Sweden : Success

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

All good things must come to an end. Our Sweden Brown Bear Research Expedition 2023 has finished now. Following a review last year, it was a few days longer than our 2022 expedition, which Andrea and myself really valued. We gathered significantly more data following the initial training and Andrea was thrilled to discover by the end of the expedition we had surveyed the vast majority of all the dens on her target list for the year. Another great Biosphere Expeditions achievement!

The last days of the expedition saw us working as hard as ever, navigating very much off-piste to find winter dens and recent day beds hidden in the forests. We also found several moose carcasses or remains of moose at day bed sites, giving an insight into the types of food that at least some bears hunt or scavenge on at this time of year.

Our last night was celebrated with wonderful food, a review of everything we had achieved, with much appreciation from Andrea for the amount of quality data gathered by a hard-working team of committed citizen scientists and a late night impromptu game of Viking Chess outside as the sun dropped below the trees.

Altogether our expedition team visited 68 sites in eight days of field work. This included 38 winter dens, 3 sites where the den could not be found and 27 day bed or likely scat sites. We collected 35 scat samples to be sent off for analysis. Ten of these were ‘first scats of the season’: especially valuable samples that can reveal much about hibernation.

All this is a significant achievement and scale of effort by a top team of citizen scientists. I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to everyone on this very successful expedition – to Andrea, who explained and trained us in the research so well (and welcomed us on to her property to use as our base camp), to Louise who fed us so well and to our magnificent group of citizen scientists who threw themselves into this expedition with a great attitude, got on really well as a team and gathered a considerable quantity of high quality data. You make a vital contribution to the evidence base needed for successful conservation of Brown Bears in Scandinavia.


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Sweden : Rewards

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

We have been working hard, finding bear dens in difficult places, investigating the sites where tracked bears have spent time on one spot and then returning to base to enter the hard-won data into the computer. The rewards for this work come from the pleasure of contributing to a research programme that forms the basis for brown bear conservation action – but also good company, excellent food, the beauty of the Swedish forest, and a small break we enjoyed together on day 6.

Conveniently near to a bear day bed site we needed to visit that day, is a delightful spot where the river Voxnan rushes down through a rocky gorge in a forest of pine and birch. Here we all met up for a mid-expedition celebratory lunch of pea soup and pancakes – the traditional Swedish Thursday meal – cooked on a camp fire. Some of the team insisted on immersing themselves in the cold waters of the calmer parts of the river.

Yesterday, Andrea gave one team an extra job to do. She wanted to know if a particular bear family of mother and two yearling cubs had split up or not. The GPS data from mother and one cub gave recent locations, but had not been updating recently. The second cub did not have a GPS collar, so his location was simply unknown. But all three bears did have radio tracking devices, so our mission was to try and locate all three bears in real time using a directional radio receiver and triangulate the results on a map. This took more time, care and luck than we anticipated! A bear lurking behind a rock or moving off while we are in the middle of trying to locate it can make the whole exercise very difficult. We did at least obtain some partial results showing the cubs in the same approximate area as each other, with the location of mother bear uncertain. Such are the practical realities of conservation research. Some of us ended that long day with a much-earned sauna in the woods at base camp.

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Sweden : Den diversity

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

Every morning we are tasked by Andrea, the expedition scientist and bear expert, to visit bear dens and day beds, at specific locations in this beautiful part of Sweden. The den sites are the locations where bears have been seen to hibernate in winter or where the GPS collars of tracked bears report that they stayed over winter. The day bed sites are simply where a tracked bear stayed for a few hours recently – perhaps only the day before – and which give us a chance to find their scat to collect for later analysis or perhaps evidence of a moose that the bear has hunted or scavenged. Bears are not aggressive and avoid humans, but just to err on the side of caution we also sometimes need to use a directional radio receiver to triangulate the latest position of a bear with a radio collar to make sure it is not still loitering in the location we plan to visit.

Finding a den always brings a thrill. Sometimes, they are obvious – a big old anthill in a forest clearing, exactly where the GPS pin shows it. Other dens need more work to find and we need to spend an hour or so fighting through the undergrowth, climbing through a maze of fallen tree trunks or investigating every rock crevice before we come across the den. Each den is unique. The expedition’s research aims include learning more about how the bears’ choice of den relates to the available habitat, any impacts of climate change and the bears’ condition. This year we have discovered a notably wide variety of bear dens. Dens built in uprooted tree roots, dens dug into the side of a hill, anthills excavated to create a cosy igloo of pine needles, open nests and rocky caves. We categorise and measure each one.

Yesterday we had our first moose sighting: a mother and calf, wandering along the forest edge. We stopped and watched: the mother walked off to a safe distance, the calf took cover in plain sight in a ditch right next to us. It was a special moment.

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Sweden : Not lost

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

The first two days of the expedition are dominated by intense training, and this team has hit the ground running. Much of the training is in the practical methods used to collect data at each winter den: from the den measurements through to a methodological approach to defining the habitat around the den, as well as much information to record about bear scats. Research equipment that the team are trained to use range from the specialist densitometer, which measures the extent of tree canopy above a den, to the humble compass (you need to put Fred in the Shed).

We also train the expedition team in how not to get lost. The bear dens and day beds that they are tasked with finding are deep in the woods, often a long way from the road. As adventurer-scientists, the team have to fight their way through some pretty challenging and pathless territory – typically rocky, boggy and/or hard going (usually all three), trying to locate a waypoint on a GPS device, and ideally not losing anyone en route. Finding the way back to the car afterwards can be a difficult task when you look up after an hour of focussed survey work and being confronted with a view of indistinguishable forest in all directions. Fortunately the team are trained in various navigational techniques, complemented by cool heads and common sense, so have successfully failed to get lost so far.

We have already surveyed two winter dens – a beautiful den under a massive boulder and a very different ‘nest’ type den where a bear and her cubs spent winter covered by nothing more than a thick blanket of snow. We have also begun to collect our first bear scats, carefully labelled and stored ready for later analysis to reveal what the bear has been eating before and after hibernation.

The team have taken all this on with little rest and in good spirits. A special mention here to Torsten, who cycled over 1000 km from southern Sweden to join the expedition and immediately threw himself into expedition life without pause.

With the training part of the expedition almost over, the team is ready to devote the next week to exploring the tangled forests of mid-Sweden to record high quality data for the transnational Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project.

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Sweden : From base

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

Greetings from base camp. I am excited to be back! The Advanced Team have assembled: Louise and I arrived here last night and Andrea, the expedition scientist, joined us today. We have bought the food and supplies for the expedition: there is a lot of it, so I hope you will be hungry.

Base camp is looking glorious in the Swedish spring sunshine. The iconic Swedish red wooden cabins are almost glowing in the morning light, the birch and pine trees are bursting with green vitality and we saw a fox running past the sauna and across the stream when we were out exploring late last night.

The snow has gone, apart from a few patches in forest clearings, revealing the grass at base camp, along with some old moose scat. Our job for the next two days is to get base camp tidy and organised ready for the expedition, and to check and prepare all the research equipment.

Andrea has been a little tense: the tracked bears’ GPS collars often only transmit their entire winter’s data after they have left their winter den and walked into an area with phone signal. Due to the late arrival of spring here, Andrea has been left waiting for these data uploads. Thankfully, as of yesterday, she now has the data and she looks positively happy now!

See you on Saturday morning, for the start of another great citizen science / bear research expedition: there is a lot of work to do….

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Sweden : 2023 opener

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

We are getting excitingly close to the start of the 2023 Sweden Brown Bear expedition, and preparations are going well. I am Roland, your expedition leader, and this will be my second time leading this expedition. I am really looking forward to returning. This year, my partner Louise, a professional events caterer, will also be joining us as expedition cook. It will be interesting to see what that will mean under expedition conditions. We will be working alongside Dr Andrea Friebe, the local expedition scientist who manages a long-term research programme monitoring the brown bear population in this region.

Louise & Roland

Our daily research tasks will include finding and recording the dens that the bears have been using to hibernate in over winter, as well as their day beds, which we will visit sometimes shortly after they have left them.

Andrea sent an update from the field today saying that 10 cm of snow fell last night and that some of the tracked bears have not yet left their dens, so we may have some interesting challenges coming our way…

As always with Biosphere Expeditions, we will review and adapt our plans according to the conditions we find. The weather forecast for Dalarna province, at least for the first few days of the expedition, predicts warmer conditions – up to 27 C , with some sunny, some cloudy and some rainy days. The best advice is to pack clothing and footwear ready for any and all weather conditions!

The research methodologies we use on this expedition are relatively detailed and specific, especially when it comes to surveying the winter dens. But fear not, we will provide ample training in the methods and using the research equipment in the first two days. I will send another update once Louise and I get to our expedition base, on 24 May. In the meantime, feel free to start getting excited about this expedition – I certainly am!

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Sweden : 2022 expedition round-up

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

The 2022 Biosphere Expeditions citizen science expedition to Sweden to study brown bears together with Dr. Andrea Friebe of Björn & Vildmark and the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project has been a success for the second year running and overachieved on its aims.

In a nutshell, the expedition documented all 24 bear dens of the study site, collected over 100 bear scats, recorded 30 day beds, 8 carcasses and a multitude of other interesting events such as gnawed antlers, encounters with moose, fox, owls and other animals. Dr. Friebe now relies on this citizen science contributions each year to conduct significant parts of her work on brown bear ecology in a changing world of climate change and forestry. In her words “essentially, if the expedition was not here to do this work, it would probably not get done” and the expedition is “a showcase of how citizen science can supplement existing research projects run by professional scientists”.

All this is in evidence in the post-expedition scientific report (abstract below). The 2023 expedition has been lengthened to 10 days to be able to achieve even more and Biosphere Expeditions looks forward to returning to Sweden in May/June 2023.


Abstract of the 2022 expedition report

This is a report about the second year of collaboration between Biosphere Expeditions and Björn & Vildmark with the overall purpose of researching the behaviour of free ranging brown bears (Ursus arctos) in central Sweden for the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project (SBBRP). This collaboration investigates, amongst other topics, how climate change as well as human activities affect the brown bear behaviour and population, and provides managers in Sweden with solid, science-based knowledge to manage brown bears.

From 28 May to 4 June 2022, six citizen scientists collected data on bear denning behaviour and feeding ecology by investigating the 2021/2022 hibernation season den sites of GPS-marked brown bears and by collecting fresh scats from day bed sites. All field work was performed in the northern boreal forest zone in Dalarna and Gävleborg counties, south-central Sweden, which is the southern study area of the SBBRP. After two days of field work training, citizen scientists were divided into three to four sub-teams each day. All study positions were provided by the expedition scientist and only data and samples from radio-marked bears with a VHF or GPS transmitter were collected.

Citizen scientists defined den types (anthill den, soil den, rock den, basket den or uprooted tree den), recorded bed material thickness, size and content, as well as all tracks and signs around the den sites to elucidate whether a female had given birth to cubs during hibernation. All first scats after hibernation and hair samples from the bed were collected, and the habitat type around the den and the visibility of the den site were described.

Twenty-six winter positions of 21 different bears were investigated. Two bears shifted their dens at least once during the hibernation season. In total, the expedition found 23 dens; two soil dens, eight anthill dens, one anthill/soil den, one stone/rock den, four dens under uprooted trees and seven basket dens. Unusually, one pregnant female that gave birth to three cubs during winter, and four females that hibernated together with dependent offspring spent the winter in basket dens. Normally basket dens are mainly used by large males.

Excavated bear dens had an average outer length of 2.0 m, an outer width of 2.2 m, and an outer height of 0.8 m. The entrance on average comprised 28% of the open area. The inner length of the den was on average 1.3 m and the inner width was 1.1 m. The inner height of the dens was on average 0.6 m. Bears that hibernated in covered dens used mainly mosses (47%), field layer shrubs (36%) and branches (14%) as nest material, which reflected the composition of the field layer and ground layer that was present at the den site. However, bears that hibernated in open dens such as basket dens, preferred branches (43%) followed by grass (26%); mosses (19%) and field shrubs (12%) as nest material. The expedition found two first post-hibernation bear scats at the den sites.

Ten bears selected their den sites in older forests, and eleven bears in younger forests, only two bears hibernated in very young forest. The habitat around the dens was dominated by spruce (Picea abies) 37%, scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) 35% and birch (Betula pendula, Betula pubescens) 27%.

As part of its intensive data collection activities, the expedition investigated about half of all winter den positions that the SBBRP recorded in 2021/2022 and collected 64 scats at cluster positions, which represents all scat samples that the SBBRP normally collects during a time period of 14 days. A detailed food item analysis will be performed in 2025 and the data will be published.

It appears that climate change is altering bear denning behaviour and may reduce food resources that bears need for fat production. Overharvesting (hunting) of bears and habitat destruction are the major reasons why brown bear populations have declined or have become fragmented in much of their range. In Scandinavia, human activity around den sites has been suggested as the main reason why bears abandon their dens. This can reduce the reproductive success of pregnant female brown bears and increases the chance of human/bear conflict. Understanding denning behaviour is critical for effective bear conservation. Further research is needed to determine whether good denning strategies help bears avoid being disturbed. Additionally, enclosed dens offer protection and insulation from inclement weather. A continued fragmentation of present bear ranges, inhibiting dispersal, together with an increasing bear population, might lead to bears denning closer to human activities than at present, thereby increasing human/bear conflict. The dens that were investigated by the expedition were visible from 22 m on average. Cover opportunities and terrain types not preferred by humans are thereby presumably important for bears that are denning relatively close to human activities, but further research needs to be done to validate this theory.

Through all of the above, the expedition made a very significant contribution to the SBBRP’s field work in a showcase of how citizen science can supplement existing research projects run by professional scientists.


Some photo impressions of the 2022 expedition:

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Tien Shan: Wolf scat, snow leopard photos and petroglyphs

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Nobody could accuse this snow leopard volunteer expedition of being dull, and the interesting times have continued with the third and final group for this year.

Group 3 started dramatically with a mountain storm erupting without warning within hours of the team arriving at base camp. 30 minutes of high winds destroyed one of our three yurts and many of our tents, necessitating two prompt actions – a hasty arrangement to hire a yurt from a local shepherd and a long drive back to Bishkek for expedition leader Roland to buy some more tents. Both missions were completed successfully. Then expedition leader Roland tested positive for Covid. Leading an expedition while self-isolating proved to be a novel experience, but group 3 was a strong and dependable team and the expedition continued largely as planned. Another expeditioner then also tested positive for Covid a day after Roland, but thanks to the implementation of our Covid protocol, the spread stopped there.

Despite these setbacks and some challenging weather in the first few days, the expedition team pulled out the stops and achieved some good scientific research over the two weeks. We visited most of the camera traps already located in the mountains, to replace SD cards and to retain, move or bring back each camera. We surveyed many 2×2 km cells – many of them covering new valleys we had not visited before. We saw ibex, high up on ridges. We discovered many instances of ibex footprints and scat and – excitingly – some snow leopard footprints too. We also found large carnivore scat on a few occasions.

It is not easy to directly tell whether such scats are from snow leopard, wolf or even lynx, but the location and neighbouring clues often help. Wolf predation of livestock is common here – much more than with snow leopard who favour ibex as their main prey and we came across a few horse and cow carcasses and accompanying wolf scat on at least one occasion. Even more excitingly, we found likely snow leopard scat a couple of times and we have a total of six potential snow leopard scats from the three groups, ready to send off for DNA analysis to confirm their identity.

Group 3 also had the task of checking the camera traps that were put up by the previous two groups. All the camera traps were placed in strategic locations, often on high ridges, where we have found good evidence of ibex at least. Some of these cameras have captured good photos of ibex and snowcock, amongst other snow leopard prey animals. And two images of cameras have given us images of snow leopards – just a few days old in each case. This revelation never fails to being much excitement and celebration at our debrief sessions each evening.

Snow leopard image

Alongside our surveys of snow leopards and their prey, we naturally look out for any other interesting wildlife and other finds. We are always accompanied by buzzards, eagles and vultures. And often we come across petroglyphs, which are common in this valley but no less intriguing because of it. These are rock carving line pictures, depicting local animals, made many thousands of years ago in some cases. Most of the petroglyphs show recognizable animals (but some are not at all obvious and invite imaginative interpretation). Simple line drawings of ibex are especially common and we have also seen carvings of Argali sheep, camels, dogs –and occasionally snow leopards.

Ibex petroglyph
Snow leopard petroglyph

In group 3 we have also continued our social research into attitudes to the opportunities of eco-tourism amongst the local shepherd families. This involves visiting our neighbours up and down the valley, in their yurts and tents, always being received with great hospitality and courtesy. With our multilingual Kyrgyz scientist Dr Taalai Mambetov acting as interpreter, our expeditioners interview the shepherds, loosely following a prepared series of questions, but largely enjoying a free-flowing conversation. The interviews gave us a good insight into the realities of shepherding life in the upper Suussamyr Valley – and a strong appetite to host adventurous tourists here in the future.

The 2022 Tien Shan snow leopard expedition has brought some memorable challenges but was ultimately very successful, with a total of 30 expeditioners achieving an impressive amount of citizen science over six weeks in Suussamyr Valley: We have surveyed seventy six 2×2 km cells, many more than once, collected six samples of likely snow leopard scat ready for DNA analysis, discovered three sets of photos of snow leopards on camera traps, found snow leopard footprints, seen herds of ibex on mountain ridges on several occasions and we have interviewed twelve local shepherd families. And alongside all this, we have immersed ourselves in the wild mountain environment, scrambled up rocky ridges, seen a lot of local wildlife, discovered ancient and intriguing rock art, watched crazy games of ulak (the national sport of Kyrgyzstan, with horse riders fighting over a goat carcass, in a mad chaos of hooves and mud) and made new friends.

As one expeditioner reflected – “A once in a lifetime experience! This was a great way to deep dive into a country, push yourself outside your comfort zone and save some wildlife. The science we do here may not seem like much on a single day, but it adds up and contributes to a wonderful research project.”

So I end this diary by thanking all expeditioners, whose time and funds make this expedition possible, our partner NABU Kyrgyzstan and its snow leopard rangers, our head ranger Aman and his wife Gulia, our amazing cook, our expedition scientist Dr. Taalai Mambetov and everyone else who helps to make this expedition a success. Thank you all. You all contribute to making this expedition what it is.

Group 3
Karin, Walter and Sarah recording evidence of ibex footprints
Haley & Aman
End of workday briefing
Haley, Lars and Irving outside the hired drying yurt
A game of ulak about to start
End of expedition dinner
End of expedition dinner
Dismantling base camp

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Wolf scat, snow leopard photos and petroglyphs”

Tien Shan: ulak and interviews

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Aman, our chief ranger, spotted them first, through binoculars. Once he pointed them out to us, they were obvious, even to the naked eye. Around twenty vultures circling over a spot on the far hillside, occasionally landing and pecking at… something. It was a dead horse. This valley is home to many herds of horses – not wild, but roaming free – and they occasionally fall victim to wolves. The vultures we saw might spend a few days getting a meal from what the wolves had left, a reminder for us of the circle of life.

Vultures are not part of our snow leopard expedition, but they are one of the more dramatic creatures that we have seen on this expedition. Our valley seems to have an unusually high population of large birds of prey. We see bearded vultures, golden eagles, buzzards and other raptors every day, often flying or perched on a rock very close to us. On group 2 we have also seen badgers – smaller, lighter coloured and less nocturnal than their European cousins, a mysteriously tame weasel and other mustelids, as well as a host of smaller bird species – wagtails, warblers, larks and choughs have all been seen and identified. The choughs are especially a welcome accompaniment to our high mountain walks, with their acrobatic flight and musical calls.

Most days we spend on hikes, slowly surveying many of the side valleys, peaks and ridges, looking for any evidence of the species we are researching – snow leopards and their main prey species (ibex, argali, marmots and snowcocks). Most days our small teams find something to report – marmots are relatively common on the lower slopes. Footprints or scat of ibex are found on the higher slopes and sometimes – always to great excitement – we see a herd of ibex walking along a ridge or up a slope. All of these findings are photographed and recorded on datasheets according to our research protocols.

We have also been deploying camera traps in suitable places – mostly on high ridges with signs of snow leopards or ibex – and have been able to check some of the cameras already. When we retrieve the traps or their SD cards, the exciting work of scrolling through all the photos begins. Many of them are of moving grass, sometimes even bright sunlight triggers them, so it is painstaking work. But sooner or later we are rewarded and we have happily discovered a handful of images of ibex, snowcocks and two snow leopards so far. These are important pieces of evidence for the research project as well as a source of great excitement for us at base camp. At the time of writing there are still a good few cameras waiting to be retrieved from the mountains by group 3.

We have had a few rainy cold days – this is the high mountains after all. But everyone has brought suitable clothing as recommended in the expedition kit list so our work continues whatever the weather. And the wood burner in our ‘drying’ yurt has proved very welcome when we return to base camp. An especially stormy night ripped a couple of our tents and we also suffered tent damage from a wayward animal. But we have enough spare tents, so no problem.

A new element of our research this year is a survey of the local shepherd families about the potential for ecotourism, which might offer a new source of income for local people, give an incentive to protect and encourage wildlife and perhaps in time allow a reduction in livestock numbers in the valley, which are in competition with the ibex and the argali. The interviews we have been carrying out are intended to assess interest in the idea. So far, volunteer citizen scientists Margot and Kathy have been our chief interviewers, accompanied by our scientist Taalai as interpreter. This team has been welcomed with wonderful hospitality by the women and men they have approached, and ten interviews have now been completed, with a great variety of responses. The great majority of people are in favour of small-scale ecotourism in the valley and at least one respondent said he would give up shepherding altogether in favour of an income from ecotourism.

These interviews have been a fantastic way of getting to know our neighbours. And more widely, it is clear that the Biosphere Expedition is very welcome here – the local shepherds are very hospitable and express a great interest in what we are doing. Last week we were invited to watch a game of Ulak – the national game of Kyrgyzstan, involving two teams of horse riders ferociously competing to score goals with a goat carcass – followed by a generous meal in a local shepherd’s yurt. Many toasts and promises of continued friendship and collaboration were made.

So group 2 has finished with great success and we look forward to starting our third and final group of this year’s snow leopard volunteer project in Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

Felix looking for ibex
Margot & Kathy with local shepherds
Pondering interview questions
Roland, Georg and Taalai on top of a ridge
Mountain survey
At the local natural history museum
Checking a camera trap
Ibex horns found in the field
Group 2

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Tien Shan: Ibex, eagles, marmots and martens

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Group 2 is going well. Covid has not reared its ugly head again, so after getting to base and two days of training, several more valleys have now been surveyed.

We put new camera traps on a high ridge by an ibex superhighway. Whilst doing this, we saw a group of ibex further up the same ridge. We also spotted marmots, stoats, badgers, many many eagles, vultures, buzzards, and many other birds.

We also started doing interviews with people in the main valley to find out about their attitudes towards low-scale / low-impact ecotourism based on intact nature as a means of generating income for them. Our first interviewees were five herder’s wives. We found varying attitudes towards tourism, including some very open to the idea of hosting tourists and providing horses. We have more interviews planned, including with the herders themselves. We are also starting conversations about how livestock numbers are restricted (not very effectively) in the valley and the possibility of creating buffer valleys for wildlife without livestock.

Yesterday, Sunday, we came over the pass and into a local village with a phone signal, which is why I can send this diary update. A fuller account next weekend when we change over to group 3.

We’ve seen many, many butterflies
Mustelids (here a stoat)
And birds (here probably a golden eagle)
Collecting possible snow leopard scat
Collecting possible snow leopard scat
Setting up a camera trap on an ibex superhighway
The going is often tough in these pathless, undeveloped mountains

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Ibex, eagles, marmots and martens”
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