From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Once more a team stayed out in the field for a night. This time Aman, Ulan, Volodya, Liss, Martin H. and James made it further to the east to explore a big valley. Our maps indicated an accession via a pass to a remote area higher up. They found a huge barren area, which Liss described as ‘Mars’-like. Despite this there was good evidence of ibex and even argali. The next slot has to work out where to place camera traps as there is an old pass that leads into another big valley further north. We don’t know yet if this pass is still being used to move livestock between the two valleys.

Furthermore we installed two more camera traps way up in a valley next to our base camp. All in all there are now 14 cameras placed in the field. It will be a challenge for the next slots to go back to these places to check each of them. But it will be also an exiting task.

Now, this is my last entry as I am handing over to Paul who will lead slots 4 and 5. I would like to thank everybody who supported our common idea of wildlife conservation and helped me personally in many ways to make it fly. It’s you who made my eight weeks in the field a memorable time indeed. Thank you.

I wish Paul and the next two slots a successful (snowy is still the only visible snow leopard in the area) and enjoyable time.

Ronald

 

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Following teams 1 and 2, team 3 also spent their (Sun)day off with a herder. The afternoon was entertaining for everybody, including the family of the herder 😉

At the beginning of this week we resurveyed valleys that we could not reach the end of previously, because of snow. A very promising valley (we named it ‘You Youkon’) attracted our attention from the very first visit. This week Ulf, Ilka, Sheilo and Paul finally made it up to a pass that might give us the chance of advancing further north into what we hope will be undisturbed higher ground. Their findings confirmed our plan to go back there again for an overnighter: many ibex and argali tracks as well as wolf scat.

The Ysik Ata valley can now also be walked up to the very end, up to the ridge where the glacier begins. There we installed two camera traps in promising places (and have now added camera trap pictures to the previous entry on https://biosphereexpeditions.wordpress.com/).

Throughout this slot we have found petroglyphs in many places. We are actually not counting them anymore. Thomas has meanwhile compiled a comprehensive collection of photos of them. Thanks’ for that.

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We have also extended our surveys to the east, checking out a new valley. Again there seems to be a pass leading north into the unknown and hopefully undisturbed parts of the range. Besides the perpetually exciting sightings of several ibex, the local herder told us that last year he saw a snow leopard feeding on a sheep in that area. Well, you can’t take everything for granted, but we will definitely be back. And it feels like we’re getting closer to our quarry…

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

For the past few days it’s been getting colder every night up to the point where we have to defrost our hand wash basins in the morning.

Despite the icy temperatures and days with all four seasons of the year rolled into one, research activities continue as normal. One of the first tasks for this group was to check whether the Karakol Pass was still blocked by snow. Good news: we were able to find a way around and finally made it to the eastern side. And, Pei Hao, a participant from Singapore, for the first time in his life touched real snow ! The big valley east of the pass is crowded by herders but several deep, long northern side valleys seem to be promising as survey areas.

Another day saw Martin, Liss, James , Pei Hao and Aman survey the first of these valleys. It was a long and strenuous day full of beautiful landscapes, waterfalls and sightings of badgers, marmots and several ibex. We will definitely be back for an overnighter.

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Volodya, Martin, Guenter and Gordon combed the southern valleys. To do this, an early morning icy river crossing is compulsory, but was taken sportingly and in good spirits. Before they reached the terminal moraine of one of the glaciers, they found a long, perfectly clear wolf track, some wolf scat and hundreds of amazing old petroglyphs (showing deer, camels, donkeys, birds and hunting scenes). A remarkable find! But they also found evidence of hunting.

Ulf, Ilka and Agnes in the meantime pushed the survey altitude up to far above 3700 meters.

Our overnighter team of this week was Liss, Martin, Ulan, James and Aman who visited our old “home valley” of Base Camp 1. On their way they stopped at the herder of that valley, where they were served a second breakfast. As the water level of the rivers has dropped noticeably, they managed for the first time to get a car across a ford and penetrate deep into the valley beyond. First, and supported by fantastic weather conditions, they checked the camera traps we installed two weeks ago. Fresh ibex scat all over had everybody looking forward to having a look at the camera trap pictures. And indeed several good shots were taken of ibex, badger, fox and argali. But none of the mountain ghost. On one picture it appears as if the mountain sheep is chasing away the fox!

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On the second day of their overnighter, they installed four more cameras high up on the other side of the valley. Perhaps the ghost will grace those. We live in hope. The stunning landscape, the team spirit, the weather, visiting the herder made it all together an unforgettable experience and they returned to base in high spirits. Well done everyone!

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

The start of our 3rd slot has been very exciting for all team members due to fantastic weather on Monday that accompanied us all the way to base camp.  Additionally, the various team members whose interest includes birds are being well served by a great abundance and variety. Marlies in particular was especially thrilled to encounter birds that she was academically familiar with, but had never seen before.

Prior to arrival at base camp we stopped at a herders yurt who treated us to a taste of fermented horse milk. Whilst generous, this treat was not to everybody’s taste 😉

horse milk

As it did for us during set up, the breathtaking panorama – glaciers beetling from rocky peaks over rolling green glades – grabbed everybody’s attention. Despite the beauty of this first evening, that first night’s temperature dropped to near freezing and reminded everybody of the challenges we will face in this mountain expedition.

alatoo

Meanwhile, everybody has passed training with flying colours and have just finished their first day in the field. Spirits are high, even Gordon’s freezing voluntary dip in our glacial stream couldn’t quell his enthusiasm.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Well, time flies and group 2 has ended. With everyone’s help, we packed the entire camp into our truck as we are going to move it further east. So group 3, be prepared for being trailblazers once more. Group 2, meanwhile, has returned to Bishkek and we now have a week off to reorg and regroup.

Unfortunately the weather changed earlier in the week and prevented a second ‘overnighter’. Nevertheless we are happy to announce another remarkable finding: on Thursday a large team decided to explore a hitherto unresearched area – the long and deep Ala Archa valley (west of our “home” valley). As it is not accessible by car, we had to spend hours walking to the higher parts of the valley at its end. At a confluence of two streams, the team split up into two. At the end of the day group one reported sightings of ibex, group two of argali! This is even more remarkable because we have been told consistently by herders that there are no argali left in this area.

argali1

The landscape was something else too and Ala Archa valley has been officially declared the most beautiful valley we’ve seen so far. So there are a multitude of reasons to come back: wildlife, landscape and finding places for camera traps.

Ala_archa

All in all we have covered about 35 cells now. Highlights so far are sightings of argali, Himalayan snow cock, several groups of ibex and clear tracks of a Pallas’s cat.

Thank you everyone on group 2 for your efforts. Yes, we are still at the very beginning of a new project. There is much more to learn about the area, but you have helped enormously to add more pieces to the puzzle.

Finally, a piece of advice for everyone yet to come: if your luggage does not arrive with you, please try, with the help of your hotel, to obtain it before (!) we meet at the assembly point.

Looking forward to meeting group 3 in a week.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

The amazingly good weather conditions keep going – not comparable to the time with slot 1. The snow is melting away quickly and causing high water levels in the rivers (which are now even more difficult to cross).

Simone, who had to stay back at camp for a day, spent her time patentiently observing the area with the spotting scope and was successful! She spottet several ibex on the ridge south of camp – well done.

Several other occasions are worth mentioning: several times this week Anders has surpassed his personal altitude record. On Saturday he climbed up to almost 3700 meters – the highest mountain in his home country of Sweden is just above 2200 meters. Julija was able to shoot a photo having an eagle sitting in the grass just two meters away from a baffled marmot – just incredible! And our Women-Power-Team (Jeannine, Natalie, Nancy, Julija) watched a badger family playing on a slope for quite a while.

On Sunday, our day off, the group visited a herder nearby and enjoyed great hospitality and a very rich lunch. Some even went short spin on a horse. In the afternoon the head of NABU Kyrgyzstan came to visit with a PR person and conducted some interviews for local media.

On Monday our ‘overnighters’ (Aman, John, Anne, Julija and Anders) left camp with the aim of setting several camera traps at the very far end of Sokuluk valley. Beautiful weather went with them, but unfortunately they came back with disappointing news: a herder has moved into the far end of the valley and because he is afraid of wolves taking his sheep he fires shots with his rifle into the air regularly. This explains why the team was not been able to find any new signs of ibex or other large animals. So no camera traps were installed.

On Tuesday a group made it up to a remote ridge in “our home valley” where Natalie spottet ibex last week. After a hard and long climb Volodya, Roger and Aude set four camera traps alongside this ridge, a “highway” of animals as it seems. And, not to forget the finding of this expedition yet: two clear prints of Pallas’s cat together with scat that is very likely from this cat also. The other cat, the snow leopard, is still elusive. Mountain ghost indeed.

So, up and downs, successes and failures – typical for research and conservation work.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

We are still struggling with our satellite system, so you are receiving this diary with a delay and without photos. But nobody should be worried as everyone is just fine.

On Monday it took us more than nine hours (!) to finally arrive at base as a piece of luggage had to be retrieved and the tunnel on our way over the pass was also closed for more than an hour due to smog problems. Emma (our cook) was with but Volodaya at base jumped into the fray and had prepared a delicious dinner for the team by the time we arrived tired at our mountain home.

Mainly dry weather helped us to get through our training sessions. And of course Biosphere Expeditions worked hard on the weather because it was a special day for Julija: her birthday.

Earlier in the week we had some cold nights. But by sharing warm clothes and following some “hot” advice, we made everybody survive. During our first walk out into the field (still mainly for training purposes) not far from base, Natalie spottet, with her binoculars, several ibex on a ridge about 2 km away. Eagle eyes, well done!

Lately the day and night temperatures have become much more pleasant. Blue sky, sun and spetacular views enticed everyone into long and exhausting research days. New places, many findings, several sightings of larger Ibex groups with juveniles, snow cock, golden eagle, lammergeier and so on were the reward and a firm ” mission accomplished” during the first days of this group 2.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

No news from the field today, but no news is good news. They will be busy with training and their first surveys. Our satellite connection to the outside world has been restored with a new BGAN, so Ronald will be in touch at some stage.

In the meantime, here are a couple of videos from pioneer group 1, as well as some pictures.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

New week, new tasks: one team started the day by shovelling snow patches and moving rocks. Result: the “road” from base camp further into the valley is now officially (re)opened and leads about 1.6 km further up the valley to a ford. Unfortunately the water level of this river is still too high to be passed by the cars.

John, our mountain hero, climbed up a steep slope (not a path!) finally to reach a ridge at about 3800 m. He found a lot of tracks of ibex. A cornice blocked his way but within the next few weeks this will surely be a place to install a camera trap.

Tuesday was Monique’s birthday, so there was a bouquet of wild flowers (incl. onions!), a cake, a stack of pancakes with a secret filling in between, elaborately decorated with cherries, apricots and almonds.

Another team stayed overnight in the mountains from Wednesday to Thursday. A very long and extremely difficult drive (including a flat tyre on their way back) got the team to the far end of the valley of Sokoluk. The reward for Astrid, Martin, John, Volodya and Aman was to observe 19 (!) ibex.

We have now surveyed all side valleys between base and the Karakol pass, which is still not open for cars due to snow. Even Sabine, who isn’t into mountains, as she likes to say, pushed herself up a 45 degree slope for over an hour finally to reach a ridge above 3500 m.

Within the last few days, as if given a secret signal, lots of herders have moved into the area between the Kara-Moynok Range and our study area of Ala Archa. Hundreds of sheep, horses and goats are now taking advantage of the green slopes. Having all these herders around, gives us the opportunity to benefit from local knowledge. The information we did get is sometimes contradictory, but still interesting and helpful.

chat with a local(foto by Melissa Shepstone)

insight of a yurt (foto by Melissa Shepstone)

A very cold night with an icy layer on the top of our tents accompanied us into Saturday, the official first day of summer. Astrid, the second birthday girl on this group, received some fresh = iced flowers and shared gladly another fantastic birthday cake. After packing and cleaning up we left base this morning around 9:30. Arriving in Bishkek, we really noticed the 20 degrees temperature change.

Thank you again, you pioneers of the Karakol Mountains. The conditions were not easy at all but still everybody worked hard in helping to set a basis for all upcoming teams. And to stay it with the words of Dieter: hopefully this team will met again one day 🙂

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Apologies for the silence on the expedition (and the lack of videos and pictures for this one), but our technical department has been playing up. Our BGAN satellite internet connection is out of action, so until it is fixed, there will only be one or two updates per group – we are in the back of beyond after all. Photos and videos are also playing up, so just text for this one.

Trailblazing group 1 arrived on Monday (9 June) after their long drive to base to a sandwich lunch, pitch tents, and an introductions followed by a briefing session. The weather was mixed that day, but our Tuesday science, equipment, driving and datasheet training day was blessed with sunshine, so much of the training took place outside.

We started surveying on Wednesday. This trailblazing group’s job is to get to know the herder neighbours, the geography, valleys, passes and of course the wildlife on the way. Together with Volodya and the Grupa Bars we have visited about a dozens herder yurts so far to introduce ourselves and the project. At the moment it’s just getting to know people and their knowledge of the land, not structured interviews about snow leopards.

The same goes for exploring the range’s valleys to the east and west of base. Over the past week or so we have radiated out to many of them to ascertain accessibility, snow cover, the terrain and of course the wildlife. We have seen ibex and marmots, badgers and foxes, pikas and voles, birds and reptiles, and have found sign of wolves. No snow leopard sign so far, but it’s early days and the buggers are elusive.

Highlights include a day of six yurt visits, encounters with grazing ibex on alpine meadows, (live) badgers on the road, playful marmots on the hills, soaring golden eagles and lammergeyers in the air. Compared to the Altai, it’s encouraging to note that the ibex seem unconcerned by our presence. In the Altai they would panic and run away – a good sign of heavy poaching activity. Here they are mindful, but just go about their business of grazing as usual.

We’ve also had our first overnighter when four intrepid expeditioners went on a two-day loop around the mountains in search of animals. They found spectacular, remote and human-free mountain scenery, raging rivers, ibex and an incredible run of two days of near perfect weather, but their luck ran out with the snow leopard. Once, at about 3700 m near the twisted icefall of a glacier and in its terminal moraine, they caught a whiff of cat urine, but even an intensive search did not reveal more – no scats, no scratch marks, no nothing. Just the tantalising smell of cat in the air.

Last Sunday (15 June) was our day off and the day that Matthias left us. Some people opted to stay at base to relax and enjoy the changing weather of wind, sleet, sunshine and streaks of cloud being driven across the sky. Others opted to go fur lunch at a yurt an hour or so down the road. It’s our way of building relations, putting some money into the local economy and spreading the word about our work. It turned out to be a marathon lunch and the weather was not conducive to going riding. Next time we’ll try for more riding and less time in a yurt in front of heaps of food 😉

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