Tien Shan: Roundup, pictures, video

After five years of research in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range of the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Biosphere Expeditions has proved the presence of the snow leopard in a location previously thought devoid of the top level predator. Two night-time camera trap images taken on 24 July 2018 show a snow leopard walking across a trail commonly used by local shepherds high in the mountains.

“It may have taken five years, but all our efforts have finally paid off with these two images”, says Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, research scientist of the Tien Shan project. Tytar has been researching the snow leopard for more than 15 years, but this year was special. “When we first arrived here in Kyrgyzstan to begin our work in 2014, we kept being told that we would not find anything in this region. In fact, over the past five years we have recorded quite a number of animals that no one expected, including the snow leopard.”

Dr Tytar (right) with members of the NABU Grupa Bars. Image courtesy of Noel van Bemmel.

The Biosphere Expeditions project originated at the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme, where, in 2013, representatives from all twelve Asian countries where the snow leopard roams made a historic pledge to conserve and protect snow leopards and the high mountain habitats they call their home. The pledge was made in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Biosphere Expeditions was part of this significant event and pledged in turn to carry out annual snow leopard conservation expeditions, involving ordinary people from around the world as citizen scientists, as well as building capacity with local people. NABU Kyrgyzstan, funded by Germany’s largest nature conservation organisation NABU (Natuschutzbund = nature conservation association), is the local project partner, with its local anti-poaching unit ‘Grupa Bars’ (group snow leopard) heavily involved in the annual expeditions.

Cited on the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard, like many species, 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 in Bishkek is 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.

“This is as big as it gets in terms of top-level conservation news”, says Dr. Tytar, “and it is a privilege to be part of the challenge, together with my colleagues in field science and many others, to preserve this iconic cat. But what we do goes far beyond a single cat species, beautiful as it is in its own right, because successful species conservation is all about creating positive impact well beyond the target species, namely for those people that share their daily lives and landscapes with the snow leopard. As specified in the Conservation Strategy for Snow Leopard in Russia, 2012-2022, much can be achieved in the socio-economic context of snow leopard conservation by ‘…developing collaborations with such internationally known organisations as Biosphere Expeditions…’ (p.81). And this is exactly what we have achieved with our annual citizen science expeditions”.

“Four of the key themes at the Bishkek conference as ways forward in snow leopard conservation were private conservation initiatives, local involvement, capacity-building and ecotourism”, says Dr. Hammer, executive director of Biosphere Expeditions. “Our Tien Shan project ticks all those boxes. Funded by the private donations of our citizen science participants, we involve local people and organisations and bring benefits to herders and other people on the ground. For us, these are the key factors to ensure the future of the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere”.

Some pictures and videos of the expedition are below. Thank you to Ralf Brueglin, Noel van Bemmel, Fraeulein Draussen and others for sharing them.

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Tien Shan: Group 2 summary

Group 2 is back in Bishkek with some great results! But before we get to that, I want to share a bit more about our two weeks in the Tien Shan.

Thanks to group 1’s efforts at digging away the snow on the mountain pass, group 2 was able to drive the eastern route to get to base camp. Once at base camp, we had a quick tour before setting up our tents. After all the necessary methodology and gear training on Tuesday, we got up on Wednesday ready for a good day out in the mountains. Our plans were quickly changed though thanks to a sudden snowstorm on our drive up to the valley. We took great advantage of it though with a surprise snowball fight! Once back at camp, we decided to head down the valley where it looked dry and have our first day out in a valley called Tuyuk.

Our next day also was a “weather” day … even though it started out with perfect weather! Once we reached the top of the valleys we were in and began setting up camera traps, the weather changed for the worse. Both groups experienced snow, hail, rain, high winds, and lightning on their way back down the valleys. We were very grateful to Gulya who had started a fire in the yurt to help us all warm up and dry out. Of course, the weather wasn’t quite over as we had an awful wind storm in the middle of the night, one that I was worried may be a repeat of last year’s storm that destroyed our mess tents. Thankfully, our new yurts held strong and there wasn’t any damage to the camp.

With such a tough start to the expedition, we were nervous that each day would be the same, but after the storm, each day was beautiful! We had wonderful trekking weather that allowed us to reach the glacier’s edge almost every day to look for signs of snow leopard, ibex, marmot, and other species. Closer to the end of the two weeks it was time to start collecting the camera traps installed during groups 1 and 2. This is where we get to the results!

Over our two weeks we covered 35 cells, 26 of which had signs of snow leopard prey species found in them. On the very last day, we finally got an ibex sighting! A total of 41 bird species and 23 butterfly species were recorded, some for the first time in our study area. However, the grand finale of all information is that we have finally managed to photograph a snow leopard with a camera trap in Chong Chikan valley!

What a way to end our fifth year in the Tien Shan. My thanks goes out to group 2 of David, Pat, Jan, Anette, Christine, Hans, Jo, Jerred, Bec, Berni, Kathrin, Ralf, and Buyanaa. Thank you for the effort you put in during our two weeks together. And to everyone that was involved in this year’s work, including group 1 of course. You could have gone to a beach somewhere, but instead you were with us up in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan, getting rained, snowed, and hailed on (sometimes) and “suffering for science”. Your passion and concern for snow leopard conservation here is much appreciated, and even though two or four weeks seems like a short time, I am proud to call you all dear friends. I hope someday during this incredible journey of life that our paths will cross again. Thank you as well to Volodya, Bek, Beka, and Gulya, without whom we’d have no idea what to do, where to go, and would always be hungry. And to Biosphere Expeditions, thank you for providing the opportunity for people from around the world and with a wide range of skill sets to bond together, not just over the idea of snow leopard conservation, but over the struggles, challenges, joys and triumphs of snow leopard conservation!

Until we meet again,
Amadeus DeKastle
Expedition Leader


Tien Shan: Amazing pictures by Noël van Bemmel

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

And here are some great pictures from group one, taken by Noël van Bemmel of De Volkskrant newspaper. Thank you for sharing Noël!


Tien Shan: Group 1 summary

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

2018’s first Tien Shan expedition group has arrived back in Bishkek after a busy two weeks. Thank you to Judy, Sophie, Marilyn, Allycia, Tristan, the two Peters, Holger, Jim, Ross, Markus, Peter, Andreas, Noel and Stanley for putting in lots of effort to collect a solid amount of data. We covered 34 cells (2×2 km each) in our study area, some of them multiple times. Our surveys showed that of those 34 cells, 23 of them had snow leopard prey species living in them. This included ibex, argali, marmot and snow cock. We set up eight camera traps in various locations (results pending). We also collected records for three bird and two butterfly species that are completely new to our study area this year. Most importantly, we collected two distinct records of snow leopard. The first record was the dead body of a cub in Sary Kul valley that we found out about from a shepherd. In Chong Chikan valley a survey up near the glacier came across two sets of prints, likely belonging to a mother snow leopard and her cub. This is not only a strong indication of snow leopard presence, but it is also great to see that there is likely to be a breeding population here in our study area.

Group 1, it was a pleasure to spend two weeks with you in the mountains “suffering for science”. All the best, and I hope to see each of you again!


Tien Shan: Successful but wet week 1

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

With temperatures reaching above 40C in Bishkek, group 1 was more than ready to get up to our Alpine base camp where cool weather abounds. On the way there we had our lunch stop at the top of the Too Ashu mountain pass. Looking down on the Suusamyr valley was a fantastic way to break up the driving. When we arrived at base camp we quickly settled in, thanks to Bek, Beka and Volodya having already set up tents for everyone. We did pitch our third yurt all together tough.

Training on Tuesday and Wednesday morning went well and so we were able to get out for our first transect walk Tuesday afternoon. We went to Sary Kul valley, where interestingly this year there is a shepherd’s yurt for the first time. And not only that, while talking to him he told us that a week ago he had come across what he thought was a dead snow leopard cub. Unfortunately he did not take any pictures, and even more unfortunately is the fact that this cub was found dead, but this does give us a very strong indication of snow leopard presence in the valley.

We have also been up a few other valleys, including Issyk Ata valley, where we have previously discovered snow leopard tracks. There was a lot of snow in the higher elevations, and so we were not able to get up as high as we would have liked, but Volodya found two good locations to set up camera traps. Beka has also placed camera traps along the ridge in another valley near our base camp. However, even with all the effort we’ve put in so far, the weather is very uncooperative. As I mentioned in my initial diary entry, it has been an unusually wet summer, and that is very true up in the Alpine valleys too. I don’t think we’ve had a day without rain yet! As a result, we’ve only had direct sightings of secondary snow leopard prey (marmot and snow cock), but with one week left to go there is still lots of time left for group 1 to collect more data!

Something else very special that happened during the first week was the birthday celebration of the grandson of our shepherd neighbour. It really felt as though all the shepherds in the entire valley showed up for the party! There was lots of food, Kyrgyz traditional games like wrestling and Kok Boru (horse polo), and an opportunity for us to ride horses, meet lots of local people, and get dropped right into an amazing cultural experience!

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Successful but wet week 1”

Tien Shan: Base camp set

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

The staff, a truck and a few cars made it to our base camp location in the mountains and started, and have now mostly finished, setting up.

We have put up two of the three yurts and are waiting for group 1 to build the third. Within minutes of our arrival, we had our shepherd neighbours, who have by now become friends, there to help us. Kyrgyz culture is definitely one of friendship and lending a helping hand!

I am now back in Bishkek for last minute shopping and arrangements and group 1 starts tomorrow, Monday. I hope everyone arrives safely and on time. See you all tomorrow morning, group 1.

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Base camp set”

Tien Shan: We’re getting ready

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

Summer is finally here and with that comes Biosphere Expeditions’ annual snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, in cooperation with NABU Kyrgyzstan.

My name is Amadeus DeKastle, and I’ll be leading the expedition again this summer. This will be our fifth year working in the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range.

The expedition scientist, Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, will be arriving in Bishkek later today, whilst I and our two local NABU guides, Bek and Bekbolot, are already here and getting everything prepped, including some new yurts for base camp, because last year a stormed ripped through the valley and destroyed our mess tents.

Bekbolot next to the new yurt, all packed up
New yurt
Expedition storage at NABU HQ in Bishkek

If you have not had a chance to read through the dossier and previous reports, please do so. There is a lot of information in there that will be vital to you being able to be as involved as possible during your time here. In addition to some light reading, please download an app called “Lapis Guides” from either the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. We will be using this app to collect some supplementary data in the area on birds, butterflies, and petroglyphs. This spring and summer has already proved to be very “wet”, so please make sure you have appropriate “wet weather” clothing and boots.

Safe travels group 1. I look forward to meeting you at the Futuro Hotel. Please be on time so we can get started on our journey as soon as possible. It is a long drive, and the sooner we leave, the sooner we’ll have supper and get settled into base camp.

Continue reading “Tien Shan: We’re getting ready”

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