Rahat Yusubalieva was a placement programme recipient on the Tien Shan snow leopard expedition with Biosphere Expeditions from 22 June – 4 July 2015. In December 2015 Rahat shared her knowledge and experience as part of the environmental training sessions in the rural schools of Kyrgyzstan’ s Batken province, the most south-west and remote part of the country bordering on Tajikistan.
On 16 and 23 December 2015 trainings of trainers (TOT) sessions were conducted in the villages of Andarak and Iskra in Batken province. Participants included school students of grades 7 to 10, as well as teachers of biology and geography. The sessions focused on ecosystem conservation, management of water, forest, land and pasture resources in relation to climate change impacts. Participants discussed how local ecosystems have changed in the last two decades and how people can conserve them. The goal of the TOT was to inform local educational institutions on the current state of the environment, methods of conservation, and for local community members to reflect on how they are influencing their own environment, and to integrate their own observations and new scientific knowledge into the school curriculum.
The TOT also covered the snow leopard, its habits, prey animals, threats to its survival, as well as the historical and cultural meaning of the snow leopard for the people of Kyrgyzstan. A documentary film “Irbis, legends of snow covered mountains” was shown and followed by a discussion. Participants were also informed on research findings by Biosphere Expeditions in West Karakol and Kyrgyzstan’s action plans for snow leopard conservation.
Residents of Andarak and Iskra villages depend on the resources of their mountain environment and Sarkent National Park, where people graze their animals and collect wood. Endangered species, which are under government protection also inhabit the park, including snow leopards. According to the director of Sarkent National Park, tracks of snow leopards are often seen in the park, as well as remains of mountain goats preyed on by snow leopards. However, due to the remoteness of the area and lack of finances, the park does not have equipment and camera traps to monitor them. Local people said that about a decade ago, a snow leopard’s pelt was found and the poachers were caught. Now hunting of mountain goats in the park is prohibited both for local and foreign hunters until 2017, when the moratorium is up for re-consideration.
The two months long 2015 snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan ended on 8 August, with the last of three teams breaking camp. Biosphere Expeditions in collaboration with the local office of German NGO NABU (Naturschutzbund = Nature & Biodiversity Conservation Union) runs the snow leopard expedition annually with the aim of providing valuable scientific data to empower local authorities to make informed conservation decisions and take action based on hard data.
One of the highlights of this year’s results is the confirmation of snow leopard presence (in the form of tracks and scat) in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range. Three individual instances were recorded over the course of two months.
While this is exciting, especially for volunteer citizen scientists doing the ground work in the field, the project does not focus solely on the search of snow leopard sign, but also collects information on prey species. For example, mammals and birds that can reveal information on the biodiversity and health of the habitat as well as disturbances.
“It all adds to statistics and you also take into account the zeros”, explains field scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar. “If you check the camera trap and say – oh there is nothing – it is something! Because if it is a zero, which has been obtained, that also adds to the statistical database.”
When talking about how the data are used, Dr. Tytar mentions a new approach called ‘ecological niche modelling’ or ‘species distribution modelling’. This consists of the combination of readily available environmental digital information (for example temperature, moisture, vegetation, etc.) with ground data collected by volunteers. Computer software then combines the two to arrive at some sophisticated forecasting of wildlife distribution. It also identifies new areas that have not been surveyed yet, but that could be promising snow leopard habitat. “With modern computing methods a lot can be done”, Dr. Tytar adds, “but the bottleneck turns out to be that there are often very little ground data. So the data collected by our expeditioners in the field adds a fundamental missing piece of information to an existing digital information puzzle, enabling predictive analysis of species distribution even across non-surveyed areas – an exercise which would otherwise not be possible.”
Talking about the results of this year’s expedition, Dr. Tytar says that together with NABU, Biosphere Expeditions will be able to generate specific conclusions and recommendations about candidate areas for conservation status: “There are areas where we found fresh tracks of ibex in combination with minimum disturbances. Many of these areas are in very confined mountain locations with only one entrance, so they would be quite easy to protect by just having, say, a ranger station or a signboard and people patrolling the area. I think all this together in the future will work out in a network of protected areas, maybe including some kind of corridors as well. What we have been doing here significantly contributes to that kind of work”, concludes Dr. Tytar.
Listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard is threatened by poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. One goal formulated by an international snow leopard conference in Bishkek in 2014 was the 20/20 pledge – to protect 20 snow leopard landscapes that have over 100 breeding adults by 2020, and to promote sustainable development in areas where the species lives.
Greetings from Bishkek and apologies for the late entry. It took a while to get the photos organised.
The last seven hours drive from base camp back to Bishkek marks the end of the 4th and last slot of the 2015 Tien Shan expedition studying the elusive snow leopard.
After the final two weeks work surrounded by the amazing Kyrgyz mountain landscape and having made new friends, it is hard to say final goodbyes, but everybody is proud of the legacy they have left behind on this last group: 32 surveyed cells, 18 mammals datasheets filled, 3 direct observations of ibex (also recorded on camera traps) and two additional species of birds (adding to the total of 48 species recorded throughout the entire 2015 Tien Shan expedition period), make for some impressive results.
And what a last team that was! From the very first day everybody settled in quickly and enthusiastically, learning swiftly (helped by old hands Ellen and Vincent, thanks!) and then logging direct sightings of ibex on the very first survey.
We did not record any sign of snow leopard as on the slots before, but plenty of prey species and other environmental data. As our scientist Volodya says, even zero signs recorded in a given cell represent important data (especially in revisited cells) as lack of wildlife signs in cells where it was recorded before helps us understand the direct influence of human presence and the impact of disturbances such as herders and their livestock moving to higher grounds as the snows melted and fresh grass ran out lower down (making a good case for setting up conservation areas to reduce human interference on wildlife). In fact, the melting of the snow allowed to us to survey areas that were previously inaccessible to the preceding slots, driving the 4x4s over and across hair-raising mountain pass roads and onto new valleys. We definitely put those off-road driving skills learned to good practice.
One of the highlights of the slot was witnessing a whole herd of ibex (we counted 10+ on 31st July) moving across a mountain ridge visible from Donguruma valley. A relatively short walk took us to 3618 m, from where we watched the ibexes in awe through our binoculars. Volodya later explained to us that this is repeated behaviour observed in this area where ibex tend to move from one valley to the next when disturbed.
Our last survey walk of the season was a trip to Issyk-ata Pass and Chunchikan valley to retrieve the last four camera traps. Unfortunately the camera traps from Issyk-ata only yielded photos of fellow volunteers (camera set-up & retrieval selfie time!) and empty landscape. However, after two weeks out in snow leopard territory, the camera traps from Chunchikan valley provided us with some good photos of a young ibex and a couple of interesting videos of another (or maybe the same) ibex going past the device and shaking its fluffy tail at us.
We also had the excitement of our toilet tent disappearing twice. Our detective work found that one of the neighbouring cows had unsuccessfully tried to use it! It was queues in the mornings after that with only one last toilet tent standing, but luckily we had no more cow incidents.
Special thanks to all our volunteers who put so much effort towards this expedition, our field scientist Volodya for sharing his knowledge and insights and for leading us through his work, to our local partners NABU and especially our two experienced and trusty Kyrgyz of the Gruppa Bars and last but not least our champion cook Emma.
Thank you. Safe travels, back keep in touch with Biosphere Expeditions and I hope to see you all again on another expedition some day. And remember Margaret Mead’s word: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Keep up your good efforts for the conservation of this beautiful planet.
Surrounded by streams, baseccamp II is located further up the valley closer to the Karakol mountain pass. The local name of the place is ‘Aral’ – island – describing exactly what it is. To get there from the main road a shallow stream must be crossed – I’m glad the truck made it safely through.
Team 3 assembles in time on Monday morning in Bishkek. Peter is with us again on his 2nd slot, there are Suzie and Ellen from the U.S., Nick from New Zealand, four Germans: Anke, Barbara & Michael and Andre, Siv & Duncan, a Norwegian/English couple, Vincent from Switzerland and last-minute joiner Ceire, also from the UK. Placement Nurjan from Bishkek completes the team.
It’s incredibly hot on the training day, so we seek shelter from the sun in the yurt during the afternoon. Some of us are even seen in their swimming costumes taking a refreshing bath in the river – temperature: 8 degrees!
Starting from last slot’s overnighter location, now only 10 minutes away from camp, we survey Kashka Tor valley on the first survey day. Remember this is where we found fresh snow leopard tracks and have set up two camera traps. Kurmanbek has hired a horse from our neighbour and friend Talant – he says that from a horse’s back the well-being of the whole group can be overseen much better! 😉 We split into two groups later on. A side valley is explored – so far unknown terrain – and the camera traps are picked up. No fresh wildlife tracks are found anywhere in the valley, so unfortunately no good reason for setting up more. Older signs of ibex and argali are around, though, marmot calls are heard all day. There are also eight different butterfly species, some of which are not amongst the common species of the picture sheets Amadeus created for us to continue his scientific butterfly data collection. No pictures of snow leopard on the cameras.
We find more signs of snow leopard presence at the very end of Issyk-Ata valley! Peter and Andre make our day, reporting from a long snow leopard track found in the snow and bringing back quite a few very good pictures.
And another exceptional finding is made on Saturday: Manul tracks. The location at an altitude of 3,650 m is at ‘no name valley’ (because it does not have a name on the map), not far from basecamp. Discussing the finding during the daily review, Volodya gets really excited. He explains that the manul has the same IUCN status as the snow leopard, but attracts much less attention. Proving the presence of another elusive and endangered species in the region is a precious piece of information.
A traditional Kyrgyz meal at a herder’s yurt is arranged on the day off (Sunday) with our neighbour Talant.
Takyr-Tor and Choloktor valley are surveyed on the next day. Don Galamish again on Tuesday before the overnighter team settles near base I while Anke, Barbara, Ellen, Michael and Nick drive back to spend the night at base II. Rain pours again when the overnighter teams head for Tuyuk to retrieve two more cameras, and Kumbel valley (= sandy mountain pass) unknown for most parts. Again, no snow leopard pictures on the cameras.
More exploration is done on Thursday. We cross the stream behind base for the first time. Neither on foot, nor by car this area would have been an option for surveys but horses can do it! In the morning Talant’s sons bring over two of them and one by one the team is ‘transported’ to the starting point. We do another short survey on the last day with Peter and Duncan retrieving a camera trap, Ceira, Siv and Nurjan going for interviews and the rest of the team doing a reccee on the other side of the Karakol mountain pass to check for possible overnight locations.
With everyone back at base, something very special is about to happen. Over the last couple of days Kurmanbek and Aman have gathered two teams for a traditional horse game and have set up the playing field right in front of basecamp. The ball must be picked up from the ground and be placed in a goal for points – somewhat similar to American football. Watching the scene from the slope we’re much impressed by the locals’ skills on their horsebacks, the speed and powerful action of the game. More young men on horses arrive while the game is on, but a downpour eventually ends the spectacle. We’re invited for the post-game meal to Joldosh’s hut – he is the undisputed champion of the game.
Back to the expeditions’ core business and the research, we meet in the late afternoon for a final review. During the 3rd slot, 32 positive cells have been recorded, about twice that number have been surveyed. 21 mammal datasheets were added to Volodya’s collection. To everyone’s great excitement, snow leopard tracks were found. Unexpectedly each slot recorded snow leopard tracks this year: in slot 1 at the Karakol Pass in snow, in slot 2 at Kashka Tor valley in mud (where a fowl was attacked last year) and in this slot again in snow at Issyk Ata. The manul footprint found at ‘no name valley’ is another highlight. Direct sightings of ibex were not recorded in slot 3. A very likely explanation for the lack of sightings is that with the snow melt, many, many more herders and their livestock have moved into the valley, pushing wildlife back into more remote areas. On the other hand, the interviews have been greatly boosted during this slot with more local people around. 19 yurts were visited, the age of interview partners ranged between 9 and 73 years. The bird list was extended to 45 species. Big birds of prey such as golden eagle, but also lammergeier have been recorded constantly, indicating a good quality habitat.
In the evening we socialise in the yurt enjoying the warmth of the stove and, of course, a shot of local vodka. To everyone’s surprise Anke, Barbara, Nurjan and Kurmanbek perform a Kyrgyz song rehearsed on a bad weather day. The somewhat wistful melody and the wording about the Kyrgyz way of life contributes to some unique experiences the team has gained over the last two weeks.
It’s time again to thank everyone – it’s been wonderful with every single one of you, slot 3. Special thanks go to Peter for his unwearing dedication over four expedition weeks and his help in many ways. As I said before, this project would not be possible without you passionate people putting time, money and sweat into it. I hope your expectations have been met and you’ve enjoyed the two weeks as much as I did. Safe travels onward or back home and keep in touch. I hope to see some of you again some time somewhere.
Having said alli this, I am now handing over to my colleague Rossella who will be leading this year’s last expedition slot in the Tien Shan mountains. Other assignments force me back to Europe with mixed feelings. A very heartfelt thanks goes to my colleague Volodya and NABU’s gruppa bars members Kurmanbek, Aman and Shailoo. You’ve been my family for two months. Together we did a great job overcoming language barriers and cultural differences with a good sense of humour, flexibility and the odd shot of vodka… all in an effort to save the snow leopard!
A week of re-org in Bishkek is almost over. I’ve spent some time with our partners from the NABU at their office reviewing the past four weeks and planning ahead for the next two slots. Quite some time was spent at the desk working through a long list of e-mails piled up in my inbox, doing the accounting, printing, laminating – all exciting stuff. I quite enjoyed doing my laundry! 😉
Kurmanbek, Volodya and I went for a reconnaissance drive to Chok Kemin valley on Wednesday. Around this valley, running parallel to the north edge of the Issyk Kol glacier lake, the Grupa Bars has been very successful with camera trapping snow leopard, wolf and bear. We met with Marat, one of the rangers of Chon Kemin National State Park and drove almost all the way up to the valley’s end. Various base camp locations were visited before we were invited for a meal at Marat’s house. It was in the evening when we returned back to Bishkek after a 3 1/2 hours drive.
Today Kurmanbek, Aman, Volodya, Emma and I head off into the Kyrgyz Alatoo mountains again to set up base camp II. We’ve spent the whole day yesterday with food shopping. Two cars will take all supplies today. Once we’ve set up the yurt, mess & kitchen tent, etc., Aman and I will drive back to Bishkek tomorrow and meet team three on Monday morning 8:00 at the Grand Hotel. One more driver will then be requested from the team – please be prepared and bring your driving licences!
Here’s the diary for the second group (22 June – 4 July)
On Monday, 22 June, the second expedition team assembled at the Grand Hotel in Bishkek: John from Canada, Peter from Germany, Yvonne from Switzerland are well-acclimatised after two weeks of travelling in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Then there are Sue and Ben from the UK, Neus from Spain and once more Carolyn & Charlie from New Zealand on their second expedition slot. Two local placements are also joining the expedition team: Rahat, born in the Naryn region, but living in Bishkek, and Amadeus, who has a Canadian passport, but lives and works in Bishkek since 2007. Emma, our cook is present as well as Kurmanbek, head of the ‘Grupa Bars’, NABU’s snow leopard patrol accompanied by his 16 year old son Azim and his colleague Aman. Last minute shopping must be done before we can head off to base. Peter’s luggage has not arrived so Aman, Kurmanbek and I hurry off quickly to get a rucksack. Well done him for packing all other essential gear in his hand luggage!
The convoy of four cars – two of them fully loaded with food 😉 – is then led through the Bishkek city traffic by our locals and after a few stops on the way, we arrive at base at 17:00 in the afternoon. Thanks to team 1 all tents are already pitched so that everyone can move in straight away. We have borscht, a famous local soup, for dinner, kindly prepared by our scientist Volodya who guarded the camp over the weekend. I then talk everyone through the risk assessment – always top on the list of training sessions during the first couple of days.
As usual we start late on the second expedition day, breakfast is at 8:00. Volodya then delivers a comprehensive introduction about the science and research in our study area. He talks about snow leopards being opportunistic predators, classifies ibex and argali as their primary prey and marmot, mountain hare and other smaller animals as secondary prey species. Taking into account that the cat follows its prey, the survey will be focussed on finding prey species and then set up camera traps in the most promising spots. Team members also learn about the Global Snow Leopard Conference held 2012 in Bishkek and a governmental agreement between all attending countries signed in order to streamline efforts to save the endangered cats. Gaining information about the distribution and numbers of snow leopard in the wild has been declared the main aim. Having been amongst the conference attendees, Biosphere Expedtions has taken on the responsibility of developing a research plan together with snow leopard specialist Volodya Tytar and NABU’s Grupa bars.
Kurmanbek then continues with some background information about NABU’s snow leopard patrol, their work on the ground, the snow leopard rehabilitation centre, where injured animals are kept until they can be released into the wild again. At the sanctuary one lynx, one eagle and four snow leopards are currently hosted. The cats have all been saved from leg traps and are so badly injured that they are no longer able to survive in the wild. He also talks about NABU’s other departments such as environmental awareness, monitoring, ecological education and anti-poaching. Enough of the theory – we go straight into equipment training and the datasheets. Aman explains the work with camera traps and we get to see some fascinating camera trap pictures and videos that have been taken over the last couple of years. Amadeus then gives a short introduction to his butterfly project. He is currently working on his PhD, but at the same time is involved with the development of an interactive app for smartphones. Citizen scientists will be using the app for identifying butterfly species, but also help with enlarging the database by uploading own findings. During the expedition the recording of butterflies will be included in the surveys.
The sky is cloudy when we set off with the whole group on Wednesday morning for the first practising survey walk. Once again we head off by foot into Choloktor valley behind base. After three hours we reach the meadow giving us a perfect view into the rocky arena rising in front of us. Only patches of snow are left from what was a huge snow field two weeks ago. Leaving the heavy rucksacks behind, we spread out in all directions for further investigation. Ibex scat is found in the mud – given that the snow melt is continuing we might set up some camera traps in this area with slot 3 or 4. It starts raining on the way back, but still we spot a roe deer track, a rare occasion. And there is another finding: Torsten (slot 1), in case you read this you’ll be happy to hear that we found your lens hood that was lost two weeks ago! I’ll bring it to Germany…
The rain stops in the evening but starts again right at breakfast time on Thursday. Amadeus spreads the news from Bishkek he received via satellite phone: An SMS saying that the bad mountain weather is going to continue for three more days. No one wants to think about it, so we get busy. In a convoy of three cars we leave base following the road further into Choloktor valley towards the river confluence. From what we have seen yesterday, the cars should now be able to make it over the snow avalanches still blocking part of the road and then through the river. It’s a bumpy ride but everyone seems to enjoy true off-road driving. Sighs of relief, though, after the river crossing ;). Volodya’s group leaves the car soon after and continues on foot. Aman and I drive further on as far as the cars can take us. We then walk together with Carolyn, Charlie, Rahat, Sue, Neus and Azim towards the steep & rocky cliffs forming the valley’s end. Using feet, hands and walking poles we climb up entering ibex terrain – signs such as droppings and hoof prints are seen all around. Soaking wet and with numb fingers we assist Aman setting up three camera traps facing obvious animal trails. Back on safe terrain we’re quite worn out, but still no one wants to get their lunch boxes out in the ever pouring rain. After another 90 minutes we reach the car, have a very quick, but at least dry lunch before we head back. We find Volodya’s team seeking shelter in their car for quite a while before the meeting time. Not much has been found on their survey walk, the usual signs of fox and badger – the snow leopard prey is hiding from the rain too. Back at base the yurt stove is started up quickly, washing lines zigzag what has become the drying room and the stove is surrounded by a dozen pairs of soaking wet walking boots and rucksacks. Well done everyone for coping with the rain and cold. In the evening two plans for either good or bad weather are set up for the next day – hope dies last…
We must opt in for the bad weather plan on Friday. Near constant cloud cover and rain forces us into thick layers of clothing and waterproofs again. We go for a reccee drive up the valley towards the Krakol mountain pass. A few more herders have moved in during the last week. On the road we find an Eurasian hobby unwilling to fly as we approach him sitting in the middle of the road. He must be starving and tired – the guess is that he has not had a proper insect meal for days due to the bad weather. Most curious he watches quite a few of us surrounding him and taking pictures before he finally decides to fly off. At the mountain pass we spread out in all four directions for a survey walk in the clouds. We find livestock and fox tracks, but also notice that the snow cover has shrunk a lot. Still closed for cars, the pass is already open for herders to bring in smaller livestock such as sheep and goat. On the way back we pick up some ‘fuel’ for our stove at an abandoned herder’s place – friends of the NABU staff. ‘Fuel’ is compressed cattle dung stored in tile-like pieces, 100% organic! 😉 It’s only 14:00 in the afternoon when we return to camp. With the stove going, we assemble in the yurt for a slide show: a trip around the world to other Biosphere Expeditions projects in sunnier places makes us forget about the pouring rain outside for a while.
Saturday morning: lying in my tent I don’t hear the sound of rain… really? I could be still dreaming. But no – the rain has stopped! The team can’t wait to go out. Ala Archa valley is on the schedule again. This time we want to make it further towards the end into both left and right sidearms. By the end of the day both teams have walked around 20 km each. On one side the valley is crowded with livestock – cattle, horses, sheep – no chance to see any wildlife. On the other side right at the snow line at about 3450 m Carolyn spots 7-8 ibex. Her second name has become ‘Eagle Eye II’ (after Aman being ‘Eagle Eye I’) reflecting her extraordinary spotting skills. Whenever we are able to see ibex it is from a distance of at least a couple of hundred metres. The colour of their fur blends in perfectly with the rocks, movement alone allows us to notice their presence.
Another second is on Sunday. We visit Chon Chikon again, the petroglyphs valley. Thanks to the snow melt over the last two weeks, we are now able to climb far up – one team makes it to about 3700 m – where ibex are sighted and obvious animal trails and fresh tracks are found. Three camera traps are set. Since his walking boots are still soaking wet, John volunteers to go to interviewing herders. Together with Kurmanbek, well known by many people in the valley, Azim and Rahat as local interpreters they make a perfect team. John’s communication skills gained over years of practice as a psychologist is what makes the day. Kurmanbek is full of praise when we sit in the evening listening to John’s entertaining report. Four families were visited, quite a few bowls of Kumiz (fermented horse milk) have been drunk bravely and John’s been made to sit on a horse while people were talking openly about whatever questions were asked. Overall the local people have great admiration for the snow leopard, it is known that they are protected but none of the interview partners has ever seen one. But most of them know someone who has…
We are rewarded with sunshine on the day off. Yvonne and Neus go for a bath up the Choloktor road. A traditional Kyrgyz meal has been arranged at our neighbour herder’s yurt. Rahat, Kurmanbek and Aman leave early in the morning to help with preparing the food. Dressed up Volodya (he hasn’t been seen wearing long trousers before), Peter, Yvonne, Amadeus, Neus and Emma follow at lunchtime. They come back after four hours holding their tummies after an opulent meal. Believing that the sun will be back we once more make overnighter plans for the next day – the whole team wants to go!
The scene is somewhat similar to moving out of camp when the cars are packed for the overnighter on Tuesday morning, 1 July. One car is stuffed with food, another with tents, mats and sleeping bags. We drive towards the mountain pass again to survey Issyk-Ata and Saryk-Kol valley not yet accessible for livestock. During a 10 km walk in and out of Saryk-Kol valley up to almost 3600 m altitude two male ibex are spotted. The team’s walk is accompanied by noisy marmot warning calls. From the number of active holes found off the path, a huge marmot colony must live there – two of us manage to see at least one individual. At Issyk-Ata valley the results are about the same: ibex spotting (7-8 individuals, female & young ones) and many, many marmots. We meet back at the cars in the late afternoon, drive to our camping spot and set up tents for the night. Sue, Yvonne and Charlie find a spot to spend the night under the stars in their bivi bags. We go to bed early when the admittedly very small campfire dies. Located right at the entrance of both Kashka-Ter and Takir-Ter valleys, the overnighter camp allows for an early survey start on Wednesday morning.
Both valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. Facing north, the mountain ridge of Takir-Ter is still completely covered in snow and ice. The valley is surveyed for the first time this year. A snow leopard attack on a fowl was reported last year in Kashka-Ter valley. Pictures were provided from local people for documentation. This, of course, has led our scientist to the decision to survey both neighbouring valleys in hope of finding more evidence of snow leopard presence in this area. And indeed, we find fresh snow leopard tracks in the mud! They are a series of footprints that must be no older than two or three days, left behind after the heavy rainfalls. Excitement is in all our eyes when we scan the area for more evidence, while Aman installs another camera trap. The finding makes all our day – the mountain ghost is out there!
On team 2’s last full survey day on Thursday, we pick up a former plan to research both side valleys of Don Galamish. Postponed because of wet terrain conditions, the ground is now dry enough for driving up grassy meadows to a starting point that allows both teams to reach the valley’s end in a day’s survey walk. It is still a long way to go before ibex terrain is reached. Volodya’s team reaches the peak of the partly snow-covered ridge at 3877 m and walks about 21 km, but also is one hour late due to a miscalculation! They are seen coming down the ridge by team 2, so nothing but a loooong waiting time before all drive back to camp together. Overall, this day’s sightings are rewarding, though: Himalayan griffon, snow cock and fox. Another camera trap is set where many fresh ibex tracks are found.
Breakfast time on Friday. Two options for short surveys are put on the whiteboard but no one has put in their name yet. What’s this all about? Looking around I see tired faces hoping for a less strenuous activity today. Sorry, guys – there is no other option. No interviews today, the staff will start with breaking down the yurt and camp after breakfast. A group of six – Ben, Sue, Neus, Rahat, Peter and Amadeus finally pack a set of equipment and head off. What was supposed to be an easy team survey turns into a kind of stress test as people forget to work as a team. Getting out of one’s individual comfort zone is a good learning experience, though.
After a bath in the stream or a warm bucket shower back at base everyone listens intently to Volodya’s slot review. Team 2 has visited 50 cells. The highlights are the discovery of snow leopard tracks and possibly a lynx scat at Sary-Kol valley, supposedly left over from winter time. Lynx is recorded for the very first time in this area. The number of ibex sightings is extraordinary. This most probably is also because many, many herders haven’t moved in yet into the valley. It also indicates that wildlife recovers quickly when undisturbed. This, of course will be included in the final scientific report’s findings. Nine more camera traps have been installed hopefully clicking as we sit and celebrate our last evening in camp. Thanks to Sue & Ben’s extraordinary bird watching skills the number of species on the bird list has doubled. As to the butterflies, Amadeus then sums up that seven different species have been recorded, five of which have not yet been recorded in the study area. Thank yous go to the team for two weeks of quick learning and great scientific work. After dinner we raise our glasses when toasts are brought out. A taste of local vodka seals the team’s happy reunion while we stand around the campfire.
Thank you team 2 – you’ve been exceptionally great coping with difficult weather conditions and terrain. Thanks for your great spirits and putting your special skills, time and money into this project. Safe travels back home or enjoy your ongoing travelling. I hope to see some of you again someday, somewhere.
Here, at last, is the diary for slot 1 of our Tien Shan expedition. We could not get it to you because there is a big mountain range blocking the sat phone signal in the south. Calls can get through, but data can’t. Since this mountain range is unlikely to move over the next couple of months, please assume that field updates will only come every two weeks, as we switch teams and go back to Bishkek. Unless we haul the sat phone up the mountain with us on one of our surveys. You never know 😉
12 June (Friday)
A collective sigh of relief could be heard last Monday, when the team left Bishkek. The city heat – temperatures beyond 30 degrees – were happily left behind as was dust and heavy traffic. Snacks were picked up in a supermarket on the way and the convoy of three cars stopped for lunch when the tunnel was passed at 3200 m altitude. Overall it took us about 7 hours to get to base camp, so teams 2 – 4 please be prepared for a long journey.
08:00 o’clock. It’s a fresh and clear morning. The warming rays of sunlight haven’t yet made it over the eastern ridge sheltering base camp, nestled in a small side valley of the Karakol river. We’ve seen all four seasons since team 1 arrived four days ago. Rain made us seek shelter in the mess tent for the first expedition day’s training sessions, while the surrounding peaks were covered with a fresh layer of snow. Carolyn, Susan, Theresa, Charlie, Robert and Thorsten learned how to use GPSs, maps, compasses and radios, went through safety briefings and off-road driving lessons. After a practice survey walk with the whole team including Volodya, the scientist on this expedition, as well as Shailoo and Aman from NABU’s snow leopard patrol, and Kathy, one of Biosphere Expeditions’ senior staff joining the first slot, they have now all left camp in smaller teams for today’s surveys.
So far eleven cells have been surveyed in two days in Choloktor and Chon Chikan valleys. I will be talking a lot about cells – a grid of 2 x 2 km laid over the study area map in the Tien Shan mountains divides the terrain into these cells, which will be surveyed systematically.
No camera traps have been set yet. Snow is still covering the most promising spots. Over the next few days we’ll continue to explore the area hoping for a lot of sun to melt the snow away. Findings so far were wolf scat (a lot) and an ibex skull and horns, a red fox and marmot were sighted as well as quite a few golden eagles, just to mention a few.
P.S. Please remember to bring insect repellent, there are some mosquitoes around 😉
15 June (Monday)
We’ve continued exploring the valleys around base camp. On the third survey day, Susan, Robert & Theresa went together with Aman to the other side of the main valley and up the mountains we look at from base. The day’s motto was “slowly, slowly” since everyone was feeling a bit worn out after three days of going up and down lots of hills. Not so Aman, who was briefed intensively the night before about what “slow” means to us. 😉 The second group consisting of Volodya, Carolyn, Charlie and myself walked up what the locals call the “boar stream” pretty close to camp. We’ve crossed alpine meadows, scree fields and climbed up rocks before reaching the ridge at 3792 m altitude. Most animals signs such as ibex scat, argali footprints and snow cock scat, feathers and dust holes were found within the rocky habitat well above 3400 m. Further down, abundant marmot holes were spotted, a big colony of them must once have lived there.
The weather changed overnight from sun to rain and wind. Leaving Carolyn & Charlie, Susan & Robert behind, two cars left camp in the morning for a shopping trip to Suusamyr. Not a quick one since the town at the entry of the Karakol valley is about a 2½ hour drive away. The tasks on our list were: 1) buy bread, 2) buy milk and 3) buy a chimney for the yurt stove. Doesn’t sound complicated at all, but we failed with two out of three. Instead of milk we could have bought a great variety of vodka (even from the smallest shop) and for the chimney a local herder suggested to go back all the way to Kara Balta close to Bishkek on the other side of the Kyrgyz Alatoo mountain range. But bread we got! And also a taste of yoghurt cakes, a local specialty recommended by Emma, our cook. But to be honest, this was probably the most disgusting flavour Kathy, Torsten and I have ever tried. I guess you can also tell that from Torsten’s face on the picture. ϑ
At breakfast this morning our hopes for better weather seemed to be nothing but wishful thinking. But just when we decided to stay half a day at camp, the sun came out and everyone was ready, dressed and packed up in record time for another survey walk. This year’s first interview was held with a very friendly herder offering Kathy a ride on his horse, which was thankfully accepted 😉 Being a cattle herder he didn’t have any problems with snow leopards in the past, not even wolves because the cattle can defend themselves. A woolly ball was brought back to camp and analysed during the review session after dinner. We learned that these remains are produced by birds of prey regurgitating bones, feathers and other parts of their meal that can’t be digested.
16 June (Tuesday)
The sun laughs at us again! It’s been a clear night, the water drops on my tent were frozen this morning. Everyone is excited to finally go out for an overnighter. Camp is as busy as an ant’s nest. Emma is preparing food boxes, Aman and Shailoo are preparing cooking gear and packing up cars, everyone else is gathering equipment and packing their sleeping gear. Kathy and I wave them goodbye as they leave. We will go through some re-org in the next couple of days.
18 June (Thursday)
SNOW LEOPARD TRACKS! The overnighter team is back, exhausted, but thrilled about two exceptional survey days and a “night out”. The camping spot was chosen close to the mountain pass connecting the Eastern and Western Karakol at an altitude of 3500 m. Still partly covered in patches of snow and therefore not crossable for herders and their livestock from the Eastern side, this area would be worth a check before the cattle, sheep and horses will move in for the summer. Well done, everyone! The snow leopard tracks found were not fresh, but still clear enough for identification without any doubt. Two camera traps were placed, now everyone is hoping for some good results.
20 June (Saturday)
Slot one is ready to leave base camp. We did a reccee walk yesterday researching more overnighter possibilities in order to reach more promising rocky mountain areas at the far end of some of the valleys. Aman has suggested we follow an old track leading uphill over grassy hills not knowing where it would lead us to. So we drove as far as the cars would take us and continued on foot split up in two teams. An old herder’s place was found – an optional overnight camping spot close to a mountain stream. A badger was spotted as well as ibex far away on the rocky peaks of the mountain range. It was early in the afternoon when we returned to camp leaving us some time for final checks on the cars, the tents, the equipment and a detailed review of the results of what the team has achieved over the last two weeks. 26 cells have been surveyed – an impressive number considering the small number of citizen scientist on the first slot. We’ve spotted or found tracks of all snow leopard prey species such as ibex, argali and marmot. Tracks and scats of wolf, fox, badger and snow cock were also found and quite an impressive number of different bird species is already on the bird list, which will be continued until we leave in August. But most excitingly the presence of snow leopard was proven by tracks. This success was celebrated after Volodya’s review and another delicious dinner with quite a few toasts and some local vodka.
21 June (Sunday)
The first two weeks of this year’s Tien Shan expedition went in a flash. While Carolyn and Charlie will stay for two more weeks, I had to say good-bye to Kathy, Theresa, Sue, Robert and Torsten after a final dinner in Bishkek. Thank you everyone – you’ve been a special and a great team! Thanks for putting your time, sweat, mountaineering expertise and excitement into this project. Safe travels back home. I hope we meet again some day in the future!
We’ve had a call from base camp. They are having trouble with the satellite connection. They can phone us, but the data connection for diaries and photos is not working, so this is just a short message to say that everyone is safe and doing well. We’ll send a diary entry as soon as we can, but it may only be at the changeover 20 – 22 June.