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

Well, the last traps are in and as of this year in Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan, despite three reliable and recent instances of horses being attacked and the clear sound of a leopard’s cough, we have not managed to bag a photograph. The last traps were from the Kashka Tor valley in which two horses had run-ins with our big cat. The first, you may remember from a few weeks ago, was killed, leading to an overnighter in that valley a few days after the camera traps were placed. The second, very recent attack was on a foal whose mother apparently drove off the leopard leading to a survivor with fresh and quite dramatic wounds, which we have photographed. The feeling amongst those with a perspective to speak from are that the most likely cause of such damage is in fact a snow leopard.
Today is the last day on the ground here and it was spent by some on an interview run into the East Karakol valley system. This time the team sought to focus on the relationship between the women of the Kyrgyz herder culture and the leopard, because in the small glimpses of such that we had obtained thus far, it appears that they have a more ambivalent attitude to the animal than the men, who speak in very patriotic terms about the Kyrgyzstan national symbol. It will be interesting to hear what the interviews yield.

The rest of us went about preparing the base camp for tomorrow’s hectic pack-down. We have quite a lot of stuff to load into the trucks in the morning, but the work we did today will make it much easier.

This afternoon, Volodia will sum up the expedition science achievements and discuss the likely evolution of the project. I understand that there is some interest in a night of vodka on the part of some team members who have been sitting on a stash for this occasion. I better pack my stuff up now then…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Team 2 hit the ground running. We’re a small group, but full of enthusiasm and have already been trained up on all the equipment. Glenn, Lynne, Lesley and Mei came out with me on the first day and learned how to use the telemetry equipment to track the elephants. They also learned how well the elephants can blend into the savannah and how frustrating it can be when the entire herd is in the exact middle between tracks and we know where they are, but we cannot see them.

John and Valerie walked with Jesaja on the first day on the tracks and scats route #9. The surface was hard for them to read with the pockmarks of the light rain that came down. Yes, rain. We woke up to the unusual sound of the patter of rain on the thatched roofs. This was big and most-welcome news for us since we are now in the heart of the dry season.

Yesterday we caught our first rock dassie (rock hyrax) by-catch. Normally hiding in the rocks, this fellow was found hiding under the trigger plate of the trap. Evidently the animal gave Ligeus, Lynne and Leslie quite a scare when it stopped playing “dead” and raced out of the trap as soon as they opened the door to investigate.

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

As I signed off on the last diary entry, I could see the first lot of team members cresting the ridge that separates us from their target valley for that day. As I packed up the satellite coms, they were close enough for me to see that there was a spring in their step. Although it was really just a training run with Volodya, they found quite a lot, amongst which was clear footprints of a Palas’ cat or manul. The next day was also productive, with the first real survey yielding access into Issyk Attar’s upper reaches where a fantastic high traffic pass was discovered. Tracks and scats of all kinds and so fresh that the urine patches of many argali were still clearly visible amongst the still wet droppings. There are two platforms below the pass and each has a wide mud flat, which has captured the comings and goings of herds of beasts as they negotiate the pass into the valley systems to the north. This will surely be a big focus of next year’s explorations.

This morning the heat of yesterday’s excitement was significantly cooled off by the fact that we all awoke in igloos. As our tents bowed in under the weight of a good layer of snow, we were woken by the freezing sides of the inner tent settling on our heads. The drumming of tent walls being pounded from within to dislodge the heavy snow blanket woke those not already up, and when we opened the zips and stepped outside, we were in another land from that which had seen us off to bed the previous night.The entire valley was covered in snow.

The day’s plans now out of the window, we fixed a couple of tents before the first snowball hit its mark. Thomas and Robert started it, but Katie and then Susanna quickly returned fire, and pretty soon it was on for young and old. When Shiloh emerged from his tent, he was imediately pelted, but, as an ex riot cop, he just stood there and only moved a little when the trajectory of a snowball included him. No-one hit him despite the flurry of projectiles he was simultaneously monitoring.

The newest member of the team, named Matthias by his creator Gary, can be found front and centre of the team photo below.

The snowman

An addendum. It is now a few days since I prepared the above. Some technical issues have prevented me from sending the August 15 diary and we have more news. The cold weather is intensifying and snow is now a feature of our days and nights. The cold has caused havoc with some of our equipment and is making sending diaries difficult. The traditional Sunday off saw most of the team pay a visit to our neighbours down the road who live in a very beautiful yurt and display fantastic traditional Kyrgyz hospitality. On their way back to base camp, our people stopped at another yurt and learned that only three days previously a horse was attacked by what the herders say was a leopard in a valley close to base refered to as No Name Valley. This has led to a revision of our plans for the day and a team has been sent to the herder to find out the precise details. The urgency is warrented by the fact that the horse survived the attack and is sporting the wounds which, if leopard, will be highly characteristic of such and need to be photographed as soon as possible. We have a vet on the team as well, who may be pressed into action if we find the horse’s condition requires her attention. Stay tuned.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

We thought we’d share some of our “Best of” camera trap pictures and team photos while we’re busy training Team 2…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

It’s been a whirlwind week of checking box traps (liberated: one rock monitor lizard, one hare and one porcupine), setting up camera traps, trouble-shooting camera traps (re-aligned by baboons, some not taking pictures, some taking too many pictures), fixing up waterholes (Emil the bull rhino used the one at Gustavposten as a scratching post), doing water hole observations, early morning vehicle game counts (1 cold and one not-so-cold-but-windy), observing elephants, walking around the bush looking for tracks (lots!) and picking up scats (lots!).

We did two evening observation drives and while we did not see any aardvarks, which were my original idea because of the plethora of new holes dug in the farm tracks, the teams reported seeing an aardwolf, bat eared foxes, “loads of springhares” and jackals. Evening entertainment included “Banana Grams”, a simple word game made very confusing by each participant making words in their own language (English, French, German and Italian). Verification was next to impossible. Evening briefings were made more artful by Marco’s pictogram explanations of the day’s activities. Thanks Heinz for letting me post some of your pictures with this diary!

Team 1 has just left for the Josephine Gate and it’s very sad to see them go. They formed a solid working team quite quickly, and really impressed Vera and I with their work ethic and willingness to spend long hours in the field making sure everything got done. Up and out at times before the “regular” departure time, their willingness to go out in the cold and count game animals was remarkable, and their willingness to go out into the field all day working on a smorgasbord of activities got us off to a great start. A big thank-you to all of you for your ability to make hard work fun, and for your contributions to the leopard project. Safe travels home.

Team 2? See you Sunday!

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

The training and induction days of the final slot went off without a hitch except to say that, due to a problem with the partner organisation’s cars we got to base camp a car short. It was expected to arrive the next day, driven by NABU’s Aman, after being repaired. When it did not arrive we waited, thinking that the serious nature of the problem might have resulted in a delay in Bishkek. When, by the afternoon of the next day Aman still hadn’t arrived, we set out to find a phone signal about an hour down the road towards Koshkor. We discovered that the car had left Bishkek the previous day. We discovered also that he had reached his birth village at the foot of the range that day. At this point I became concerned that he may have run into trouble, so we went on into the village to ask around.

The concensus in the village was that he had left that morning, but he had not made it to the base camp. All this took quite a while and it was dark by the time we all agreed that we would need to search. A slow and poorly lit drive back yielded no results despite numerous stops to peer into the deep gorges in the moonlight.

The next morning I told the team of the situation and the need to mount a potentially grizzly search for our colleague who had dissapeared without a trace. To their immense credit, everyone on the team stepped forward to participate in what could easily have turned into a very unpleasant task. A basic plan was formed and with the ready collaboration of the entire team we honed the search on the fly with one car canvasing locals while the other two slowly cruised the valley stopping to scan the deep floor at the bottom of the precipitous valley walls. Wherever a view of the bottom of the slope was not possible from the car, the car would stop and the searchers would fan out to investigate the valley floor. The other car would pass them and do the same at the next occluded view point. In this way they leap-frogged each other to the end of the valley. At the bottom of the range, as we gathered and I prepared to push further on into the flats below and raise an official search, a car appeared and we quickly realised that it was Aman. His breakes had begun to fail after leaving the village, as had his mobile phone, fully in line with Murphy’s law. For safety sake, he had headed back to fix this second car issue but no-one was the wiser. Needless to say he was surprised by the overly happy welcoming party that had come down the mountain to meet him. A very good ending, all things considered.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

How to Set up a Box Trap in 5 Easy Steps

1. Gather 9 citizen scientists

2. Fill buckets with sand and make a nice floor for leopards to walk on

3. Do leopard-liking landscaping inside and out

4. Hang Fresh Meat

5. Install Doors and Activate Trap!

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