Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Here’s what happened since my last update.

Thursday (16 Aug) was our first day out walking so we chose a nearby valley to get everybody’s legs and lungs working at this altitude. The skills still fresh from training yesterday were put to good use. As soon as we had left the tree line, we spotted two groups of ibex (one with 3 males, 3 females, 3 juveniles, the second with 4 adults, 2 juvenilea) wandering up the scree and out of sight over the ridge. The sighting was logged (correctly!) on the datasheets using GPS and compass. There was snow on the highest ridges; unfortunately this is where snow leopards like to live. Climbing up would be difficult and dangerous for a big group so Martin and Hannes took up the challenge with Oleg, Jenny and I leaving the rest of the group surveying the valley floor with our visiting scientist Anna (a scrape was found here last slot). Camera traps 2 and 8 were successfully collected and revealed unidentifiable ghostly figures moving in the night. The importance of a test day became clear as Wan-Lin’s walking boot sole came clean off as she crossed a stream. Luckily, Hannes, the man with a plan (and a rucksack full of EVERYTHING) came to the rescue by pulling out a roll of duct tape and neatly lashing the sole back on. The shoe held together back to camp and is still going strong.

Taping Wan Lin's shoe
Taping Wan Lin’s shoe

More sunshine on Friday (17 Aug) prompted a move to an advanced base camp with the objective of retrieving a number of camera traps placed around a ridge near a high tarn (lake). It was a day hike to the lake and back and a select few (Hannes, Martin, Karl, Jenny, Kate, Oleg and I) would be left at the lake overnight to spend tomorrow at the top of the ridge retrieving the traps. All of us helped shift camp to the lake and then the valley group (with Anna) retreated down the boulder field to research the steppe habitat in the valley. As we (the ridge group) saw the valley group disappearing with Oleg, stormy clouds gathered and the first drops of snow started falling. Still, we had had fun designing sleeping arrangements. Hannes (ever a man for an experiment) had rigged a tarp/stone house and intended to sleep the night there. Karl and I preferred the simple approach and brought bivi bags. The rest preferred to use the two lightweight camouflage tents.  It started to snow at 21.00 and soon the bivi bags gave up, both Karl and my sleeping bags were soaking wet, we decided to head into the tents. Now the two tents were at maximum capacity (3 persons) with Hannes stubbornly sticking it out in his homemade den. As the snow built up into the early hours of yesterday morning (18 Aug) we had to wake up every half hour to kick the snow off the roof of our tent to avoid it collapsing. Hannes fared less well! At regular intervals during the night his tarp buckled under the weight of the snow. This was his signal to wake up and bash the snow off, getting soaking wet in the meantime. At around 03.45 he gave up too and showed up at our tent begging for somewhere warm to sleep! Naturally, we allowed the soaking wet German inside and spent the next 3 sleepless hours crushed up like sardines. At least we were warm!

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We couldn’t get up the ridge (for obvious reasons) yesterday, so after a brief breakfast we set off on the 4-hour journey back to the Land Rover. The camera traps will have to wait for another day. That’s the uncertainty of expeditions!

We arrived back at basecamp safely where it was raining. The rest of the group had decided (wisely) not to venture out onto the steppe and instead they were keeping warm in the mess tent. At time of writing the rain has stopped and the cloud is breaking up! Time to make another plan!

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

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