Tien Shan: Another snow leopard! (addendum)

We have a bit more to write to you. We know that at this point nearly all of you will have been home for a while, gotten back into your daily routine, and have forgotten what it is like to wake up to frost on your tent!

But we hope to grab your attention and awe once more before the weight of “real life” truly sinks back in. Volodya was recently going through some camera trap photos of where we had a camera knocked over by bulls. [For obvious reasons we are not mentioning exact camera trap locations here, but this particular trap was set by Bek, Kurt, Lothar, Guillaume, Christiana and Tessa on 5 July, and removed by Hubert and Jörg on 20 August]. There were nearly 3000 images of these bulls feeding in front of it in the end, and a couple images of foxes that were immediately recognisable. However, Volodya found a series of images that were late in the evening, that appeared to show something walking in front of the camera, but the exposure levels were way off and it was indistinguishable. After editing the contrast etc., Volodya discovered that prior to the bulls knocking it over, we had a snow leopard walk right in front of the camera on 15 July at 19:50!

The image shows the cat walking to the right of the camera, just like the other image taken in another location, which means we can compare the rosettes and see if it is a separate individual. Likely this could be inferred just from the location that each image was taken, but we’ll let you take a look at the two images side by side. This is your chance for one last bit of citizen science on expedition this summer!

What an amazing extra photo captured! And again, this photo wouldn’t have been possible without all the hard work that each of you put in to the project. So I’d like to once again say thank you for making this season’s expedition the most successful yet!

Do e-mail us your conclusion on whether it’s one or two individuals. Or comment below.

Right-click on images to download them to your computer to see them full size.

Tien Shan: Group 4 and wrap-up

Group 4 is back in Bishkek, and likely happy that Bishkek is warm enough for shorts and t-shirts! This fantastic group consisted of Jorg, Hubert, Dirk, Petra, and Mandanna (Germany), Aniek (Netherlands), Tom (Australia), Dina (Australia/Italy), and Eileen (Australia) in addition to myself (Amadeus), our excellent cook Gulya, our two local NABU guides Zhyrgal and Zhengish, as well as our scientist Volodya.

Nobody ever likes to say it, but the expedition got off to a rough start right after leaving. Stopping at the shopping centre to pick up any last minute items is always a great idea, but one of the cars had a bit of an issue when we tried to leave again… Nobody knows how it happened, but a very small square magnet made its way into the ignition slot and we couldn’t get the key in to start the car! Fortunately we were able to get a locksmith to take care of the issue and we finally got on our way without any other troubles on the journey. And really, what is an expedition without a few little hiccups so that there is a story to tell at the end!

Obviously because of the magnet, we arrived a bit late to camp. Even though we were all a little tired, Tuesday’s training day still went ahead as planned. Wednesday saw us go up to Sary Kul for the traditional training walks. One group reached their destination quite a bit earlier than usual, so they decided to go further to a small glacier. How great to have a group wanting to push their limits, even on the first day out!

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t interested in letting us keep working hard the way we had hoped. On Thursday we ended up driving to the village of Dong Alysh to visit their zoology museum. We got an excellent tour of the museum and were quite happy with the way the day turned out. The next day we resolved to get into the mountains though, regardless of the weather.

On our day off we got to watch some excellent ulak tartysh (goat polo) and Mandanna and Eileen ended up carrying the goat around for a while! Lots of horse riding, and then Zhyrgal and Amadeus played a round together. Amadeus was able to pull off a victory, but really it was just a great afternoon of traditional games between a group of friends. After such a game of course we had to have some food, so we went over to Joldosh’s yurt for a very filling traditional meal.

A great story from this group involves a tiny goat named Tony. While we were walking through a new valley called Kashka Suu, Eileen and Dina heard a little noise and saw a baby goat all by itself! There was no herd anywhere nearby, so they picked it up and carried it over near where the shepherd was. Amadeus was there to help translate, and the shepherd told us that the goat was much too young to be his, and that we should just leave it there. He said it would probably die, but that it didn’t matter to him…so we asked if he thought it would be ok if we took it back to camp with us. Dina carried him the whole rest of the day, even with the buzzards circling above! Upon arrival at camp, Tony ended up being our new mascot! Petra and Dina became the little guy’s new “aunties”, and everyone enjoyed having him around. Upon leaving we handed him over to the neighbour, Shukurbek, to take care of. We’re sure he’ll enjoy his new herd!

Although we did get up close and personal with some of the local animals, here is the rest of our important data:

  • Our total cell count was 55, which is amazing considering our weather and group size!
  • We found evidence of snow leopard, wolf, fox, argali, ibex, roe deer, marmot, snowcock, badger, stone marten, ermine, and a few new bird species including the blue throat and greenish warbler.
  • For the first time in six years of study in the region we saw a Turkestan pika! This is very exciting as it is also considered a snow leopard snack, but more so because of how rare it seems to be in our study area.
  • We also made new records of over 100 petroglyphs in two unexplored valleys.

As I’m sure you are all aware, this research would never have been accomplished without each and every one of you. I love the science behind the expedition that we run here in Kyrgyzstan, but sometimes I think I do what I do more because of how inspiring you are! Thank you to groups 3 and 4 for getting out of your comfort zones, waking up to freezing snow, hiking through rain to search for scat, enjoying sprawling vistas from ridge-lines, laughing together in the yurt, and for taking care of one another. You are the heart and soul of our expeditions, and it was an absolute pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you all this summer. I’m thankful that through Biosphere Expeditions we had the opportunity to get to know each other through our mutual love of snow leopards and conservation!

Till next time,
Amadeus DeKastle

Tien Shan: Group 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tien Shan: Second half

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

Amadeus DeKastle

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

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

Tien Shan: Group 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, here is the summary of the research results:

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

Species recorded:

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

Birds:

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

Petroglyphs & butterflies:

38 recordings that will be added to the database

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

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

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

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

Tien Shan: group 1 trailblazers

The first of four expedition groups has finished, with the team arriving back at Bishkek on Saturday late afternoon. Together with Bek and Beka, the local NABU guides, Guma (cook) and Volodya the citizen scientists Christa & Manfred, Simone & Uwe, Christiana, Lothar and Stefan (Germany), David, Kurt, Tessa and David (UK), Michele (US) and Guillaume (France) spent another wonderful week in the mountains full of research work, adventure and fun.

Right now the valley meadows are carpeted in flowers of all colours, everything is lush and green and moist. Most days are sunny and warm, streams of snowmelt feed the Karakol river and soon the sun will have cleared the Karakol pass road from snow. In the first week, our camp stood solitairy in the vast valley but it seems that on 1 July the summer pasture season started and the herders, one after the other, set up their yurts.  Herds of sheep, goat, horses and cattle came into the valley, our neighbour Kanat moved in a couple of days ago and invited Volodya, Guma and myself for a welcome visit.

On our surveys we’ve been concentrating on snow leopard hotspots – locations where their presence has been proved in the past. Large snowfields still cover the upper parts of the side valleys, none of the former camera trap locations is yet accessible. Nonetheless, we set up four camera traps, two each in Kashka Tor and Isyk Ata as high up as possible. We went out in three or four smaller teams each day, recorded snow leopard prey species and other interesting mammals, birds and petroglyphs. Every evening during the daily review, Volodya assessed dozens of pictures, mostly of scat and footprints, and marked all findings in the overview map before taking over the completed datasheets. Our study area is divided into 2 x 2 km cells for statistical reasons, a scientific methodology that is used widely.

Here is a brief summary what we achieved over eight survey days:

  • We covered 36 cells, 11 of them three times, 15 twice and 10 once
  • We identified 34 bird species, four of them new additions to the bird inventory we have created over the years
  • There were 41 recordings of marmot, 6 sightings and 17 indirect ibex signs (scat, track), 4 recordings of snow cock, one of wolf and one of hare
  • We recorded 23 petroglyphs showing the historical significance of the area
  • We recorded 5 species of butterfly

We collected data on all but one day. That day we saw bad weather approaching from downvalley – thick and grey and unfriendly. We went out all the same and were rewarded for our folly with heavy rain and snowfall. Volodya’s team made it back to camp around 10:00 before they were hit (well done, Volodya!), team 2 & 3 returned shortly after, dripping wet from a very cold rain & snow shower. The kitchen yurt offered shelter, hot tea and a shot of vodka to warm up the body system while wet clothes, boots and rucksacks were spread around the stove in the drying yurt, which soon became a steaming sauna. When the rain stopped later on, the involuntary day at camp had become a full-blown party including dancing, singing and a hilarious yoga lesson led by Stephan later on.

Only team four (Christiana, Michele, Lothar and Bek) were still out on their mission in Pitiy valley, on the Eastern side of Karakol pass – or so we thought. No sign of them until 17:30 when, in accordance with our safety procedures, a search party went off to look for them. On the way up to the pass, we received a radio call from Christiana and returned to camp. And there they were telling about the adventures of getting wet during a river crossing, heavy snowfall and vain attempts to drive the car back up and over a pass on snow covered ground. Driving all the way around the mountain range was the only option to get back to camp, and that’s what they did: a full 6 hour drive! The team’s reunion was worth a celebration that lasted until late at night…

Thank you, team one for being the trailblazers and reccee team on this year’s Tien Shan expedition. Many thanks for your support, time, sweat and exceptional team spirit that made the last two weeks a unique experience. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Safe travels to wherever you are heading. I hope to see you again some time.

Team 2: I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday morning at the Futuro Hotel.

Tien Shan: Wilderness and Kozhomkul the Strong

I can write today, because we are at Suusamyr for our day off. We’re attending festivities celebrating the 130th birthday of Kozhomkul the Strong. Legend says that he crossed the mountains a long time ago in winter and when his horse couldn’t get any further because of the deep snow, he took it on his back and carried it over the mountains.

In the real world, work is going well in the mountains. On our surveys we have spotted ibex, marmot, golden eagle, found wolf, fox and other scats. Every day we saw sunshine interrupted by the odd rain or haze shower. The clear nights are cold, but the starry sky totally makes up for it. Karakol pass is still blocked by snow.

This morning all the peaks surrounding base camp had a fresh layer of snow on them. Because of this, only a few herders have moved into “our” valley – we have it to ourselves and the wilderness that surrounds us.

More from us when group 1 returns next week. Only a few pictures for now…

Tien Shan: Setting up base camp, mostly

Base camp is set up, mostly. The truck heroically made it to our bace camp location high up the Suusamyr valley. We found it undisturbed and beautiful. The local people say summer is coming late this year and we haven’t seen many yurts of herders being set up yet. The Karakol pass is still under a deep layer of snow. It was sunny and warm during our six hour drive, but cold enough for a down jacket after sundown.

Bek and Bekbolot will be the two members of Grupa Bars with the first two teams. They did a great job with loading the truck and driving it up safely. With us will also be Gulya, our cook – probably the most important person during the whole expedition 🙂 All together we  set up two yurts – the kitchen and a common room – and have left the third yurt for the first team to set up upon arrival. While Gulya, Volodya and Bek stayed back at camp to finish setting up everything, Bekbolot, Amadeus and I are now back in Bishkek for more shopping, organising cars and picking up the first group up on Monday morning.

We will start our journey to camp soon after some short introductions and familiarisation with the cars for the drivers.

Enjoy your last day off and come well rested and prepared! 🙂

Bekbolot and Bek in the truck
Setting up base
Setting up base
From left to right: Bek, Volodya, Amadeus, Gulya
The road to base
The road to base, with traffic jam 😉
Setting up the yurts

Tien Shan: Getting ready

Volodya (the expedition scientist), Amadeus (expedition leader group 3&4) and are in Bishkek and getting things ready. We have retrieved the camp equipment from a container set up in the backyard of the NABU offices, and checked tents, yurts , car equipment, water filters and all the hardware we need to run our camp far up the mountains.

A NABU conference room is now our impromptu office with all the paperwork laid and sorted out on a big table – datasheets, maps, clipboards, etc. We have gone through activities, schedules and procedures, charged the radios and batteries and prepared the GPSs. We have purchased a few electronic and additional items for the medical kit. More equipment is coming with people on group 1 (thank you for hauling it all to Bishkek for us!). Together with our cook Gulya we will go for a serious food shopping trip tomorrow and hopefully two of our spacious 4×4 cars will be enough to take everything back in one go!

Then Thursday evening  everything has to be loaded into the truck and taken into the mountains to set up camp 1 for group 1. Once set up, Gulya and Volodya will stay behind and I will come and collect group 1 for your time in the mountains, so get excited!

The weather has been pleasantly sunny and warm, but the temperatures will rise to hot (i.e. above 30 degrees over the next few days). I was told that it’s been a wet summer so far, so please come prepared.

NABU backyard
Impromptu office
Amadeus (left) and Volodya. We like the new hair/beard-style Amadeus 😉