story that must be told is the search for the Issyk Kul camera traps. Although a valiant effort was made,  armed with a GPS with coordinates, the team that set off to find two camera traps in Issyk Kul were not able to locate them…quite frustrating! The following day, the team tried again, and instead of finding two, they found three! Upon return to camp though, Volodya had a look at them, and found out that one of them had not been switched on! But the other cameras had hundreds of photographs on them…unfortunately again, this was because when they were picked up, this time they weren’t turned off! So there were a lot of photographs of the camera being carried around through Issyk Kul Valley. Blurry images of boots, rocks, grass, and other items along the trail. But in the end, there was one ibex that had been captured as well as perhaps the ear of a fox.

On our day off we got to watch some excellent ulak tartysh (goat polo) and Ulf, Helena, Andi, and Clemens even got cajoled into playing a mini game! It was awesome to see them playing so well and the local shepherds loved how the four of them were so into it. It even got so real that Clemens (accidentally?) got whipped by one of the others in the battle! After such a game, of course, we had to have some food, so after watching another game of ulak, we went over to Joldosh’s yurt for a very filling meal of local delights. What an excellent opportunity to get so up close and personal with the local culture.

We also had a special treat during the second week. A group of archaeologists had gotten in touch with Amadeus just a day before group 3 left Bishkek, and had asked if they could set up camp nearby for a day and come along with us on a day out to see some of the petroglyphs and burial mounds. It turns out they are considering using our snow leopard citizen science work as an example for getting people to come to Kyrgyzstan to do archaeological research. It was great to learn more about the cultural history of the area from these experts.

So now the part that I had a hard time waiting to write…

After multiple snow leopard signs being found by various members: tracks, scrapes, kills, and scat, a group made their way up to Chong Chikan where two camera traps had been set up by previous groups. This is in an interesting location where there is a tiny bit of cell phone reception, so there is a high amount of shepherd traffic. The team brought back two cameras, and were completely tired out from the trek. I later went through the images on the computer…shepherd…shepherd…shepherd…shepherd’s dog…horse tail swish…horse tail swish…and on and on it went like that. And then all of a sudden, a night shot with two glowing eyes! I jumped up out of my seat and called everyone in camp over to the computer to show them an excellent photograph of a beautiful snow leopard! Words just can’t expressed how happy everyone was to see such a great picture!

On that note, here are the rest of our data:

  • Our total cell count was 56, a new record
  • We found evidence of snow leopard, manul, wolf, fox, argali, ibex, roe deer, marmot, snowcock, badger, stone martin, stoat, and plenty of birds. We basically checked off nearly everything on the list in this group!
  • We also made new records of nearly 100 petroglyphs and have data on 19 different species of butterfly.

Group 4, I look forward to meeting you and getting back up to the mountains so we can get even more research done. All groups have done a sterling job so far, so let’s keep it going group 4. Are you as ready as I am to get into the mountains and find more signs of the mountain ghost?! Yes? Then I’ll see you at the Futuro Hotel at 08:00, Monday morning.

Tien Shan: Second half

Hello expedition group three! My name is Amadeus DeKastle and I’ll be leading groups three and four after Malika’s excellent job with groups one and two.

Amadeus DeKastle

I’ll give you a brief rundown of what has been happening here in Kyrgyzstan since group two ended. Friday and Saturday have been full of preparations. Making plans with Volodya, our scientist, for what we’ll cover in the next two groups, doing some introductory training with Zhengish, one of our new NABU guides, and doing a ton of shopping with our fantastic cook Gulya. Sunday will be a continuation of the shopping at the local bazaar to get all the fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, and various other goodies necessary for keeping us going.

I’m really excited to be getting back up to the mountains for my fifth year working with Biosphere Expeditions’ Snow Leopard research there. Not only do I love the research we do up there, but I’ve always really enjoyed the camaraderie of the people that choose to come on these expeditions. I can’t imagine there are very many other places where I can meet exceptional people like you who feel passionately about conservation. With that said, I look forward to seeing group three Monday morning and I can’t wait to get into the mountains and “suffer for science” with all of you.

Tien Shan: Group 2

The second group has been and gone. The team, Volodya, Guma, Beka and Ismail have arrived back in Bishkek. We’ve been off the radar for a full two weeks up in the mountains.

Team 1: Volodya says thank you so much for the heart-warming goodbye postcard that I passed on to him upon my return to base camp two weeks ago!

Now, let me introduce you to the second team: They were Angelika, Christa, Christina & Nils, Detlev, Jochen and Meike from Germany, Hilary & John from the U.S as well as Mark & Rowan from the UK.

It all began with a bad weather day: rain started when we arrived at base camp late in the afternoon on Monday, and all of Tuesday was a mixture of wet, very wet and a few dry periods. Multiple layers of clothing and an enormous amount of hot tea kept us warm during the training lectures & sessions. In time for our fist survey walk on Wednesday, the sun came out in the morning and from then on it was the same every single day! Most days it was hot, a protective hat and thick layers of sunbloc became essential on our survey walks. After a few days, we were eager for a refreshing afternoon bath in the river after returning to camp, completely ignoring the shower tents. However, the temperature dropped close to zero degrees on some nights, when we found the tents covered in a fine layer of ice in the morning.

On the surveys, we covered the upper valleys multiple times again. They became much more accessible with each sunny day of melting snow fields. Surveys were possible all the way up to the bottom of the glaciers in Isyk Ata, Jaartash, Jor Bulak, Kashka Tor, Kashtor and Chon Chikan. While we concentrated our searches on higher altitudes (3,400 – 3,700 m), Nils, Mark & Rowan became the team’s special force for exploring the high ridges and steep slopes. Our efforts were rewarded with amazing findings: snow leopard tracks & scat, Pallas’ cat tracks and evidence of ibex in many places (see details below).

We installed six more camera traps, two each in Chon Chikan (at the same location we couldn’t reach in group 1), Isyk Ata (close to a snow leopard track) and Jor Bulak (located in between those two valleys). It seems that the study animals have already retreated to calmer (and less accessible) areas, avoiding disturbance from people and livestock. By now the Suusamyr valley hosts a great number camps, herders as well as huge herds of sheep, cattle, horses and even a herd of yaks that roam the side valleys as far up as they find fresh green grass. Quite often we spotted horses and cattle above 3.600 m.

Over the course of the last two weeks, we also went twice the long way down to Tuyuk valley, only to find out that the stream is still impossible to cross. Twice we couldn’t reach the most interesting area just below the glacier. Good luck with this task, group 3! If the weather conditions remain the same, you will be the first group exploring a place that has proved a hotspot in past surveys. Unexpectedly though, Volodya saw two argali (mountain sheep) there – a female with a juvenile roaming the green rolling hills in the lower valley. What an exceptional sighting! Since 2014 only the odd single male argali sheep has been seen, most probably on the search for a partner to establish a new herd.

From the moment the Karakol pass road was reported clear, we included Karator and Pitiy valley on the other side again in our surveys. I am thankful none of the teams got in trouble on the way back – not even the team that was hit by thunderstorm and hail a few days ago… 😉 By the end of week two, we also started with interviewing local people. Detlev, Jochen, Meike, Hilary & John took the chance to visit some of our neighbours in their yurts or huts accompanied by Ismail to help with translating . The variety of people – grandparents to children – and their living conditions – nicely decorated traditional yurt to simple shanty – was eye-opening.

Now, here is the summary of the research results:

43 different cells of 2×2 km were covered (20 of the once, twenty twice and three three times)

Species recorded:

31x marmot
17x ibex
6x snow cock
1x argali
1x roe deer
3x Pallas’ cat tracks (TBC)
2x snow leopard (scat & tracks)

Birds:

45 species including rare sightings of imperial eagle and black kite.  Five new species added to the bird inventory: Eurasian harpe, brown accentor, little ringed plover, variable wheatear, rusty-trumped warbler.

Petroglyphs & butterflies:

38 recordings that will be added to the database

Besides all the work, a UNO game after dinner became a daily routine for some, others simply enjoyed a cold beer after a hot day and the quiet and peaceful atmosphere at camp with the orange sky turning into red just before sunset.

On Sunday (our day off), we experienced another highlight when herders from north and south Sussamyr valley got together for a horse game with us watching. All of this was organised through Bekbolot and Volodya (who is called “grandpa” by the local herders that have known him for years ;)). They did a great job with spreading the word a couple of days before, but none of us knew how many herders would join until we reached the playground at a place called “Aral” in the middle of Sussamyr valley. The scenery we found made us watch in awe: dozens of horses, men of all ages equipped with protectors for the game, dogs that got excited about what was going to happen soon. It was a great spectacle and the “price”, a headless sheep each team tried to pick up from the ground and lay in a specific spot to earn a point, was trampled and beaten thoroughly. After the game the meat was prepared at neighbour Djoldosh’s hut where we enjoyed a traditional Kyrgyz meal altogether. The upper valley winner team was around offering free horse riding … great fun, especially for Hilary and Christina that were gone for quite a while. The meal turned into a party that ended just before the sun set at base camp.

Thank you so much, team 2! I had a great time living and working with you for the last two weeks. Thank you for your contributions in so many ways. None of what we have experienced during the last two weeks would happen without you joining us. Remember the the three Ss: Safety, science and satisfaction – I think we made all of it work out very well as a team!

A day before I leave Kyrgyzstan, I am handing over to Amadeus who will be the expedition leader for groups 3 & 4. Good luck to you and all future participants!

Germany: Final entry

We’re done for this year and once again we have collected a shedload of data for Peter, so who better to summarise it all than the man himself

In words, we

  • covered 28 10 x 10 km grid cells
  • walked 743 km
  • found 236 wolf scats
  • of these froze 156 scats for later dietary analysis by Lotte
  • of these put 26 in ethanol for DNA analysis
  • we also had two direct sights (one with and one without a photo taken)

As Peter says, this is a huge boost to the official wolf monitoring in Lower Saxony and we can all be proud of what we have achieved. Without the committment of you citizen scientists, only a tiny fraction of these data would have been collected.

Thank you to everyone. I’ll let some of you speak for the expedition as whole and add my personal gratitude and appreciation. The official report will be out within six to twelve months. I look forward to this and to perhaps seeing some of you again, in Germany or elsewhere on this beautiful, fragile planet of ours.

Matthias
Expedition leader

Group 1
Group 2

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Germany: Three days in a row

Today is  our last day in the field. The last couple of weeks have flown by and our teams have outdone themselves: the top result was 26 km for one team in one day!

Thank you for the support of the many wolf commissioners who have helped us and given us a glimpse of what it means to be at the forefront of a returning predator to a country and a people that have forgotten how to live in side by side to a large carnivore.

When out with one of the wolf commissioners, he was called to look at a flock of sheep that had been attacked. The flock was not protected by the minimum recommended herd protection measures and our citizen scientists experienced first-hand how important herd protection is in a landscape to which the wolves have returned.

Other groups came across groups of majestic red deer and other animals in the forest.

Today we’re on the home straight and we’re full of suspense on what the final preliminary results of this year’s expedition will be. Stay tuned.

Germany: And so it continues…

On Saturday morning, we met ten keen, fresh-faced “ordinary” people from the UK, Germany, Russia, Luxembourg and the USA at Bremen airport. Two days and our training mill later, we have ten citizen scientists ready to go. Go forth, team 2, and bring back those nuggets!

 

Germany: Good job group 1!

Time flies. Group 1 of 2 is done already. We had a lot of exciting wildlife sightings during the week and we ended the last day of field work with 15 more samples and a good feeling of being successful.

Well done group 1! You can be proud of what you have achieved. 151 scats in total and an amazing number of 97 samples, which were will be used for diet analysis. Once more you have shown how significant the impact of citizen scientists can be, and is, for wolf monitoring in Lower Saxony.

We spent our last evening together travelling around the world including a Chinese tea ceremony, a quick detour into the monitoring of the black-footed ferret in Canada and some photo impressions of the wildlife in our direct neighborhood.

Safe journeys back group 1, to wherever you are going in the world. Thanks a lot and we hope we will meet again in the future, on an expedition or somewhere else on this beautiful planet.

See you tomorrow group 2!

(c) Theo Grüntjens
(c) Theo Grüntjens

Germany: Wolf nuggets and another sighting

Our overnight team is back from the Göhrde with 71 findings, including five DNA samples. Well done!

The others have not been idle either. On Wednesday they went to the Ebstorf region, accompanied by the local wolf commissioner and his four-legged companion. The aim was to solve the mystery of whether there were wolves in the area. Seven DNA samples and a total of 15 findings later, it was clear that they are present. And as if to emphasise their existence, at the end of the day, just a few meters from the car – a WOLF! It appeared on the forest path at some distance, looked briefly in the direction of our happy observers and walked calmly away. A memory that will last forever.

(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg

Germany: Two wolf pups and other adventures

We’ve been very busy in the field for the past couple of days.

Six of us went for an overnight trip to the Ghörde area with wolf commissioner Kenny of Kenners Landlust and produced a haul of 30 scats and a sighting of two wolf pups!

Others checked camera traps (no wolf on them) and/or went with wolf commissioner Theo: their haul was six scats.

Not bad at all for a Monday and Tuesday in the office!

(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg
(c) Torsten Berg