Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

How can I sum up the last group in a few words and apologise for not having been in touch much. Well, the weather has been perfectly horrid with lots of rain, interspersed by some sunny spells and our BGAN satellite phone is playing up so we are really in the middle of (communication) nowhere.

Anyway, the third group has arrived and we are on our way back to the Altai. Highlights of the second group include:

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Our local friends treating us to a party. We had no idea where all the food came from, but within a minute, Irina’s table was heaving under a load of home-made bread, luscious cream, several types of cheese, pickled apples – it all tasted so delicious.

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A very playful family of long-eared or Altai voles. We found them living with pikas and getting along famously.

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After the usual and seemingly endless permit hassles, we finally crossed into the border exclusion zone and felt very special indeed. The valley we set up the camp in was breathtaking. Steppe on one side and spectacular series glaciers on the other. This was argali, ibex and snow leopard country. Remote, protected  (by default by boarder guards) and undisturbed.

We were itching to hit the slopes and soon we found ourselves walking on a narrow ledge above the camp, following a well-worn argali track. And then I spotted my first argali. A small herd of seven. We were thrilled. Not having seen them before, I didn’t know how they would react, but they seemed very timid and came within just 200 metres of us. We tracked them all the way down to the river, we even crawled on our bellies to get a closer look, when they suddenly vanished.

The next morning Jenny and Oleg took Carol, Andy, Dermott and Janine to the very top of the ridge overlooking our camp and my group and I started walking the road, which was snaking up into the valley. Oleg mentioned something about an abandoned mine, but we didn’t really see much until we reached a small plateau, well above 3000 m. It was quite a shock to see the hand of humans at work. Rusty machinery, rotting wood, ghastly buildings and in the middle of it, an old mining shaft. We steered well clear of it all and kept walking. Argali were abundant above the ridges and we found some sort of  “argali hotel”, as Susan put it. Shallow depressions, dug into the scree by hundreds of animals, looking for a place to rest. The view over the saddle was breathtaking. We knew we were in the snow leopard country. As we reached an altitude of well above 3300 m, all credit goes to Louisa who scrambled to her record altitude without even losing a breath.

Jenny’s group had a hard time walking up the steep hill, but they were extremely lucky to find both scrapes and scat of what surely must have been a snow leopard. This was a great news and confirmation we are in the right area. With two camera traps set up high on the ridges, we just have to wait and see. What a great day!

Our Chikacheva trip, if only two days long, proved to be great success. We found scat, scrapes and set up three camera traps, high above the ridges. I am sure everyone would have liked to stay a bit longer, but the end of this group was beckoning.

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia

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