Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Everyone was tired last night, but very relieved to be at camp (in record time!). We appreciated the leisurely 09:00 breakfast, but after that the training started straight away as we hope to be out tomorrow for a climb up a nearby valley to check some camera traps. The weather is hot and sunny, allowing us to crack on with the introductory talks, presentations and compass/GPS training. We haven’t had to wait long for the wildlife either; we have seen marmot, fox, eagle and already one of the main preys of the snow leopard, the ibex, from the camp! At time of writing Jenny is going through some of the datasheets to be filled out and we have another presentation later.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Another day, another group (welcome all on group 4), another leader, another long, but beautiful drive with glaciers visible on the mountains. The half-way sauna and river swim was enjoyed by all; the queuing for permits not so much, but we accept this as part of the adventure now. I am writing this from the last control gate before the Altai mountains open up before us for a late night base camp arrival and more snow leopard conservation adventures

Another day in the mobile office
Another day in the mobile office 😉

Best wishes

Adam

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Just a quick one now with more details when have a minute in between switching groups and handing over to Adam. Thank you group 3, you have been excellent and we have achieved a lot (see Jenny’s presentation on http://www.slideshare.net/BiosphereExpeditions/altai-snow-leopard-expedition-iii2012).

Group 3
Group 3

Roll in group 4 and 5!

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

We have spent the last couple of days scouring the ridges, hillsides and valleys. Nine camera traps are now in place, seven on the Talduair range close to base and a couple on Chickachova. It’s arduous work getting these camera traps out into the mountains, which is why you, our team members are so crucial. You could have gone for the cushy option of a beach holiday with a book, but instead you opted to come out here and help us research this mountain ghost and the tough habitat it calls home. All credit to you and thanks.

One of the Talduair cameras had fresh scrapes right in front of it, but then the camera did not work! Poor Jenny is tearing her hair out, but we are getting close. Our partners in the Altai, such as WWF Russia will be very interested in these news as Talduair is an area they are particularly interested in.

Oh, and by the way – THE WEATHER HAS BEEN GLORIOUS! We only have three days left with this group and we hope the weather will hold. Watch this space for further updates!

Glorious weather in the Altai
Glorious weather in the Altai

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

We left Novosibirsk on Monday and for the first time managed to get through the permit palaver in Gorno Altaisk as per plan A, so no need for B, C and D, or so we thought until first one of the Land Rovers and then one of the team members started playing up. So some minor repairs and major altercations later, we finally arrived at base, still late as usual and minus one person. My thanks and gratitude to the remaining team who put up with a lot and pulled together like a real expedition team.

Then my tooth started playing up too, but luckily we have Friedy, a retired dentist, and Dani, a pharmacist with a bag full of pills to prove it, on the team. I was expertly taken care of (whilst Jenny did all the training sessions, thank you) and Gordon kept making chipmunk impressions behind my back 😉

News was then brought on Thursday by our local friend Kampi of snow leopards above his winter station not far away. Under Jenny’s guidance we jumped into the Land Rovers to have a look and make a plan K. The landscape has changed a lot because of the heavy rains, but the Land Rovers pulled through all the streams, which had turned into rivers.

Land Rover in action
Land Rover in action

Our new cook Olija is also delivering, conjuring up stews, borschts (sp?), and all sorts of tasty servings.

On Friday we split the team in two – one to survey the plan K snow leopard ridge, the second to retrieve a camera trap, yielding pictures of shaggy ibexes still shedding their winter coat. Jenny and her team hit the jackpot and found snow leopard scrapes on the ridge, then placed camera traps to hopefully catch their makers.

I wish the Altaian ground squirrels would all also meet their makers! Cute and ubiquitous as they are, they are also chewing through everything. Mark’s rucksack, Gordon’s towel, Jenny’s trousers, my favourite T-shirt; perhaps they’ll have indigestion soon and leave us alone! Unlikely.

Altai ground squirrel
Altai ground squirrel

Today we took it a little “easier” and retrieved another camera trap. Samara, Mark, Oleg, Jenny and I climbed to another ridge. The views were breathtaking, as were the camera trap pictures. It started slow with red-billed choughs, a family of Altai snowcocks and then…Pallas cat! This very rarest of cats is meant to be a steppe dweller, so to catch it on candid camera at 3000 m is as remarkable as getting a picture of it in the first place. Well done everyone! Just rewards for keeping your nerves through the horrible start.

P.S. I am sorry there are no pictures of the camera traps, but I am struggling to get them sent through from our remote location.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

How can I sum up the last group in a few words and apologise for not having been in touch much. Well, the weather has been perfectly horrid with lots of rain, interspersed by some sunny spells and our BGAN satellite phone is playing up so we are really in the middle of (communication) nowhere.

Anyway, the third group has arrived and we are on our way back to the Altai. Highlights of the second group include:

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Our local friends treating us to a party. We had no idea where all the food came from, but within a minute, Irina’s table was heaving under a load of home-made bread, luscious cream, several types of cheese, pickled apples – it all tasted so delicious.

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A very playful family of long-eared or Altai voles. We found them living with pikas and getting along famously.

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After the usual and seemingly endless permit hassles, we finally crossed into the border exclusion zone and felt very special indeed. The valley we set up the camp in was breathtaking. Steppe on one side and spectacular series glaciers on the other. This was argali, ibex and snow leopard country. Remote, protected  (by default by boarder guards) and undisturbed.

We were itching to hit the slopes and soon we found ourselves walking on a narrow ledge above the camp, following a well-worn argali track. And then I spotted my first argali. A small herd of seven. We were thrilled. Not having seen them before, I didn’t know how they would react, but they seemed very timid and came within just 200 metres of us. We tracked them all the way down to the river, we even crawled on our bellies to get a closer look, when they suddenly vanished.

The next morning Jenny and Oleg took Carol, Andy, Dermott and Janine to the very top of the ridge overlooking our camp and my group and I started walking the road, which was snaking up into the valley. Oleg mentioned something about an abandoned mine, but we didn’t really see much until we reached a small plateau, well above 3000 m. It was quite a shock to see the hand of humans at work. Rusty machinery, rotting wood, ghastly buildings and in the middle of it, an old mining shaft. We steered well clear of it all and kept walking. Argali were abundant above the ridges and we found some sort of  “argali hotel”, as Susan put it. Shallow depressions, dug into the scree by hundreds of animals, looking for a place to rest. The view over the saddle was breathtaking. We knew we were in the snow leopard country. As we reached an altitude of well above 3300 m, all credit goes to Louisa who scrambled to her record altitude without even losing a breath.

Jenny’s group had a hard time walking up the steep hill, but they were extremely lucky to find both scrapes and scat of what surely must have been a snow leopard. This was a great news and confirmation we are in the right area. With two camera traps set up high on the ridges, we just have to wait and see. What a great day!

Our Chikacheva trip, if only two days long, proved to be great success. We found scat, scrapes and set up three camera traps, high above the ridges. I am sure everyone would have liked to stay a bit longer, but the end of this group was beckoning.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

There’s been a sunny day down in the Altai (for a change) and our expedition is now moving towards Chicacheva ridge for their surveys and camera-trapping.

Sunny day in the Altai
Sunny day in the Altai

Whilst they are out there collecting more data, you may be interested in the latest publication, just out, called “Snow Leopard Conservation in Russia” (available from www.wwf.ru/resources/publ/book/eng/599). Our work over the years is mentioned several times (pages 15, 18) and also that there is “a great deal of opportunity to develop collaborations with such internationally known organizations as Biosphere Expeditions that involve tourists and volunteers in monitoring rare species, including the snow leopard.” (page 81).

Things are changing in the Altai with the establishment of community-based initiatives such as a snow leopard museum in Kosh-Agach or the “Kosh-Agach District Community Ecological Inspection Team for the Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage”. We are now working closely with other organisations such as the WWF (on co-ordinating our research efforts and creating local incentives), the Altai Project and the Foundation for Sustainable Altai (on involving local people) or academic instutions in Novosibirsk and Gorno Altaisk (on our expedition placement / scholarship programme for local students).

None of this would be possible without the help and finance that is provided by you, our expedition participants, so thank you very much for this. For those of you who have been on the expedition, we hope this makes it all worthwhile; for those of you yet to make the trip to the Altai with us, we hope it will increase your enthusiasm and resolve to put up with the foul weather we are having at the moment, the bureaucracy and whatever else the Altaian home of the snow leopard may be throwing at us in the weeks to come.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

4 July

After a late night arrival at 23:00 the previous evening and an exhausted team heading straight for some shut-eye, I could finally see what my team looked like as they were slowly emerging from their tents. We introduced each other over Nina’s hot porridge and despite the rain, started with the training. After lunch we split into two groups and while Jenny ran her science session with one, I did the Land Rover training with the other. Carol, Andy and Janine turned out to be excellent drivers and needed very little guidance. Rock crawl over some medium size boulders turned out to be the most popular activity, but what impressed me most was Louise reversing back into our car park, using only side mirrors!

5 July

Clouds still hanging over the camp, but luckily on the way out. We all headed up to Manul rock, to see if we could find any signs of elusive Pallas cat actually living there. We found nothing, but on the way to the saddle, we discovered plenty of very fresh argali and ibex droppings.

After lunch, we grabbed the compasses and not only found our way around the camp, but also learnt that North is the same in both the Northern and the Southern hemisphere. Quite a shock to some 😉

I took Jenny to see my new find, the nest of an imperial eagle, only a short distance from the camp. The chick, already loosing its white fluff and growing proper feathers, treated us with suspicion as we sat nearby.

Imperial eagle chick
Imperial eagle chick

6 July

We were determined not to get beaten by the weather today and left the camp quite early, heading up Kunduyak valley. Susan, Louis and I went ahead to reunite with the group later. With clouds hanging ominously above us for most of the day, we marched all the way to the glacier and then split up. Jenny and I started the long slog to our first camera trap, taking with us Janine, Andy, Carol and Dermott.

Climbing up to the camera trap
Climbing up to the camera trap

Andy, an engineer, had a look at mysterious device we had found previously and to our disappointment confirmed it was just remnants of a meteorological balloon. Unfortunately we found our camera face down, right next to fresh ibex droppings. Grrrr!!!! A nearby rock fall was to blame for destroying our hopes, but luckily not the camera. Not all was lost though, as the camera did operate for three whole days and captured some great night images of…mountain hare. Small victory. We secured the camera even better and left it there, hoping.

Mountain hare
Mountain hare

Walking back to base camp turned out to be bit of an endurance event. Good weather turned its back on us and we were soon caught in torrential rain, sleet and hail. Back at camp the sun reappeared to help us dry all our wet clothes. Welcome to the high mountains! The Land Rovers looked a bit like Xmas trees, decorated with all that dripping gear.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Team 2 has made it to our half-way point in the Altai.

Team 2
Team 2 on a roadside break

The permit fun continues with two very similar forms for entry to the Altai Republic, one acceptable, the other one apparently not. Common sense and pragmatism do not prevail here and so it’s back to our half-way point and back again this morning to fill in more forms. What fun! We should get to base late tonight to forget about bureaucrats and drown our sorrows in snow leopard survey work for a week or so. You have to laugh or you’d have to cry 😉

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Jenny is back in Novosibirsk and understandably up in arms with the rest of the team, because the last diary entry said “no snow leopard sign so far”. Let it be known that we were just being properly, scientifically critical, like, until we have a second and perhaps even a third opinion on whether the sign that Jenny and her intrepid team has found is indeed snow leopard. So put on your lab coat and goggles and watch this space for further information…

Lab rat
Lab rat

..and on that topic, here’s a little something about detecting wildlife

Meanwhile group 2 has arrived in Novosibirsk and has begun filling in forms so that the permit fun can start all over again 😉

Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia