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

The final group of the 2014 Tien Shan snow leopard expedition to Kyrgyzstan has just made the long journey to Bishkek from the Tien Shan mountains, which ends the first Biosphere Expedition foray into this amazing country.

Whilst we did not directly see the aptly named “mountain ghost”, we have fairly convincingly determined its presence in these hills through multiple reports of livestock loss amongst the local herders including a survivor whose scars are very suggestive of big cat. The distinct cough-like call of a cat was heard by myself as well, and the fact of there being good amounts of leopard food, such as ibex and argali, in this valley system speaks strongly of a habitat, which could be expected to support the animal.

As many of us observed, many lower areas are heavily overgrazed and this is driving wildlife into the rugged upper reaches of the range. This pressure is only growing, so the time is now to start working to improve the relationship between the landscape’s managers and the wildlife, which makes this delicate biota tick.

This expedition was by definition a reconnaissance operation. We were here to assess the status of the landscape through the lens of its capacity to support apex predators such as the snow leopard, a fundamental measure of an ecosystems health. We found a good number of predators including wolves and the above mentioned evidence of our cat. The next step is to attempt to identify the numbers and distribution of these predators and how their population relates to their wider known distribution. These questions will yield the answers needed to plan adequately for the sustainable coexistence of all of the players in this dramatic, but fragile place.

Thanks to all of the teams, without whom this sort of research would be impossible. Each participant brought their own invaluable perspective to the effort. The data you collected may seem vague and even trivial… Oh look, more pooh!… but taken together, all that shit and all those footprints paint a detailed picture of a complex puzzle, which Volodya will now begin to interpret, as he has with great skill and to great effect for many years in other places, for other creatures.

Thanks especially to Volodya for sharing his expertise with this effort and to Emma for keeping this army marching on its stomach. Thanks also to the guys from NABU, Amman and Shilo, Kurmanbek and Joeldosh, and Tolkunbek. These local experts made this possible and will continue to work hard for Kyrgyzstan’s faunal emblem in our absence. A special thanks to the local volunteers Aliaskar and Ulan, whose assistance was hugely valuable in many ways beginning with translation and turning into a list that would run off the page. Very importantly, thanks again and again to Almaz, who provided the vehicles and the ground support and much logistical management from his base in Bishkek. There are many others too; you know who you are.

That’s it from me. It was a pleasure working with you all. Keep this up and we might just make a difference.

Paul

P.S. We’ve updated our albums on https://biosphereexpeditions.wordpress.com/ and www.facebook.com/biosphere.expeditions1 with our photos and a “best of” the ones submitted to the Picture Share site.

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

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