From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan
After two challenging weeks in the Tien Shan mountains team 1 arrived safely back in Bishkek last Saturday in the late afternoon. We were all happy to escape the bad mountain weather including thunderstorms, wind, rain and snow, but at the same time felt sad that we had to leave the truly stunning mountains. Luckily the sun came out when we broke down base camp in the morning, so that we didn’t have to wear rain gear for the team picture. Driving up and over the Karakol pass to Kochkor everybody got a final glimpse of peaks and glaciers covered in fresh snow.
But let me start this report at the very beginning on, 11 July. We arrived at base that Monday afternoon after seven hours of convoy-driving from Bishkek via Kara Balta, the tunnel and Suusamyr. While everyone was moving into their tents, Emma immediately got busy in the kitchen tent.
The first team consisted of Michael (Germany), Carola (Germany), Amanda (Australia) and Dietmar (journalist, Germany), Volodya, the expedition scientist and old hand of our snow leopard conservation project from the very beginning in the Altai mountains of Russia more than a decade ago, Aman & Bekbolot, members of the NABU Gruppa Bars (snow leopard patrol), the team's mountain guides, camera trap & tracking experts, Emma, master of the kitchen in her third year, as well as four placements: Machabbat (NABU), Ismail and Aigerim helping with translations – or, if you like, bridging cultures - and finally, Amadeus, butterfly expert joining the expedition for the second time, also as a placement.
The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with a risk assessment talk by the expedition leader. 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 such as GPS, compass, map, etc., how to fill in datasheets, what to take on the survey walks, what the safety procedures are and how a PLB (personal locator beacon) can be used in case of an emergency. To give everyone’s mind a rest, the yurt was set up in between theoretical lessons.
On the first survey day on Wednesday the whole group went to Chon Chikan valley for practicing the newly-learnt skills and collecting four camera traps that were set up by NABU staff in the beginning of June. I would call it a perfect showcase training day: The sun was shining when we started off at an altitude of about 3,000 m, a couple of hours later and further up we were hit by hale and rain forcing us into rain gear, hats & gloves – as if the risk assessment had come to life: ‘Rapid change of weather is a high risk in high mountain environment”…
But the day was not only successful in these terms. Two ibex were spotted on top of a ridge by Aman, just when most of the team had sore legs sore and short breaths. This very exciting and satisfying moment made our day. Apart from the ibex, fox and marmot tracks were found and all four camera traps were collected. The traps had taken hundreds of pictures, some quite nice ibex and bird shots, but no snow leopard.
On Thursday (14 July) this year’s first set of snow leopard tracks was found in Issyk-Ata valley. And we found a second track the next day at Kashka-Tor and even a third track a week later on the last survey day at Don Galamish! Most excitingly the locations are quite some distance apart from each other. Camera traps were set in all locations, in Issyk-Ata one of them facing the end of the glacier morane has been set to field mode taking a picture every 30 minutes. Team two: You’ll be the ones collecting them! Evidence of ibex (scat & tracks) were found in all valleys, so there is a good chance that the snow leopard is around too.
On Saturday (16 July) the whole team attended a very special event: The release of a Pallas’ cat into the wild. A boy found it in very poor condition about a month ago near his family’s yurt close to the village of Doeng Alysh in East Karakol. It was taken to the NABU rehabilitation centre by the Gruppa Bars to be cared for and nursed back to strenght. We arranged a meeting point in Doeng Alysh with the NABU people bringing in the cat, but had to overcome an obstacle first: Some part of the pass road was still blocked by snow and ice. Using a pick and shovels, the male part of the team cleared the road and basically opened the only Eastern/Western Karakol connection for everyone else, including herders and their livestock.
Apart from our team, quite a few local press people were present, as well as neighbouring herders and their families, a great number of NABU staff handing out educational material and giving a talk to the local people. Apart from being able to see a truly wild Pallas’ cat, it was great to witness NABU’s important work on the ground.
Emma gave us a look of reproach when we arrived at camp late. But we made her happy again by emptying the large pot of delicious soup she had cooked for us. Sunday (17 July) was our day off. Aman and Bekbolot had organised a traditional Kyrgyz horse game for the next day. The ‘playball’ is a dead goat, head and feet cut off (I agree, it sounds terrible). Placed in the middle of the playground, the goat must be picked up and laid down in a marked area. Doesn’t sound that difficult, but the players are on horseback and the goat weighs about 20 kg! Between rivaling valleys the game is a serious clash – luckily the players we saw were all friends. We were also invited to ride their horses – some of us did – but only Michael was brave enough to to try to lift up the goat from the ground. Although the operation failed, it was great fun for the rest of us watching the show.
Next we were the guests of our "neighbour" Talant. In his yurt, we chatted with Guelcan, his wife, and tried her Borsok - fresh, homemade bread and sour cream. Thanks to our local team members, we learned a lot about Kyrgyz customs and traditions.
Back to research work on Monday (18 July), two teams surveyed Chon Chikan valley and set four camera traps in different locations at an altitude of around 3,750 m. It was raining most of the afternoon and when we came back to camp the wind had picked up in such a way that the toilet & shower tents had fallen over. We found Carola and Phil, who had stayed behind, in the mess tent, both retaining it from being blown away. Equipment, books and other items stored on benches & tables along the sides were on the ground. The yurt was crushed on one side and out of balance. Rubbish bins, buckets and other small camp equipment were scattered all over the place. What a mess! It was a great relief when the wind finally calmed down an hour or so later and the clearing up could start.
Making use of the newly opened pass road, we went to Donguruma and Pitiy valley in East Karakol on Tuesday. From last year’s results these valleys seemed to be promising spots. Fresh tracks and scat of ibex and snow cock were found in Donguruma, no sightings, though. Aman, Aigerim, Michael & I heard and saw marmot and found some interesting petroglyphs on the way displaying hunting scenes. Apart from the core research of snow leopard and their prey, we have been collecting data on petroglyphs, butterflies and birds using a smartphone app that was developed and created by Amedeus in collaboration with his partners. Having used pen & paper in 2015 to help creating a database that includes a species list with pictures for identification, smartphones were taken out this year for extensive field testing. So far it has worked very well and smartphone data collection is to be continued over slots 2 & 3 and the final results will be included in the expedition report.
The Pitiy team was very successful: A group of eight (!) ibex including young ones was spotted. Thank you, Phil, for carrying your long lense the whole day so that the exceptional sighting can now be shared with everyone.
More camera traps were set on Wednesday (20 July) and two teams walked from base to explore a short but quite steep valley just opposite. Rain poured down from midday on, so that all teams returned back to base early in the afternoon, the datasheets pretty empty. A fire in the stove was lit quickly, the washing lines in the yurt closely packed with dripping clothes. Around the stove two circles were built: the inner one consisting of walking boots, the outer one, very close by, where the girls stretched out their hands & feet towards the warmth of the fire. This was when I first saw Machabbat putting her feet into socks and plastic bags before putting on her sandals… or was it a couple of days ago?
It continued raining for most of the night, but stopped Thursday morning (21 July) when we left base for our last survey day. Tuyuk – the valley where base camp 1 was located in 2015 - and Don Galamish, the next valley leading to the same ridge only from the other side, were Thursday’s survey tasks. Both teams arrived at their side of the ridge around lunchtime when heavy rain and thunder literally washed away hopes of beautiful views and exploring the surroundings. The Tuyuk team turned around to get out of the danger zone, in Don Galamish the team sought some shelter under rocks while Aman & Bekbolot climbed a bit further to collect a camera trap. That was when snow leopard tracks were found again, this time in the mud.
We were wondering by now whether it could get any wetter? My boss Matthias would say: “Skin is waterproof.” I’d say Yes: Wet AND cold! ;) The Tuyuk group consisting of Volodya, wearing his shorts as usual, and Aigerim, Amanda, Carola and myself got as wet as you can get, but the girls also got as cold you can get. We sat in the car for a short while, struggling to open our lunch boxes with fingers stiff and numb. In our wet clothes even one hour of maximum heating on the drive back couldn’t make us stop shivering. Only a couple of hours around the scorching hot stove in the yurt made us come sort of back to normal.
But Thursday wasn’t just our last survey day, it was also Michael’s birthday! While we were out in the field Machabbat and Emma did a great job decorating the mess tent and preparing a special dinner for celebrations.
The table was stuffed with nicely decorated starters, hot soup and a delicious chocolate cake. Showing foresight, Michael brought a bottle of vodka, so we all had to have a shot. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but everyone was then supposed to sing a song representing their country of origin – great fun! J
On Friday (22 July) morning two teams each accompanied by a translator went out to interview local people. Seven yurts were visited in total, the teams were warmly welcomed, hosted and fed and came back with a lot of interesting information. Most surprisingly it was mentioned on several occasions that foreign countries shouldn’t be allowed to sell weapons to Kyrgyz people. No weapons, no poaching, no more threats to snow leopards. If only saving the snow leopard would be that easy…
After reviewing the interview datasheets, Volodya gave us a summary of what has been achieved during the first slot: Biologial results were found in 22 cells - a great result considering that we were a relatively small team going out in two groups. Most important were the findings of three snow leopard tracks in different locations. Nine camera traps, set by NABU staff in cells of high possibilities were checked and retrieved, ten cameras were installed in new places. As to the most important prey species, six direct observations of ibex were made. As regards the locations, the sightings fit into the model built in last year’s report. An comprehensive bird list has also been created during the first two weeks: 42 different species in total including seven bird of prey as indicator of habitat quality (53 different bird species were recorded during all slots in 2015.)
Directed by Amadeus, fourteen different butterfly species were recorded along the way (a total of 20 in 2015), four burial mounds and over 50 different petroglyphs, four of which include humans, camels, horses and red deer. Most commonly displayed are ibex and snow leopard.
Many more anecdotes could be told, but I have to come to an end. Thank you everyone for contributing to a very successful first slot in many ways. You’ve done a great job coping with altitude, steep terrain, wind, rain and snow. But most importantly I want to thank you for your enthusiasm, high spirits and openness to new experience and other cultures. I hope you got as much out of the expedition as you have put in!
I’ll be in touch again in a couple of days with some more preparational info for slot 2 before saying goodbye and handing over to Phil.