Things that have come out of our Altai snow leopard expedition

Biosphere Expeditions ran a snow leopard expedition to the Saylyugem area of the Altai Republic (Russia) from 2003-2012. We would have continued, had it not been for Russia introducing its ‘foreign agents’ law in November 2012, which made continuing expeditions with international citizen scientists impossible.

However, the expedition and its publications helped to provide the scientific base and impetus for authorities to act. All this has, in recent years, come to fruition in an impressive success story for conservation.

Shortly after the end of the expedition, the Saylyugemsky National Park was established, with its Saylyugem Mountain section roughly corresponding to the expedition study area. One of the aims of the park was to protect vulnerable argali mountain sheep and the endangered snow leopard, which is exactly what our scientific reports argued for. Needless to say that we were very pleased with that outcome.

Since then, the snow leopard population in the park has bounced back and there are now regular camera trap records of snow leopards, including females with cubs and resident males. Most of these records are made by the park authorities, Russian researchers and WWF Russia, who are permitted to work in the area.

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There has also been a rare live sighting on a mountainside, recorded in this video:

The argali population remains precarious and vulnerable to poaching, as does the Siberian ibex population. This lack of prey is a challenge to the snow leopards, as evidenced by recent findings that resident males cover distances of more than 100 km without tracking back on themselves – a very high and unusual distance for snow leopards to cover in this way. The inference is that they are forced to do this in search of large ungulate prey, which continues to be rare in the area.

In another development, also initiated by the expedition and argued for in our expedition reports, the involvement of local people in nature protection continues successfully.

There is now a joint snow leopard conservation project between WWF Russia, the National Park and local people. Local people are involved in – and paid for – camera-trapping, enforcement of environmental legislation and other conservation activities. These activities provide alternative means of income based on conservation and intact nature, and through this local poachers are, little by little, converted to conservationists who by 2020 had installed, checked and maintained 30+ cameras traps over an area of more than 300,000 hectares. These camera traps in 2020 alone recorded 74 incidences of snow leopards in the Kosh-Agach region of the Altai Republic.

All this is good news for snow leopards in particular and nature conservation in general. Biosphere Expeditions is proud to have played its part in getting this success story up and running.

Expedition diaries up to 2011

Diaries between 2002 and 2011 were mainly text-based and are archived below as PDFs.

Diaries were not kept for the early period from Biosphere Expeditions’ foundation in 1999 until 2001.

Research output for all expeditions and years is on Research Gate.

pdf Altai 2003
pdf Altai 2004
pdf Altai 2005
pdf Altai 2006
pdf Altai 2007
pdf Altai 2008
pdf Altai 2009
pdf Altai 2010
pdf Altai 2011

pdf Azores 2004
pdf Azores 2005
pdf Azores 2006
pdf Azores 2007
pdf Azores 2008
pdf Azores 2009
pdf Azores 2010
pdf Azores 2011

pdf Brazil 2006
pdf Brazil 2007
pdf Brazil 2008
pdf Brazil 2010
pdf Brazil 2011

pdf Caprivi 2008
pdf Caprivi 2009

pdf Honduras 2006
pdf Honduras 2007
pdf Honduras 2008
pdf Honduras 2009
pdf Honduras 2011

pdf Maldives 2011

pdf Musandam 2009
pdf Musandam 2010
pdf Musandam 2011

pdf Namibia 2002
pdf Namibia 2003
pdf Namibia 2004
pdf Namibia 2005 (spring)
pdf Namibia 2005 (autumn)
pdf Namibia 2006
pdf Namibia 2007
pdf Namibia 2008 (Caprivi)
pdf Namibia 2009 (Caprivi)
pdf Namibia 2010
pdf Namibia 2011 (rotation 1)
pdf Namibia 2011 (rotation 2)

pdf Oman 2006
pdf Oman 2007

pdf Oman 2008
pdf Oman 2009
pdf Oman 2010
pdf Oman 2011

pdf Peru 2003
pdf Peru 2005
pdf Peru 2006
pdf Peru 2008
pdf Peru 2009
pdf Peru 2011

pdf Slovakia 2004
pdf Slovakia 2005
pdf Slovakia 2006
pdf Slovakia 2007
pdf Slovakia 2008
pdf Slovakia 2010

pdf Spain 2008

pdf Sri Lanka 2005

pdf Ukraine 2003

pdf Western Australia 2010
pdf Western Australia 2011

Azores: Wrapping up the 2020 season

2020 is drawing to a close.

I was able to get out to sea a few more times in October and twice in November.

On 15 October we headed once again to the South of Pico, where the lookout had seen some sei whales and dolphins. After a quick look at the common dolphin, because the lookout was impatient that we get to the sei whales, we headed further down the coast. But first we found a group of bottlenose dolphin, followed by spotted. As we were about to head out, another boat found some Risso’s dolphin closer to the coast. There have not been many Risso’s sightings this summer, so we headed in to see them first. And it was a good thing that we did. I sent the ID photos to Karin Hartman of the Nova Atlantis Foundation, who has been studying the Risso’s for a long time. One of the individuals we saw was S9c, who was first seen in 2002! She had not seen him for some time, so was extremely pleased with our sighting. There appeared to be some bottlenose dolphin interacting with part of the Risso’s dolphin group too, which isn’t seen very often.

In the end, we were lucky to find the sei whales, because the lookout had lost them. In the morning, it is sometimes difficult for the lookout to see to the east, depending on the glare (past expedition members will know this term well!) of the sun on the surface of the sea. At first, they were travelling very fast, up to 13kts to the NW, but eventually slowed up and may have found some food or decided to socialise, because we saw a head out from one of them. The angle that we saw from the boat, made it appear to be a sperm whale to start with! Which would have been extremely surprising, since the lookout hadn’t seen any around. It was confirmed by the photos, that it was the underside of the jaw of a sei whale that we saw. We thought there were two sei whales, but in the end there were three based on the ID photos.

On 16 October, there was a huge group of spotted dolphin feeding with 100s of Cory’s shearwaters and tuna! The dolphin, shearwaters and the tuna are all after the same bait-fish, in this case snipe fish. The whole feeding frenzy was spread over about a mile or so. And then we were lucky to find a group of bottlenose dolphin that had escaped the eagle eye of the vigia.

On 28 October we went to see some bottlenose dolphin, using the dorsal fin IDs, it is the same resident group that we have been seeing the last few trips out. Most of the dolphin were not interested in the boat, but a couple did come over and bowride as the group moved to the southeast. There were some quite large swells around and those made for some good photos as the dolphin either came out of them or surfed down them. One of the bottlenose dolphin had a cookie cutter shark bite on the tail stock. These small sharks attach and take small circular bites out of whales usually, but sometimes they can also have a dolphin snack.

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On 6 November, I made a road trip to Pico, since that was the only likely place to get to sea. Unfortunately, the sea down there was really rough. And although we saw some spotted dolphin, the camera stayed in the case!

My last day out of 2020 was 7 November. And that was unexpected. I was not planning to go out, but the vigia called to say he had sperm whales! This was the first time in a while that sperm whales had been seen instead of sei whales. So I decided to go out on my own and see who was around. Some more surprises, 1019’s group was still hanging around! They have been here since the middle of June, with another sighting at the beginning of September. This group has been to the Canary Islands in the past, so not sure if they will be sticking around here or making the trip south. Anyway, it was a good decision to go. The whales were only a mile or so from the area we covered on the 6th. We also came across a dead Cory’s shearwater, probably a young one that had just left the burrow. It is a steep learning curve when they get out onto the water for their first year. There was no obvious cause of death and we didn’t have any thing to bring it back to shore in, for a more thorough investigation.

During the downtime in between trips, I have been working with a new fluke matching algorithm. The results are amazing, with the program finding matches that had not been previously found. Attached are a few examples. One where instead of three separate IDs there is only one, another where there were some significant changes to the fluke, but the algorithm saw that the basic contour was still the same and another with a few changes. There will be more to come on this program soon, it is almost ready for its public launch.

Thank you very much to Biosphere Expeditions and its donors for the support to get out to sea whenever possible this summer. Hopefully things will be different in 2021 and the expedition will be back up and running as usual.

Stay safe everyone and see you on the water!

Lisa Steiner

P.S. SEAFARI sightings are now online for August/September and October.

Azores: Autumn surprises

I have still been able to get out to sea around the windy days. After the remains of storm Paulette passed to the west, there were still some choppy seas for a few days. Once back on the water, it was nice to see that there are still sperm whales and sei whales around.

On the 27 September we even saw five species. Sperm & sei whales, as well as common, spotted and bottlenose dolphin and a turtle too. The group of whales is known as the “Chrissie/Willie” group and were first seen in August. They are usually on the south of Pico, but this was the second time they were seen to the north of Faial.

Nike’s group has also been seen to the north of the islands a few times. But they didn’t stay there. On 28 September, they were in the north, then on 2 October, they were on the south of Faial. They didn’t stop there and continued to the south of Pico on the 5th, where they have remained, at least up until the 11th. So they have circumnavigated Faial!

On 30 September we went to the north of Faial/Pico. Four sei whales had been seen in the morning and we managed to find them in pretty much the same place in the afternoon. They were making some short dives, circling in the same area, so probably feeding at depth. The sea was quite choppy, so not easy to spot them under the water or see footprints as we usually do. The large waves can make for some pretty spectacular photos, if you catch a whale at the top of a wave or coming out of one.

We went a very long way down the south coast of Pico to see some sei whales on 4 October. There have been sightings of them lunge-feeding in that area for a few days. Unfortunately, not while we were watching. They both had very well marked dorsal fins, so the long haul was worth it.

On our way back to Horta, we also got a glimpse of a whale shark. There were three in the area and one swam past our boat. These animals are not usually seen in the Azores, but there had been sightings for a few days and the lookout can see their large fins above the water. Whale sharks are filter feeders, eating plankton and small fish out of the water column. They are sharks, because instead of bone, they have a cartilaginous skeleton. They are called whale sharks, because of the huge size they grow to, the one we saw was at least 9 m. This is the first whale shark I have seen in 32 years of working in the Azores!

On the 5 October we were again to the south of Pico. Nike’s group present and accounted for close to Lajes, a group of common dolphin feeding with some Cory’s shearwaters and another whale shark encounter on the way home. This time, the visibility was much better and we could see the whole body of the animal as it swam slowly past our boat twice.

On 8 October, we were back to the north of Faial. It was quite choppy, but with the help of the lookout, we found sperm whales and then false killer whales found us! Only one of the sperm whales fluked, the others shallow dived and whether it was a response to the false killer whales in close proximity or they were going to socialise, we don’t know. There were quite a few head-outs and some changes of direction of the sperm whales. False killer whales aren’t known to attack sperm whales and it was also only a small group of them (4-6 animals). It was difficult to get photos of the dorsal fins, due to the choppy seas, but I got two. Hopefully they will match to the false killer whale catalogue. False killer whale sightings are few and far between – they usually follow big pelagic fish, such as tuna or mahi mahi. And we know that there are individuals that have been seen repeatedly since 2005. It is unknown what caused the marks on the sperm whale fluke; suggestions have included a virus, fungus or even a shotgun. The marks are well healed, if indeed it was an injury and not genetic.

On 10 October we were again south of Pico and Nike’s group showed up again after a short stop with some bottlenose dolphin. We were very lucky to arrive just as three of the sperm whale group were at the surface, although two weren’t at a good angle for photographs, but thanks to some very distinct markings one of them, it was identified, as well as the one we were actually following. We waited for the whales to return to the surface, but instead saw a different individual. The lookout then directed us in towards the shore and a group of around 30 false killer whales that was traveling along the coast. This time it was easier to get some dorsal fin ID photos. There were several calves in the group, swimming next to their mothers. The last couple of weeks, the south of Pico has had large schools of tuna, according to fishermen, and this is what the false killer whales are there for. We also had a small group of spotted dolphin, one with a very distinctive “flash” on the dorsal fin. We passed by the whale shark again, but this time only saw a bit of a shadow under the surface. Since they breathe via gills, they do not have to come close to the surface and it is only sometimes if they are feeding close to the surface that we can see them well.

And finally on 11 October, we once again spotted Nike’s group on the south of Pico. A small group of four bottlenose dolphin was then followed by a large group of common dolphin just outside the channel between Pico and Faial.
The main season is now finished on Faial, so I will have to wait for some good weather days to try and get out again.

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Tien Shan: community camera-trapping expedition

Maxim Koshkin, Askat Mukabaev + three local guides (Azamat, Janat and Shamil) are back from their 645 km camera-trapping trip and this is what they found.

The community expedition team (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Note that this is just what they found on the ground. The SD cards they brought back still need to be analysed and we will update everyone when we’ve done that.

Chom-Chykkan area

The approach to the camera traps was conducted using horses, starting from the road running along the Western Karakol river. During the 3-4 hour ascent they observed two small groups of ibex (12 +13) moving west, including at least four male ibex. They also saw two bearded vultures, one Himalayan griffon vulture, two long-legged buzzards, one golden eagle, four ravens and one common snipe over the two days they spent in the area.

Bearded vulture (c) Ilbirs Foundation

They reset and moved existing camera traps, changed SD cards and batteries.

They found no signs of snow leopard activity.

Approaching the Chom-Chykkan camera trapping site on horseback (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Zhooru-Bulak area

Here the team found possible snow leopard sign of activity at two of the three locations they visited (two scats and a scrape) and performed camera trap maintenance.

Camera trap maintenance (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Issyk-Ata/Kara-Tor area

The team installed two camera traps at new locations along a major ridge line and possible snow leopard movement corridor, finding possible signs of activity, including a track and an old scat.

 

 

Ibex on the ridge line (c) Ilbirs Foundation
Ibex on the ridge line (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Kegety

This site may be visited by snow leopards during a hunt as it is frequented by ibex according to local information. The team performed an SD card / battery swap, but found no sign of snow leopard activity.

In the mountains (c) Ilbirs Foundation

We’ll be back with information about what’s on the SD cards and the 2019/2020 report with the results of last year’s long citizen science expedition and the results of this year’s short community expedition will be out soon too. Watch this space.

Thank you to our community camera trappers and the Ilbirs Foundation for organising the community expedition and to our donors for making it possible.

Azores: Before the remnants of Paulette

The vigias on the north of the islands have been keeping us busy. On 12 September, we had a large spread-out group of sperm whales, 10 individuals were identified between myself and a friend on another boat! Some of the individuals were previously seen in 2016. After a group of three females plus a calf dived, we headed off in search of a group of Risso’s dolphin. We were lucky and found them. They were also very spread out and it didn’t seem like I was going to get any ID photos, but in the end we found a few groups of mothers and calves that were more approachable. There was a leucistic (lighter colouration) calf seen, this is only the second “white” calf that I have seen. A local expert says this is the third light calf that she knows about. Usually Risso’s dolphin calves are born dark and get whiter as they age, but this one was already white, with the foetal folds showing as dark creases, instead of the other way around. One individual breached a few times and there were also a few lobtails, so it looked like there was some socialising going on. Photos were sent to the expert, who has studied the Risso’s dolphin off Pico for over 15 years. She recognised some of the individuals as part of the “Faial Ladies” group often seen around Faial, including Resa, who has been seen on previous expeditions. Other individuals were unknown. There have not been a lot of sightings of Risso’s dolphin this year and it is not clear why. One possible factor could be the disturbance caused by swimming with dolphins. Risso’s dolphins do not usually show much interest in boats, so to be targeting this species for swimming, probably causes more stress than in other species. They are also resident, so usually use certain areas for resting and feeding. If those areas were no longer suitable for resting or feeding because of disturbance, it is possible that they have moved to other less trafficked areas. We also spotted a loggerhead turtle basking at the surface.

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On 13 September we were back to the north of the islands. In the morning I managed to get one sperm whale fluke, visibility was not great for spotting blows, so was happy with the one I got. We also had a sei whale and some pilot whales. In the afternoon, there were a lot of sperm whales spread out over a wide area to the north of Faial. A lot of distant breaches were seen in different directions. It appeared that a social group was going to form, since most of the whales that were approached, shallow dived, without showing their flukes, another indicator, along with breaching/lobtailing that indicates social behaviour, rather than feeding behaviour. In the end, I was lucky, two of the whales in the group that we chose to follow, fluked, just as we were giving up hope of seeing any flukes! Our patience was rewarded!

On 15 September, with the remnants of hurricane Paulette lurking on the horizon, we were out to the south of Pico, the most sheltered area. The vigia had seen a group of sperm whales, which turned out to be the “Nike” group and although she wasn’t seen, I did get a photo of “2529” and her calf as well as Nike’s calf from 2018.

The last trip before the windy weather arrived was also to the south of Pico on  17 September. We went out to try and find a sei whale that the lookout had seen, instead a group of sperm whales was found with the hydrophone about 10 miles off the coast. This group was last seen in 2019 to the north of Faial. On the way home, the lookout spotted the sei whales we had been looking for. They were quite elusive, but thanks to the help of a local fishing boat, we managed a glimpse of one of the individuals, before continuing towards Horta. Since then I have been stuck onshore, with the remnants of Paulette, passing by well to the west of the islands, causing strong winds in the Faial/Pico area.

Tien Shan: off we go after all!

The community team have recovered and the coronavirus numbers in Kyrgyzstan have gone down as the country seems to be on a different curve to Europe, for example.

So the team are heading into the mountains today from Bishkek to work with the community camera trappers, retrieve camera trap SD cards, service the camera traps and engage with the local community in the absence of a citizen science expedition this year.

They’ll be on horseback to speed things up. Watch this space for updates.

 

Costa Rica: Nesting season finished

In Pacuare, we are continued to run the project just with the local leaders, one research assistant and the biologist. The nesting season has now finished and we have closed the research station until next year, when we are hoping to reopen it again in time for next season, pandemic permitting.

The green turtle season was small and slow with just few nests, but because of this with a great success rate (almost 100%) of saving nests from poachers.

For leatherbacks, the hatchling numbers were similar to  previous seasons (see reports about those here). The eventual poaching rate was around 40-50%, depending on the month.

Thank you again to all those who supported the continuation of work despite the pandemic. For most of you this was by donating from afar this year. But we hope to return in person in 2021 and our expedition dates in May 2021 are on the website. Do join us if you can!

Azores: After the wind, a couple of surprises!

After a few days of windy weather when we were unable to get to sea, we were finally back out on 9 September. We headed to the south of Pico, since the sea was going to be calmer there. We were lucky the whales were in an area without rain showers. I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group, since it was the area they had been for a couple of months now. But much to my surprise it was the “1019” group!! I was able to get three out of five flukes from the adults, with colleagues getting one of the other individuals. “1019” was first seen in 1988, but then not again until 2006, when she was observed with “3186” and they have been seen together ever since. This group was first seen in 2020 in the middle of June for a week and then they vanished. September is a more typical time of year for them to turn up in the Azores, but they have sometimes been seen earlier. I do not know where they have been for the past 2.5 months, I will have to wait for photos from São Miguel and Pico to see if they were sighted there in the meantime. I do not think they would have gone down to the Canaries and back again in this time. They have been observed in the Canaries during the winter one year. We also saw a shy group of striped dolphin and a small group of feeding common dolphin. As we crossed the channel towards Faial, a rain shower finally caught up with us and although it didn’t last very long, it was very wet while it lasted!

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On 10 September we were also back to the south of Pico, this time because no animals had been seen in the north, by the time we left. I wondered if we were going to see the “1019” group again, since they usually hang around for a while before continuing on their way. It was not to be, but there was another surprise. The “Nike” group, which is usually seen on the south of Pico most of the summer, was back in their usual area. I photographed one individual of this group to the north of the islands in the middle of July and have been expecting them to turn up on the south ever since. I did not see “Nike” herself or one other individual of the group, but did manage to photograph three adults and “Nike’s” 2018 calf. Getting a good photo of this individual was excellent, because I only had a photo of 3/4 of the fluke from 2018 from a side fluke photo. The matching program found the match straight away though, so now I have a full fluke photo to carry on with.

We also saw a pair of sei whales milling around, possibly feeding at depth. One of them was quite thin. This time of year, the whales should be finding a lot of food to fill out the “hollows” caused by not eating for four months or so while they are on their breeding ground. Hopefully it will find enough food over the next few months to survive. Both of the sei whales had nicks on the top of their dorsal fins at the leading edge, rather than the trailing edge. This type of nick is usually caused by monofilament line, slicing through the dorsal fin. We didn’t spot any dolphins and unfortunately missed a sighting of a whale shark. It disappeared about five minutes before we arrived to the area.