From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

This by special courier from the mountains (from group 2 onwards, there will only be an update/summary every two weeks as groups change over in Bishkek).

Group 1 has arrived, gone to the mountains, put up the yurt, had its training sessions and conducted its first week of field surveys. Many ibex, marmots, birds and other wildlife have been spotted, but there is no sign of our quarry yet. But then snow leopard research & conservation is a long game. All is well with the team in the mountains.

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Our pre-expedition shopping spree and preparations are done. Tomorrow we will drive everything into the mountains and set up base camp. It was over 30 C in Bishkek again today,  but the forecast is for the mountains for tomorrow is rain, and snow higher up. It would be our first time setting up in snow. On Sunday, some of us will come back for some last-minute shopping and tying up lose ends, and of course to collect Group 1 on Monday.

So now it’s time to introduce you to Volodya (scientist), Amadeus (expedition leader), Aman & Shiloo (from the NABU anti-poaching ‘Grupa Bars’ = group snow leopard). Sadly missing is the most important person of the expedition, our cook Gulia (Aman’s wife).

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Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Here’s a first report of the season by our expedition scientist Fabian Carrasco:

Fabian Carrasco

The leatherback season started on 26 February with the first nesting female. Unfortunately she was poached. Later we had a nest in situ on 1  March. Her tracks were hidden by the waves in a couple of hours and the eggs remained safe from poachers. Our patrols with local assistants and international research assistants have started and in the past 43 days we have recorded 52 successful nesting activities:

* 1 natural nest (in situ)

* 25 nest relocated in Styrofoam coolers

* 9 nest relocated higher up the beach between markers 95-104

* 19 poached nests

* 1 nest saved by the Coast Guard and Police O.I.J.

Among the nests relocated in styrofoam coolers is one of green turtle (from 2 April). The others nests are from leatherbacks. No hawksbill have been seen yet.

The fist hatchlings are due between 1 and 8 May at marker 79.

Green turtle returning to sea after nesting
Leatherback turtle returning to sea after nesting

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Welcome to the Costa Rica 2017 expedition diary! My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my second year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Pacuare field station and working together with Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST).

Ida

The field station is located just behind the beach where the turtles nest and during our time in Pacuare we will work closely with the onsite biologist from LAST, Fabian Carrasco, who will be training us in sea turtle monitoring. Lucy Marcus, expedition leader in training, will be assisting me throughout the expedition and we all look forward to meeting you on 8 May.

Lucy

Lucy and I will already be in Pacuare helping to prepare the field station for you arrival, however, Nicki Wheeler from LAST will be meeting you at 09.00 in the lobby of Hotel Santo Tomas. Make sure to be on time as our first night of patrols starts that very evening and there is a lot to learn prior.

Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list, remember that your head lamp needs to have a red light mode.

Hopefully you will all have read the 2016 expedition report too, so you already know why we are there and do what we do. As you can read in the report, support from citizen scientists such as you is critical, so thank you for your support and see you in a couple of weeks!

Ida

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

And here are also some gorgeous picture by photographer Dietmar Denger from group 1:


From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

After what has seemed like a very short time in the mountains over the last two weeks the third and last team all arrived safely back in Bishkek late on Saturday afternoon (27 August). Perhaps the time has passed quickly due to the amount of work we had to do. There were 12 camera traps set out in the field and we set several more during the first few days. All these needed to be gathered back in and their many thousands of photographs monitored and sifted for signs of snow leopard or prey species, a task that consumes time. We also had many other objectives that we had to squeeze into the time we had, more on those in just a moment. We’ve had quite a bit of rain, hail and snow, but nothing like as bad as what the first team had to endure. The weather during this third group has been much colder, though, with frequent hard frosts in the mornings.

So here is an account of our last couple of weeks in the field with group three:

After writing up the expedition dairy last Sunday morning (14 August), I then spent the whole day shopping for expedition food with Emma. We loaded up two cars full of food ready for departure in the morning.

And at 8:00 am on Monday (15 August), team 3 all met-up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA) for his second slot, Nigel (Belgium), Trevor (UK), Tristan and her grandparents Mary and David (Canada), Manuela (Germany), Laura and Nicola (UK) who both participated in the Altai expedition several years ago, Kenny (USA/Hong Kong), Deborah (Germany/Netherlands), Miyana (Japan), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan joining for her second slot. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot, Shailoo, Emma and myself met up at the hotel, Volodya stayed at base camp.

Team 3
Team 3
The convoy drive over the Karakol pass
The convoy drive over the Karakol pass

As team 2 arrived and left the mountains via two different routes, I thought it a good idea for team 3 to do the same. That way everyone gets to see more of this astonishing and stunningly beautiful country, and as we were going to have to drive the truck out through the tunnel (as it would have been too dangerous to drive it over the pass), I chose to drive team 3 in via the Kochkor/Karakol pass route. The route is longer than the tunnel route, but the roads are much better for driving. Hunter is now quite proficient at negotiating traffic on these manic roads, so he drove the whole way. David volunteered to be the fourth driver, and he displayed his years of experience of driving to get us all safely to base camp, where Volodya was waiting with a huge pot of hot Ukrainian borsch that he’d made for everyone.

The 2016 base camp in the upper part of the valley
The 2016 base camp in the upper part of the valley

The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with a risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday (16 August) was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment.

First survey
First survey

On the first survey day on Wednesday (17 August) the whole group went to Kashka-tor for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record in the lower parts of the valley. The group then split with Nigel, Miyana, Tris and Phil climbing up one side valley with Volodya and the rest heading further up the valley with Shailoo and Bekbolot, where they split again to recover the camera traps. One trap could not be found. Nobody saw a great deal that day except for Volodya’s group who investigated the area where we had discovered leopard scat the previous Thursday. It had rained heavily the day before and a little more during the night, so when we found fresh snow leopard tracks (lots of them), we knew that these were only laid down that same morning! There were plenty old leopard tracks too along with ibex tracks. This is probably the best opportunity we have to capture snow leopard on camera trap, so we set three of them there before getting rather wet on the way back down. That place is quite special with huge cliffs on each side of the glacier. It is so easy to imagine leopards up there looking down on us.

Fresh snow leopard footprints
Fresh snow leopard footprints
Nikki setting a camera trap
Nikki setting a camera trap

As we were all wet and cold after our day in the rain, we lit the yurt fire to warm ourselves up again.

On Thursday (18 August) the team split into three groups: Two groups headed off to Chon-chikan, the one walking up the left of the valley consisting of Manuela, Nikki, Nigel and Bekbolot saw a red fox and two eagles. The team that headed up the right, which consisted of David, Miyana, Kenny and Volodya saw a white-winged redstart. The third group – Mary, Tris, Laura, Deborah and Trevor headed off to Kosh-tor to recover traps and saw an eagle and marmot.

Miyana and Nikki clearly had too much energy after the day's hike
Miyana and Nikki clearly had too much energy after the day’s hike

The wildlife is now scarcer down in the valleys compared with previous slots. Most noticeable is the absence of small birds and butterflies now that the spring nesting has ended and the flowers are all but gone.

Hunter winning a game of Kok-boru
Hunter winning a game of Kok-boru

We took a day off from surveys on Friday (19 August) to watch a game of Kok-boru, which was to take place right beside our base camp. This was not a big game such as we had witnessed during the previous slot, rather a small game with just a few participants. They also included various other games such as arm-wrestling on horseback. Hunter played a few one-on-one games of Kok-boru with the boy from the neighbouring yurt and he won most of them. I have to say that Hunter really looks quite professional playing this game now, a potential future Californian professional player, he looked good partly due to having a fast horse this time around. Several people had a horse-ride for a while including Kenny and Deborah, but only Miyana and Tris rode horses all day long. We were later invited over to the neighbour’s for a meal.

Kenny
Kenny
Deborah
Deborah
Miyana and Tristan
Miyana and Tristan

On Saturday (20 August) the whole team headed out to the Issik-ata valley, passing playful and watchful marmots on the way.

Deborah scanning the ridges for Ibex
Deborah scanning the ridges for ibex

On Sunday (21 August) Nikki, Deborah and Laura put in a special effort to get another couple of transects covered, while everybody else other than David and Mary headed off to the NABU snow leopard rehabilitation centre at Issyk-kul lake, where we would spend the night. We took our time getting there and it was too dark to see the cats that evening, but we all got some pretty good views the following morning prior to heading off back to base camp on Monday (22 August). While we were away, David repaired some of the camp tools and tents, while Mary put in some hard work cleaning and tidying the camp.

Hard expedition life! Miyana and Tris got soaked to the skin in Issyk-kul lake
Hard expedition life! Miyana and Tris got soaked to the skin in Issyk-kul lake
The NABU rehabilitation centre
The NABU rehabilitation centre
Young snow leopard
Young snow leopard
Lynx
Lynx

Surveys conducted on Tuesday (23 August) revealed very little, mainly due to bad weather. A strong wind hit the camp and we had to hold onto everything to stop the camp being blown away. I found a noctule bat lying cold in the grass so we moved it to a warm dark place in the yurt, and later that evening it had gained enough strength to fly away.

I tried to photograph these petroglyphs of Ibex but Nigel decided to sit on them
I tried to photograph these petroglyphs of Ibex but Nigel decided to sit on them

We split up into two groups on Wednesd (24 August). An all-female group headed off to Dungarama where they managed to see a stoat, an eagle, a lammergeier, an ibex and a wolf scat. Volodya, Phil, Nigel and Hunter hiked in Pitiy, where they were not so successful, but they did see the first swallowtail butterfly of the expedition.

Trevor collecting a camera trap
Trevor collecting a camera trap

Thursday (25 August) was the big day where we all returned to Kaska-tor, the place where we had found snow leopard footprints, scrape and scat previously, and where we had set the three camera traps on 17 August. The party consisted of Phil, Hunter, Miyana, Tris, Manuela, Trevor, Niki and Laura, and this was our very last survey day with the objective of collecting those last three traps. We had high hopes that these traps were going to capture active snow leopards, but on arrival we could not find any fresh footprints, so there was much disappointment. But also on arrival, sitting on the rocks behind the cameras, was a lammergeier, which immediately took flight over our heads. A vulture sitting there like that suggested there was a carcass there somewhere. We collected in the cameras, then after lunch a few of us explored the area and Miyana discovered the remains of an ibex, which we could clearly see had been killed by a snow leopard. Typically, a snow leopard will leave the nasal passage and eye-sockets of the prey intact, in contrast to other predators such as the wolf for example. We also saw a Saker falcon flying over the camp upon our return that day.

Ibex killed by a snow leopard
Ibex killed by a snow leopard

Other parts of the team also conducted interviews with some of the herders in the yurts further down the valley. An interesting pattern of responses from herders is the opinion that snow leopards only suck the blood of animals. The origins of this myth are probably based on the fact that a leopard caught with a fresh kill will be holding the animal by the throat before it is scared off. One herder actually said that the meat from an animal killed by a leopard is white after the leopard has sucked all the blood out.

And then, back at base, when we thought our chance to capture a snow leopard had gone, there it was after all! A rather poor quality, but nevertheless very great reward for all our efforts over the years, honing in on the ghost of the mountain, until we have finally caught it on camera! So the ghost does exist and roams these hills.

Rather poor quality, but the very first snow leopard captured on our camera traps
Rather poor quality, but the very first snow leopard captured on our camera traps

 

Mary, Kenny, David, Hunter and Volodya
Mary, Kenny, David, Hunter and Volodya

With a spring in our step and hearts full of pride, we disassembled the yurt and much of camp on Friday (26 August) and packed it all away in the truck, ready for departure Saturday morning. Thank you to everyone for helping with this so much.

Trevor, Nigel, Miyana, Laura and Nicola taking down the yurt
Trevor, Nigel, Miyana, Laura and Nicola taking down the yurt
Manuela reluctantly packing up to leave on the very last day in this beautiful valley
Manuela reluctantly packing up to leave on the very last day in this beautiful valley

All together this has been the most successful year ever here in the Tien Shan. But this is no coincidence as each year has built on the other. The results of interviews with the herders and the surveys during the first year identified suitable snow leopard habitats. In the second year, a snow leopard distribution model was defined based on the data collected and a plan was made to hone in on the ghost of the mountain. And finally this year those places identified by the model were targeted to culminate in definite proof of snow leopards roaming these hills. Well done to everyone who has made this possible over the years!

Thank you for all your hard work! All of you over the years have contributed to this success and you can feel justifiably proud. Team 3, have a safe flight home, and I hope to meet you all again someday.

Best wishes to you all and thank you again.

Phil

========

Quick summary group 3

Snow leopard captured on a camera trap (photo and video) for the first time on a Biosphere Expeditions Tien Shan expedition; a fresh leopard kill, which shows a very clear pattern and example worthy of publication of how snow leopards eat their prey; and many clearly defined leopard footprints found.

Slot 3 added five new species of birds to the list of 57 compiled by the previous slots; one new swallowtail butterfly observed in the mountains.

13 cells covered, compared to 16 cells covered by group 2. This reduction is due to the large number of camera traps that needed to be recovered during the last slot.


From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Hello everybody, I’m Phil, the expedition leader for slots 2 and 3. Sorry we can’t update this dairy more regularly but we can only do this when we come down out of the mountains and back to civilisation.

Well, at 8:00 am on Monday 1st August team 2 all met up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA), Gerald (USA), Roland (Germany), Neil (UK), Jake (USA), Fedor (Netherlands), John (UK), Ray (UK), Starr (USA), Bernd (Germany), Fiona (Austria), Ruth (Australia), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan, joining us for the second year in a row. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot and myself met-up at the hotel; Volodya, Shailoo, Ismail and Emma stayed at the base camp after we’d spent the last two days setting it all up in preparation for the team to arrive.

Team 2
Team 2

The six-hour convoy drive to base-camp was easy-going and pretty uneventful, but for the fact that we saw two wolves in broad daylight in the lower part of the valley. They were running flat-out in a straight line one behind the other in the typical way that wolves travel. They ran over the rolling foothills at the lower reaches of the valley and we watched them run off into the distance up towards the higher mountains. Seeing this made Gerry ecstatic as he loves everything about wolves.

Convoy to base
Convoy to base

Amadeus, the butterfly expert and placement from the first team visited us at base camp to explain how to use the butterfly app, he went on his way the following day. A quick message to team 3 – please if you haven’t yet done so, download the ‘Butterflies of Kyrgyzstan’ app., from www.discovernature.org.kg (Android version only) before you arrive. You won’t be able to download it after you’re in the mountains.

The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with our risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment.

The weather has been great! We had a little rain on both Thursdays but it’s generally been sunny every day.

On the first survey day on Wednesday (3 August) the whole group went to the Tuyuk-Choloktor valley for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record. The group then split into two with half climbing up one side valley with Volodya, and the rest headed up the next valley with Shailoo. During lunchtime Volodya’s group emerged over the distant ridge and waved manically at the second group, who were at the time preoccupied with the two pairs of huge Ibex horns that Gerry and Ismail had found. Gerry then insisted that he carry the really heavy horns back to base to show everyone. I think after only a little walking he wished that he hadn’t, still he persevered and managed to carry them all the way down the mountain.

Gerry and ibex horns
Gerry and ibex horns

On Thursday (4 August) the team split into two groups. One group consisting of Shailoo, Phil, Ray, Ruth, John, Neil, Jake and Rahat walked up Sary-kol and conducted a fascinating interview with a sheep herder. He said that on 6 August last year he witnessed two snow leopards eating two of his lambs, he described them as blood-suckers based on the way they had hold of the lambs by the throat. He also said that over the 40 years he’s been coming to this part of the valley he’s seen about 15 snow leopards. The other group consisting of everybody else hiked up Issyk-Ata to retrieve the two camera traps the first team had set at the foot of the moraine near the footprints in the snow where we thought the snow leopard might cross the river, and the other trap that we set observing the wider field. Neither trap produced snow leopard, but the one set on the moraine showed a badger crossing, and both traps had several hundred pictures of horses until the horses knocked both traps over. Four ibex were spotted by the Issyk-Ata group who hiked right up to the top of the pass, as well as two large falcons, which we now think to be Saker falcons.

We heard rumour that the next day (Friday, 3 August) there was to be a game of Kok-boru a little further down the valley where we’d had our base camp during previous years. Kok-boru is the horseback game played by the herders in the valley where they carry the headless goat and drop it in the goal. This was the real game where the upper valley competes against the lower valley, a serious event where 30 players give it all they’ve got to win. The name “Kok-boru” means blue wolf and in ancient times they played with a headless wolf.

So on Friday (3 August) we took a day off and travelled down to watch the game. There was a little practice going on prior to the main event and Roland, Hunter, Fedor and Gerry didn’t hesitate to saddle-up and give it a try. The goat normally weighs about 20 kg, but on this occasion the upper-valley herders, who get to eat the goat if they win chose the largest goat available, and this one weighed over 30 kg. Our boys could hardly lift it one-handed, and it made for a very tiring yet thoroughly entertaining game. The team of Roland and Hunter won to great celebration and cheers.

Roland, Hunter, John, Fedor (left to right)
Roland, Hunter, John, Fedor (left to right)

The main event involved all the herders (not including our boys) and the goals were way up and way down the valley. Prior to this they all lined-up on horseback before us displaying their courage and bravery and paid a touching display of honour and respect to us all, a rare true mark of respect. Volodya was really very touched by this.

Within minutes all the riders had disappeared over the horizon up the valley, after a long wait we decided to drive up to see what was going on. We found them right beside our base camp still fighting hard. The game was eventually won by the upper valley.

On Saturday (6 August) we split into two teams, Volodya and Phil leading (9 people) in Kara-Tor, the first valley over the pass. And Shailoo leading a smaller group in Chon-Chikan, who of course saw the many petroglyphs that are in that valley, but none of the study species other than marmot. They had hopes of retrieving the two camera traps that the first team had set there, but they forgot to take the coordinates, John made a rather funny report saying “Anybody could have had them, nobody thought to ask if anybody had them, everybody thought somebody would have them, but in-fact nobody had them”. It didn’t really matter as they have plenty of battery power left to be collected by team three. They did see a fox though. I should also mention that John was not impressed by Volodya’s description of Chon-Chikan being a flat walk all the way up, John said “It started off with a steep bit, followed by a steep bit in the middle, and the end was steep”. The Kara-Tor group had more success, seeing many marmot, 15 ibex, an eagle and lammergeier. In fact we have seen lammergeier every day so far.

Lammergeier
Lammergeier

Sunday (7 August) was our day off and we were the guests of our neighbour “Talant”. In his yurt, where we sampled the excellent food prepared by Guelcan, his wife. After dinner several people – Jake, Hunter, Ruth, Star, Roland, Gerry and Fedor borrowed horses and spent the afternoon riding around.

Monday (8 August) we split into three groups. There was a group (Fedor, Gerry, Roland, Bernd, Hunter, Bekbalot and Rahat) who were keen to explore a high ridge, so they set off on foot and climbed to well over 4100 m, where they found snowcock and wolf scats. Another group went with Volodya back to set another camera trap. The third group walked into Dungurama, which translates as “noisy valley” aptly named as there are falling rocks every few minutes. This group found an old argali sheep scull with horns. It appears argali were once found throughout our study site, but these days they are largely absent, probably hunted to near local extinction.

Jake and argali skull
Jake and argali skull

Most of the team were keen to do an overnighter and they wanted it to be as challenging as possible, Volodya made mention of a valley within the study area that was so remote that it had not yet been explored. I think Volodya wished he hadn’t suggested it after finding out how difficult it would be on Tuesday (9 August). We obviously had to carry everything in with us, some carrying tents and stoves. A 15 km hike in to 3600 m under a hot punishing sun. We made camp by a small lake by the glacier. We saw no signs of snow leopard or ibex, but we saw some snowcock. The next morning after a surprisingly good sleep in our bivi-bags some of the lads – Fedor, Gerry and Bekbolot climbed up to the saddle in the ridge but could not see Bishkek despite being much closer to there than we were to base camp. The hike back down to the cars turned out to be a race to stay ahead of the rain, all of us getting a little wet. Getting back to the cars was nowhere near the end of this story – the cars were 1 hour from base camp and the gear leaver on one of the cars (the one blocking the other) had seized up and we couldn’t move it. After a tricky manoeuvre on the hillside to bypass the stricken car with the other, we placed the transfer box leaver to neutral to tow the stricken car backwards back down to the main valley road where we left it. We then needed two trips to get everyone back to base. Three hours later and in the dark we managed to get a bite to eat provided by a very concerned Emma. Meanwhile, we learned that Ray, who had been suffering from a bad knee, and who was one of the few who had stayed at base camp had decided to call it a day and had headed off back to Bishkek, apologising to all that he had to and wishing us all the best success with the rest of the expedition. Thanks for all your hard work Ray! Sorry I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

As Ray and Shailoo drove over the pass on the way out on Wednesday (10 August) they were lucky enough to see two argali sheep run across the track in front of the car. This, together with the scull we found the other day is the only evidence we’ve had for three years that argali are here in the valley.

Fedor setting a camera trap
Fedor setting a camera trap

On Thursday (11 August) Gerry, Roland, Bernd, and Fedor with much excitement discovered what appears to be the very first snow leopard scat ever found in the valley!

Friday (12 August) was our last field work day. We set off back along Issyk-Ata in a large group of 15 people. The objective being to try and study the Alamedin pass area, which is usually bypassed. Only Gerry, Brend and Fedor managed to find the route over there, everyone else stayed on the usual track.

Conclusion

Snow leopard tracks found again, and the very first scrape and scat ever found. Three separate sightings of ibex compared to the many sightings made by the first team. This follows the normal observed pattern of them moving to the higher reaches of the mountains as more herders move up the valleys. All findings fitting nicely to the distribution model built over the previous two years.  We have 12 camera traps set out in the field, all to be collected by the third team. The previous slot covered more cells (22) compared to this (16), but these were generally higher and more difficult to cover. Also a difficult overnighter to study an area Volodya has been longing to investigate and finally ten new bird species added to the primary list of 42 compiled by the first team, including sightings of snowcock by the team working at higher altitudes.

Thanks for all your hard work! You really have been quite a remarkable team and a huge pleasure for us to work with. Safe travel home, and I hope to meet you all again someday. Ready to go team 3?


From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan