From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan
Posted on 21/06/2015
Here, at last, is the diary for slot 1 of our Tien Shan expedition. We could not get it to you because there is a big mountain range blocking the sat phone signal in the south. Calls can get through, but data can’t. Since this mountain range is unlikely to move over the next couple of months, please assume that field updates will only come every two weeks, as we switch teams and go back to Bishkek. Unless we haul the sat phone up the mountain with us on one of our surveys. You never know ;)
12 June (Friday)
A collective sigh of relief could be heard last Monday, when the team left Bishkek. The city heat – temperatures beyond 30 degrees – were happily left behind as was dust and heavy traffic. Snacks were picked up in a supermarket on the way and the convoy of three cars stopped for lunch when the tunnel was passed at 3200 m altitude. Overall it took us about 7 hours to get to base camp, so teams 2 – 4 please be prepared for a long journey.
08:00 o’clock. It’s a fresh and clear morning. The warming rays of sunlight haven’t yet made it over the eastern ridge sheltering base camp, nestled in a small side valley of the Karakol river. We’ve seen all four seasons since team 1 arrived four days ago. Rain made us seek shelter in the mess tent for the first expedition day’s training sessions, while the surrounding peaks were covered with a fresh layer of snow. Carolyn, Susan, Theresa, Charlie, Robert and Thorsten learned how to use GPSs, maps, compasses and radios, went through safety briefings and off-road driving lessons. After a practice survey walk with the whole team including Volodya, the scientist on this expedition, as well as Shailoo and Aman from NABU’s snow leopard patrol, and Kathy, one of Biosphere Expeditions’ senior staff joining the first slot, they have now all left camp in smaller teams for today’s surveys.
So far eleven cells have been surveyed in two days in Choloktor and Chon Chikan valleys. I will be talking a lot about cells – a grid of 2 x 2 km laid over the study area map in the Tien Shan mountains divides the terrain into these cells, which will be surveyed systematically.
No camera traps have been set yet. Snow is still covering the most promising spots. Over the next few days we’ll continue to explore the area hoping for a lot of sun to melt the snow away. Findings so far were wolf scat (a lot) and an ibex skull and horns, a red fox and marmot were sighted as well as quite a few golden eagles, just to mention a few.
P.S. Please remember to bring insect repellent, there are some mosquitoes around ;)
15 June (Monday)
We’ve continued exploring the valleys around base camp. On the third survey day, Susan, Robert & Theresa went together with Aman to the other side of the main valley and up the mountains we look at from base. The day’s motto was “slowly, slowly” since everyone was feeling a bit worn out after three days of going up and down lots of hills. Not so Aman, who was briefed intensively the night before about what “slow” means to us. ;) The second group consisting of Volodya, Carolyn, Charlie and myself walked up what the locals call the “boar stream” pretty close to camp. We’ve crossed alpine meadows, scree fields and climbed up rocks before reaching the ridge at 3792 m altitude. Most animals signs such as ibex scat, argali footprints and snow cock scat, feathers and dust holes were found within the rocky habitat well above 3400 m. Further down, abundant marmot holes were spotted, a big colony of them must once have lived there.
The weather changed overnight from sun to rain and wind. Leaving Carolyn & Charlie, Susan & Robert behind, two cars left camp in the morning for a shopping trip to Suusamyr. Not a quick one since the town at the entry of the Karakol valley is about a 2½ hour drive away. The tasks on our list were: 1) buy bread, 2) buy milk and 3) buy a chimney for the yurt stove. Doesn’t sound complicated at all, but we failed with two out of three. Instead of milk we could have bought a great variety of vodka (even from the smallest shop) and for the chimney a local herder suggested to go back all the way to Kara Balta close to Bishkek on the other side of the Kyrgyz Alatoo mountain range. But bread we got! And also a taste of yoghurt cakes, a local specialty recommended by Emma, our cook. But to be honest, this was probably the most disgusting flavour Kathy, Torsten and I have ever tried. I guess you can also tell that from Torsten’s face on the picture.
At breakfast this morning our hopes for better weather seemed to be nothing but wishful thinking. But just when we decided to stay half a day at camp, the sun came out and everyone was ready, dressed and packed up in record time for another survey walk. This year’s first interview was held with a very friendly herder offering Kathy a ride on his horse, which was thankfully accepted ;) Being a cattle herder he didn’t have any problems with snow leopards in the past, not even wolves because the cattle can defend themselves. A woolly ball was brought back to camp and analysed during the review session after dinner. We learned that these remains are produced by birds of prey regurgitating bones, feathers and other parts of their meal that can’t be digested.
16 June (Tuesday)
The sun laughs at us again! It’s been a clear night, the water drops on my tent were frozen this morning. Everyone is excited to finally go out for an overnighter. Camp is as busy as an ant’s nest. Emma is preparing food boxes, Aman and Shailoo are preparing cooking gear and packing up cars, everyone else is gathering equipment and packing their sleeping gear. Kathy and I wave them goodbye as they leave. We will go through some re-org in the next couple of days.
18 June (Thursday)
SNOW LEOPARD TRACKS! The overnighter team is back, exhausted, but thrilled about two exceptional survey days and a “night out”. The camping spot was chosen close to the mountain pass connecting the Eastern and Western Karakol at an altitude of 3500 m. Still partly covered in patches of snow and therefore not crossable for herders and their livestock from the Eastern side, this area would be worth a check before the cattle, sheep and horses will move in for the summer. Well done, everyone! The snow leopard tracks found were not fresh, but still clear enough for identification without any doubt. Two camera traps were placed, now everyone is hoping for some good results.
20 June (Saturday)
Slot one is ready to leave base camp. We did a reccee walk yesterday researching more overnighter possibilities in order to reach more promising rocky mountain areas at the far end of some of the valleys. Aman has suggested we follow an old track leading uphill over grassy hills not knowing where it would lead us to. So we drove as far as the cars would take us and continued on foot split up in two teams. An old herder’s place was found – an optional overnight camping spot close to a mountain stream. A badger was spotted as well as ibex far away on the rocky peaks of the mountain range. It was early in the afternoon when we returned to camp leaving us some time for final checks on the cars, the tents, the equipment and a detailed review of the results of what the team has achieved over the last two weeks. 26 cells have been surveyed – an impressive number considering the small number of citizen scientist on the first slot. We’ve spotted or found tracks of all snow leopard prey species such as ibex, argali and marmot. Tracks and scats of wolf, fox, badger and snow cock were also found and quite an impressive number of different bird species is already on the bird list, which will be continued until we leave in August. But most excitingly the presence of snow leopard was proven by tracks. This success was celebrated after Volodya’s review and another delicious dinner with quite a few toasts and some local vodka.
21 June (Sunday)
The first two weeks of this year’s Tien Shan expedition went in a flash. While Carolyn and Charlie will stay for two more weeks, I had to say good-bye to Kathy, Theresa, Sue, Robert and Torsten after a final dinner in Bishkek. Thank you everyone – you’ve been a special and a great team! Thanks for putting your time, sweat, mountaineering expertise and excitement into this project. Safe travels back home. I hope we meet again some day in the future!