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

Diary slot 3 (apologies for the delay)

Surrounded by streams, baseccamp II is located further up the valley closer to the Karakol mountain pass. The local name of the place is ‘Aral’ – island – describing exactly what it is. To get there from the main road a shallow stream must be crossed – I’m glad the truck made it safely through.

Team 3 assembles in time on Monday morning in Bishkek. Peter is with us again on his 2nd slot, there are Suzie and Ellen from the U.S., Nick from New Zealand, four Germans: Anke, Barbara & Michael and Andre, Siv & Duncan, a Norwegian/English couple, Vincent from Switzerland and last-minute joiner Ceire, also from the UK. Placement Nurjan from Bishkek completes the team.

It’s incredibly hot on the training day, so we seek shelter from the sun in the yurt during the afternoon. Some of us are even seen in their swimming costumes taking a refreshing bath in the river – temperature: 8 degrees!

Starting from last slot’s overnighter location, now only 10 minutes away from camp, we survey Kashka Tor valley on the first survey day. Remember this is where we found fresh snow leopard tracks and have set up two camera traps. Kurmanbek has hired a horse from our neighbour and friend Talant – he says that from a horse’s back the well-being of the whole group can be overseen much better! 😉 We split into two groups later on. A side valley is explored – so far unknown terrain – and the camera traps are picked up. No fresh wildlife tracks are found anywhere in the valley, so unfortunately no good reason for setting up more. Older signs of ibex and argali are around, though, marmot calls are heard all day. There are also eight different butterfly species, some of which are not amongst the common species of the picture sheets Amadeus created for us to continue his scientific butterfly data collection. No pictures of snow leopard on the cameras.

We find more signs of snow leopard presence at the very end of Issyk-Ata valley! Peter and Andre make our day, reporting from a long snow leopard track found in the snow and bringing back quite a few very good pictures.

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And another exceptional finding is made on Saturday: Manul tracks. The location at an altitude of 3,650 m is at ‘no name valley’ (because it does not have a name on the map), not far from basecamp. Discussing the finding during the daily review, Volodya gets really excited. He explains that the manul has the same IUCN status as the snow leopard, but attracts much less attention. Proving the presence of another elusive and endangered species in the region is a precious piece of information.

A traditional Kyrgyz meal at a herder’s yurt is arranged on the day off (Sunday) with our neighbour Talant.

Takyr-Tor and Choloktor valley are surveyed on the next day. Don Galamish again on Tuesday before the overnighter team settles near base I while Anke, Barbara, Ellen, Michael and Nick drive back to spend the night at base II. Rain pours again when the overnighter teams head for Tuyuk to retrieve two more cameras, and Kumbel valley (= sandy mountain pass) unknown for most parts. Again, no snow leopard pictures on the cameras.

More exploration is done on Thursday. We cross the stream behind base for the first time. Neither on foot, nor by car this area would have been an option for surveys but horses can do it! In the morning Talant’s sons bring over two of them and one by one the team is ‘transported’ to the starting point. We do another short survey on the last day with Peter and Duncan retrieving a camera trap, Ceira, Siv and Nurjan going for interviews and the rest of the team doing a reccee on the other side of the Karakol mountain pass to check for possible overnight locations.

With everyone back at base, something very special is about to happen. Over the last couple of days Kurmanbek and Aman have gathered two teams for a traditional horse game and have set up the playing field right in front of basecamp. The ball must be picked up from the ground and be placed in a goal for points – somewhat similar to American football. Watching the scene from the slope we’re much impressed by the locals’ skills on their horsebacks, the speed and powerful action of the game. More young men on horses arrive while the game is on, but a downpour eventually ends the spectacle. We’re invited for the post-game meal to Joldosh’s hut – he is the undisputed champion of the game.

Back to the expeditions’ core business and the research, we meet in the late afternoon for a final review. During the 3rd slot, 32 positive cells have been recorded, about twice that number have been surveyed. 21 mammal datasheets were added to Volodya’s collection. To everyone’s great excitement, snow leopard tracks were found. Unexpectedly each slot recorded snow leopard tracks this year: in slot 1 at the Karakol Pass in snow, in slot 2 at Kashka Tor valley in mud (where a fowl was attacked last year) and in this slot again in snow at Issyk Ata. The manul footprint found at ‘no name valley’ is another highlight. Direct sightings of ibex were not recorded in slot 3. A very likely explanation for the lack of sightings is that with the snow melt, many, many more herders and their livestock have moved into the valley, pushing wildlife back into more remote areas. On the other hand, the interviews have been greatly boosted during this slot with more local people around. 19 yurts were visited, the age of interview partners ranged between 9 and 73 years. The bird list was extended to 45 species. Big birds of prey such as golden eagle, but also lammergeier have been recorded constantly, indicating a good quality habitat.

In the evening we socialise in the yurt enjoying the warmth of the stove and, of course, a shot of local vodka. To everyone’s surprise Anke, Barbara, Nurjan and Kurmanbek perform a Kyrgyz song rehearsed on a bad weather day. The somewhat wistful melody and the wording about the Kyrgyz way of life contributes to some unique experiences the team has gained over the last two weeks.

It’s time again to thank everyone – it’s been wonderful with every single one of you, slot 3. Special thanks go to Peter for his unwearing dedication over four expedition weeks and his help in many ways. As I said before, this project would not be possible without you passionate people putting time, money and sweat into it. I hope your expectations have been met and you’ve enjoyed the two weeks as much as I did. Safe travels onward or back home and keep in touch. I hope to see some of you again some time somewhere.

Having said alli this, I am now handing over to my colleague Rossella who will be leading this year’s last expedition slot in the Tien Shan mountains. Other assignments force me back to Europe with mixed feelings. A very heartfelt thanks goes to my colleague Volodya and NABU’s gruppa bars members Kurmanbek, Aman and Shailoo. You’ve been my family for two months. Together we did a great job overcoming language barriers and cultural differences with a good sense of humour, flexibility and the odd shot of vodka… all in an effort to save the snow leopard!

All the best,

Malika

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

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