Update from our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates, macaws and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/amazonia)

Hello everyone and welcome to the Amazonia 2016 expedition diary!

My name is Malika (Fettak) and I will be your expedition leader on the first group and then Catherine (Edsell) will take over for group 2.

Malika Fettak

Malika Fettak

Catherine Edsell

Catherine Edsell

This year the project will return to where Biosphere Expeditions started off in Peru in 15 years ago: The Piedras Biodiversity Station in Madre de Dios region. The station, which was originally part-financed by us, sadly fell into disrepair in the past, but now has a new owner giving us the chance to come back for more research work.

Piedras Biodiversity Station

Piedras Biodiversity Station

It will be a return to beginnings too for Dr. Alan (Lee), the expeditions’ head scientist, who gained his PhD in the Amazon and worked with our expeditions before moving back to his native country South Africa. For me, it will be leading the project for the fourth time and handing over to Catherine after the first week. We will also be working together with local staff I will introduce you to once I have met everyone personally on the ground.

Alan Lee

Alan Lee

We have been busy over the last few weeks preparing logistics, expedition kit, research equipment, paperwork, datasheets and the research manual. Innumerable e-mails have been exchanged between continents. Catherine, Alan & I will each bring a share of the equipment, some more equipment boxes stored in Lima will be picked up on the way. Flying in from different directions (UK, South Africa, Germany) we will meet on Wednesday in Puerto Maldonado – keep your fingers crossed that none of us gets stuck on the way! Our schedule on the ground is pretty tight. If things work out as planned we will go shopping on Wednesday afternoon in Puerto, proceed to Piedras Station on Thursday and set up base. I will return to Puerto Maldonado on Saturday for last minute shopping and meet team 1 on Sunday morning.

I hope your preparations are going well. Please don’t forget to bring a strong torch (600 lumens minimum) for night surveys!

I will be in touch again once I have arrived in Puerto.

That’s it for now – I’ll keep you updated!

Regards

Malika

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

And here are also some gorgeous picture by photographer Dietmar Denger from group 1:


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

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

After what has seemed like a very short time in the mountains over the last two weeks the third and last team all arrived safely back in Bishkek late on Saturday afternoon (27 August). Perhaps the time has passed quickly due to the amount of work we had to do. There were 12 camera traps set out in the field and we set several more during the first few days. All these needed to be gathered back in and their many thousands of photographs monitored and sifted for signs of snow leopard or prey species, a task that consumes time. We also had many other objectives that we had to squeeze into the time we had, more on those in just a moment. We’ve had quite a bit of rain, hail and snow, but nothing like as bad as what the first team had to endure. The weather during this third group has been much colder, though, with frequent hard frosts in the mornings.

So here is an account of our last couple of weeks in the field with group three:

After writing up the expedition dairy last Sunday morning (14 August), I then spent the whole day shopping for expedition food with Emma. We loaded up two cars full of food ready for departure in the morning.

And at 8:00 am on Monday (15 August), team 3 all met-up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA) for his second slot, Nigel (Belgium), Trevor (UK), Tristan and her grandparents Mary and David (Canada), Manuela (Germany), Laura and Nicola (UK) who both participated in the Altai expedition several years ago, Kenny (USA/Hong Kong), Deborah (Germany/Netherlands), Miyana (Japan), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan joining for her second slot. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot, Shailoo, Emma and myself met up at the hotel, Volodya stayed at base camp.

Team 3

Team 3

The convoy drive over the Karakol pass

The convoy drive over the Karakol pass

As team 2 arrived and left the mountains via two different routes, I thought it a good idea for team 3 to do the same. That way everyone gets to see more of this astonishing and stunningly beautiful country, and as we were going to have to drive the truck out through the tunnel (as it would have been too dangerous to drive it over the pass), I chose to drive team 3 in via the Kochkor/Karakol pass route. The route is longer than the tunnel route, but the roads are much better for driving. Hunter is now quite proficient at negotiating traffic on these manic roads, so he drove the whole way. David volunteered to be the fourth driver, and he displayed his years of experience of driving to get us all safely to base camp, where Volodya was waiting with a huge pot of hot Ukrainian borsch that he’d made for everyone.

The 2016 base camp in the upper part of the valley

The 2016 base camp in the upper part of the valley

The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with a risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday (16 August) was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment.

First survey

First survey

On the first survey day on Wednesday (17 August) the whole group went to Kashka-tor for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record in the lower parts of the valley. The group then split with Nigel, Miyana, Tris and Phil climbing up one side valley with Volodya and the rest heading further up the valley with Shailoo and Bekbolot, where they split again to recover the camera traps. One trap could not be found. Nobody saw a great deal that day except for Volodya’s group who investigated the area where we had discovered leopard scat the previous Thursday. It had rained heavily the day before and a little more during the night, so when we found fresh snow leopard tracks (lots of them), we knew that these were only laid down that same morning! There were plenty old leopard tracks too along with ibex tracks. This is probably the best opportunity we have to capture snow leopard on camera trap, so we set three of them there before getting rather wet on the way back down. That place is quite special with huge cliffs on each side of the glacier. It is so easy to imagine leopards up there looking down on us.

Fresh snow leopard footprints

Fresh snow leopard footprints

Nikki setting a camera trap

Nikki setting a camera trap

As we were all wet and cold after our day in the rain, we lit the yurt fire to warm ourselves up again.

On Thursday (18 August) the team split into three groups: Two groups headed off to Chon-chikan, the one walking up the left of the valley consisting of Manuela, Nikki, Nigel and Bekbolot saw a red fox and two eagles. The team that headed up the right, which consisted of David, Miyana, Kenny and Volodya saw a white-winged redstart. The third group – Mary, Tris, Laura, Deborah and Trevor headed off to Kosh-tor to recover traps and saw an eagle and marmot.

Miyana and Nikki clearly had too much energy after the day's hike

Miyana and Nikki clearly had too much energy after the day’s hike

The wildlife is now scarcer down in the valleys compared with previous slots. Most noticeable is the absence of small birds and butterflies now that the spring nesting has ended and the flowers are all but gone.

Hunter winning a game of Kok-boru

Hunter winning a game of Kok-boru

We took a day off from surveys on Friday (19 August) to watch a game of Kok-boru, which was to take place right beside our base camp. This was not a big game such as we had witnessed during the previous slot, rather a small game with just a few participants. They also included various other games such as arm-wrestling on horseback. Hunter played a few one-on-one games of Kok-boru with the boy from the neighbouring yurt and he won most of them. I have to say that Hunter really looks quite professional playing this game now, a potential future Californian professional player, he looked good partly due to having a fast horse this time around. Several people had a horse-ride for a while including Kenny and Deborah, but only Miyana and Tris rode horses all day long. We were later invited over to the neighbour’s for a meal.

Kenny

Kenny

Deborah

Deborah

Miyana and Tristan

Miyana and Tristan

On Saturday (20 August) the whole team headed out to the Issik-ata valley, passing playful and watchful marmots on the way.

Deborah scanning the ridges for Ibex

Deborah scanning the ridges for ibex

On Sunday (21 August) Nikki, Deborah and Laura put in a special effort to get another couple of transects covered, while everybody else other than David and Mary headed off to the NABU snow leopard rehabilitation centre at Issyk-kul lake, where we would spend the night. We took our time getting there and it was too dark to see the cats that evening, but we all got some pretty good views the following morning prior to heading off back to base camp on Monday (22 August). While we were away, David repaired some of the camp tools and tents, while Mary put in some hard work cleaning and tidying the camp.

Hard expedition life! Miyana and Tris got soaked to the skin in Issyk-kul lake

Hard expedition life! Miyana and Tris got soaked to the skin in Issyk-kul lake

The NABU rehabilitation centre

The NABU rehabilitation centre

Young snow leopard

Young snow leopard

Lynx

Lynx

Surveys conducted on Tuesday (23 August) revealed very little, mainly due to bad weather. A strong wind hit the camp and we had to hold onto everything to stop the camp being blown away. I found a noctule bat lying cold in the grass so we moved it to a warm dark place in the yurt, and later that evening it had gained enough strength to fly away.

I tried to photograph these petroglyphs of Ibex but Nigel decided to sit on them

I tried to photograph these petroglyphs of Ibex but Nigel decided to sit on them

We split up into two groups on Wednesd (24 August). An all-female group headed off to Dungarama where they managed to see a stoat, an eagle, a lammergeier, an ibex and a wolf scat. Volodya, Phil, Nigel and Hunter hiked in Pitiy, where they were not so successful, but they did see the first swallowtail butterfly of the expedition.

Trevor collecting a camera trap

Trevor collecting a camera trap

Thursday (25 August) was the big day where we all returned to Kaska-tor, the place where we had found snow leopard footprints, scrape and scat previously, and where we had set the three camera traps on 17 August. The party consisted of Phil, Hunter, Miyana, Tris, Manuela, Trevor, Niki and Laura, and this was our very last survey day with the objective of collecting those last three traps. We had high hopes that these traps were going to capture active snow leopards, but on arrival we could not find any fresh footprints, so there was much disappointment. But also on arrival, sitting on the rocks behind the cameras, was a lammergeier, which immediately took flight over our heads. A vulture sitting there like that suggested there was a carcass there somewhere. We collected in the cameras, then after lunch a few of us explored the area and Miyana discovered the remains of an ibex, which we could clearly see had been killed by a snow leopard. Typically, a snow leopard will leave the nasal passage and eye-sockets of the prey intact, in contrast to other predators such as the wolf for example. We also saw a Saker falcon flying over the camp upon our return that day.

Ibex killed by a snow leopard

Ibex killed by a snow leopard

Other parts of the team also conducted interviews with some of the herders in the yurts further down the valley. An interesting pattern of responses from herders is the opinion that snow leopards only suck the blood of animals. The origins of this myth are probably based on the fact that a leopard caught with a fresh kill will be holding the animal by the throat before it is scared off. One herder actually said that the meat from an animal killed by a leopard is white after the leopard has sucked all the blood out.

And then, back at base, when we thought our chance to capture a snow leopard had gone, there it was after all! A rather poor quality, but nevertheless very great reward for all our efforts over the years, honing in on the ghost of the mountain, until we have finally caught it on camera! So the ghost does exist and roams these hills.

Rather poor quality, but the very first snow leopard captured on our camera traps

Rather poor quality, but the very first snow leopard captured on our camera traps

 

Mary, Kenny, David, Hunter and Volodya

Mary, Kenny, David, Hunter and Volodya

With a spring in our step and hearts full of pride, we disassembled the yurt and much of camp on Friday (26 August) and packed it all away in the truck, ready for departure Saturday morning. Thank you to everyone for helping with this so much.

Trevor, Nigel, Miyana, Laura and Nicola taking down the yurt

Trevor, Nigel, Miyana, Laura and Nicola taking down the yurt

Manuela reluctantly packing up to leave on the very last day in this beautiful valley

Manuela reluctantly packing up to leave on the very last day in this beautiful valley

All together this has been the most successful year ever here in the Tien Shan. But this is no coincidence as each year has built on the other. The results of interviews with the herders and the surveys during the first year identified suitable snow leopard habitats. In the second year, a snow leopard distribution model was defined based on the data collected and a plan was made to hone in on the ghost of the mountain. And finally this year those places identified by the model were targeted to culminate in definite proof of snow leopards roaming these hills. Well done to everyone who has made this possible over the years!

Thank you for all your hard work! All of you over the years have contributed to this success and you can feel justifiably proud. Team 3, have a safe flight home, and I hope to meet you all again someday.

Best wishes to you all and thank you again.

Phil

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Quick summary group 3

Snow leopard captured on a camera trap (photo and video) for the first time on a Biosphere Expeditions Tien Shan expedition; a fresh leopard kill, which shows a very clear pattern and example worthy of publication of how snow leopards eat their prey; and many clearly defined leopard footprints found.

Slot 3 added five new species of birds to the list of 57 compiled by the previous slots; one new swallowtail butterfly observed in the mountains.

13 cells covered, compared to 16 cells covered by group 2. This reduction is due to the large number of camera traps that needed to be recovered during the last slot.


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

Update from our Malaysia coral reef expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malaysia)

Tuesday (23 August)

Sunday and Monday followed with three survey dives on each. Some of the team swapped jobs, but a lot of us preferred to stay in what we felt were our areas of expertise. A lot of data were gathered and entered into the Reef Check spreadsheets, and we even had time for a night dive and one lazy dive at the end, which stretched our navigation skills with some pretty low visibility. We arrived back at Singapore and waited off-shore for the customs boat to come and check us back in to our final destination. We enjoyed the final crusie into harbour during breakfast, with Indonesia on one side and Malaysia on the other. Farewells were said as this year’s expedition came to an end. Thanks to all the team for all of their hard work and a lot of fun – hope to see you all again!

Sorry that the pictures did not come through. Here’s an album now to make up. And also the draft of a press release to summarise the expedition, which could not happen without your time and money, so thank you again!

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Strong Recovery for Malaysian Coral

The El Niño effect this year has devastated coral reefs around the world, but the reefs of one island in Malaysia are fighting back.

A team from Biosphere Expeditions have teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia to survey the coral reefs around the island of Tioman, off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. The group was assessing the health of the reefs following the devastating rise in the sea temperatures that happened in May this year. A temporary rise of 2 or 3 degrees Celcius, caused by this year’s El Niño event, has been causing corals all around the tropics to do something called ‘bleaching’, which can lead to the death of corals and then entire reefs. A coral bleaches when it expels the symbiotic algae that usually live within it. These algae give the coral its colour, without these algae the transparent coral appears white (or bleached) as we see through the animal to its white calcium carbonate structure. Without the algae the animal also loses around 80% of its energy which is usually supplied by the algae photosynthesising sugars. This eventually leads to the death of the coral through starvation.

But the reefs around Tioman island have been taking algae back, and in the months since the reefs were 30 to 40% bleached, they have largely recovered, as the Biosphere Expeditions team has found. The team, comprising citizen scientists from all over the world, also found reefs that were almost back to pre-bleaching states and which were generally healthy. So for these reefs the danger of bleaching has passed for now, but the threats of overfishing and pollution are still there. Very few larger predator fish were found during the surveys, indicating that fishing is still happening, despite Tioman being a Marine Protected Area. The amounts of nutrient indicator algae growing on some of the reefs led the team’s scientist, Alvin Chelliah of Reef Check Malaysia, to speculate on the amount of sewage that may be ending up on the reefs from some of the island resorts. It is through working with the communities on the island, as Reef Check Malaysia does, that the threats to these reefs will be tackled sustainability can be secured.

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Update from our Malaysia coral reef expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malaysia)

NOTE that this is a text-only diary for now as we are struggling to get pictures through whilst at sea. As soon as we manage to send some pictures, we will add them to the WordPress, Facebook, etc. versions of the diary too.

Thursday (18 Aug)

I’m pleased to say that to everyone’s relief all passed enough tests so that we can start our Reef Check survey dives tomorrow. After a long day we go to bed happy and looking forward to doing some surveys in the morning.

Friday (19 August)

We have started running two surveys at the same time, at two different depths, so everyone needs to be slick getting their gear on and getting into the water. We ran through how each member of the team will operate in the water and in what order and at what speed everyone needs to move. There’s quite a lot to remember, which is why the first survey is a practice survey, with everyone getting used to how the theory operates underwater. We had quite a lot of fun and a lot of people come with an ‘oh, I didn’t think…… would be like that’ comment – but all went well. After a debrief and lunch we headed to a new dive site to undertake our first full survey. which goes well. The evening is full of good food (again), reef life books and stories, with a thunderstorm flashing and rumbling in distant clouds.

Saturday (20 August)

We managed to do three different sites with two Reef Check surveys at all of them. The sites had lots of coral and almost no bleaching, despite the El Nino event that came through in May and bleached about 30% of the corals at the time. The reefs that we are seeing are almost fully recovered, with only a small amount of bleaching in the shallower (5 m) survey sites. All the sites have a great variety of hard corals and some lovely fish and other marine life such as nudibrancs and cuttlefish. Two of the sites have a lot of large mounds and gulleys, which make the survey dives both interesting and challenging. The last survey is done at a site with lots of current wiping us along down our transect, so just when we were getting comfortable, we had a little bit extra to think about. Good to have a challenge at the end of the day! The day ends with drinks as the sun goes down – and some retesting for those who want it, after all, it’s not a holiday 😉

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Update from our Malaysia coral reef expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malaysia)

NOTE that this is a text-only diary for now as we are struggling to get pictures through whilst at sea. As soon as we manage to send some pictures, we will add them to the WordPress, Facebook, etc. versions of the diary too.

Tuesday (16 Aug)

We left our dock in Singapore at 17:00 with all dive gear checked and stored and everyone moved into their cabins. Wan (our dive leader on board the boat) gave us an introduction to life on board and then we ran through the risk assessment for the trip, talking through any risks associated with life on board and our survey diving regime. Dehydration is the main worry day to day while diving in a hot country, so we have plenty of cold water and juices available, plus isotonic sachets, to top up with on a regular basis.

The immigration boat came to us and stamped our passports as we left Singaporean waters, and then we headed off on our overnight 14 hour journey to Tioman Island. Pom and Deng, our two cooks, produced a really good meal as we got underway and we ended the evening introducing ourselves and getting know each other. The seas turned a bit choppy as the evening wore on and we got further out to sea, and everyone settled down for their night at sea.

Wednesday (17 Aug)

As dawn broke we arrived at Tioman Island, an hour ahead of schedule to pick up our expedition scientist for the week, Alvin. We were able to go through an introduction to Reef Check, the methodology that we are using for our survey dives, while the immigration checks were being undertaken. After this we headed out for our first dive, a check dive to get comfortable in the water and practice a few diving skills that would be useful to us during the surveys. Renggis, a dive site used regularly as a good training spot by many dive boats, proved to be a little tricky! As we whisked along sideways in low visibility during our descent, it soon became apparent that the site was not its usual benign self. Alvin tucked us around a corner on a patch of sand that he knows and we were out of the worst of the current, magically able to go through the skills that we planned. All was well and the team returned to the boat with tales of turtles, cuttlefish and coral, as much as current, weight and air consumption. We were greeted back on board with an inspiring ginger tea and settled down to learn more about Reef Check.

The rest of the day was spent learning about the fish and invertebrates that we need to know for our surveys, and we went on a second dive around the corner with Alvin and I pointing out the species that we all need to know. The second dive was in better conditions, although visibility was still poor. More classroom work followed and after the dinner the team went to bed with their heads buzzing with different fish to learn.

Thursday (18 Aug)

The first dive today was at 07:00 to have another look underwater at the fish and invertebrate species that we have learnt. Revisiting Renggis made for a great dive with lots of fish to look at and the team came out of the water feeling more confident than before. Breakfast and last minute revision, then came the first two tests…

More soon.

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Update from our Malaysia coral reef expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malaysia)

I’ve been checking through our research gear and shopping for a few additional bits of kit that we will need for our research dives. Alvin, our scientist, and I have talked through the plans for the week and we’re both really looking forward to everyone getting here now. So, final instructions: When you arrive at the marina just head for Pier 1 and there will be someone to get you through the gate and on to the boat.

Punggol Marina and Country Club

Punggol Marina and Country Club

If you have any problems, please call me on the UK number provided. It is really important that you arrive on time at 16:00 as we will be setting off for our 14 hour passage to Tioman Island shortly after everyone is on board. Please note that it can take around 30 to 40 minutes to get to the marina from central Singpore in a taxi, so please allow enough time to get here. I’d rather you arrived a little early (15.30 is the stated earliest, but a little bit before is fine), rather than a little late. And if you suffer from sea sickness, please ensure that you take any tablets at the correct time to allow them to work effectively (some of them need to be taken a while before you go on the sea) as it is this first passage that is most likely to cause you problems due to the exposed nature of the sea during the passage.

All best for your travels and see you tomorrow.

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

Hello everybody, I’m Phil, the expedition leader for slots 2 and 3. Sorry we can’t update this dairy more regularly but we can only do this when we come down out of the mountains and back to civilisation.

Well, at 8:00 am on Monday 1st August team 2 all met up at the Futuro hotel. The team consists of Hunter (USA), Gerald (USA), Roland (Germany), Neil (UK), Jake (USA), Fedor (Netherlands), John (UK), Ray (UK), Starr (USA), Bernd (Germany), Fiona (Austria), Ruth (Australia), and Rahat our placement from Kyrgyzstan, joining us for the second year in a row. Of the expedition crew only Bekbolot and myself met-up at the hotel; Volodya, Shailoo, Ismail and Emma stayed at the base camp after we’d spent the last two days setting it all up in preparation for the team to arrive.

Team 2

Team 2

The six-hour convoy drive to base-camp was easy-going and pretty uneventful, but for the fact that we saw two wolves in broad daylight in the lower part of the valley. They were running flat-out in a straight line one behind the other in the typical way that wolves travel. They ran over the rolling foothills at the lower reaches of the valley and we watched them run off into the distance up towards the higher mountains. Seeing this made Gerry ecstatic as he loves everything about wolves.

Convoy to base

Convoy to base

Amadeus, the butterfly expert and placement from the first team visited us at base camp to explain how to use the butterfly app, he went on his way the following day. A quick message to team 3 – please if you haven’t yet done so, download the ‘Butterflies of Kyrgyzstan’ app., from www.discovernature.org.kg (Android version only) before you arrive. You won’t be able to download it after you’re in the mountains.

The training sessions began right after dinner on Monday with our risk assessment talk. The whole of Tuesday was spent with training sessions as well, starting with the scientist’s talk about the background of research, study animals and their prey, 2015 results, recommendations and aims for 2016. Everyone learned how to use the research equipment.

The weather has been great! We had a little rain on both Thursdays but it’s generally been sunny every day.

On the first survey day on Wednesday (3 August) the whole group went to the Tuyuk-Choloktor valley for practicing their newly-learnt skills. Unfortunately there was very little to record. The group then split into two with half climbing up one side valley with Volodya, and the rest headed up the next valley with Shailoo. During lunchtime Volodya’s group emerged over the distant ridge and waved manically at the second group, who were at the time preoccupied with the two pairs of huge Ibex horns that Gerry and Ismail had found. Gerry then insisted that he carry the really heavy horns back to base to show everyone. I think after only a little walking he wished that he hadn’t, still he persevered and managed to carry them all the way down the mountain.

Gerry and ibex horns

Gerry and ibex horns

On Thursday (4 August) the team split into two groups. One group consisting of Shailoo, Phil, Ray, Ruth, John, Neil, Jake and Rahat walked up Sary-kol and conducted a fascinating interview with a sheep herder. He said that on 6 August last year he witnessed two snow leopards eating two of his lambs, he described them as blood-suckers based on the way they had hold of the lambs by the throat. He also said that over the 40 years he’s been coming to this part of the valley he’s seen about 15 snow leopards. The other group consisting of everybody else hiked up Issyk-Ata to retrieve the two camera traps the first team had set at the foot of the moraine near the footprints in the snow where we thought the snow leopard might cross the river, and the other trap that we set observing the wider field. Neither trap produced snow leopard, but the one set on the moraine showed a badger crossing, and both traps had several hundred pictures of horses until the horses knocked both traps over. Four ibex were spotted by the Issyk-Ata group who hiked right up to the top of the pass, as well as two large falcons, which we now think to be Saker falcons.

We heard rumour that the next day (Friday, 3 August) there was to be a game of Kok-boru a little further down the valley where we’d had our base camp during previous years. Kok-boru is the horseback game played by the herders in the valley where they carry the headless goat and drop it in the goal. This was the real game where the upper valley competes against the lower valley, a serious event where 30 players give it all they’ve got to win. The name “Kok-boru” means blue wolf and in ancient times they played with a headless wolf.

So on Friday (3 August) we took a day off and travelled down to watch the game. There was a little practice going on prior to the main event and Roland, Hunter, Fedor and Gerry didn’t hesitate to saddle-up and give it a try. The goat normally weighs about 20 kg, but on this occasion the upper-valley herders, who get to eat the goat if they win chose the largest goat available, and this one weighed over 30 kg. Our boys could hardly lift it one-handed, and it made for a very tiring yet thoroughly entertaining game. The team of Roland and Hunter won to great celebration and cheers.

Roland, Hunter, John, Fedor (left to right)

Roland, Hunter, John, Fedor (left to right)

The main event involved all the herders (not including our boys) and the goals were way up and way down the valley. Prior to this they all lined-up on horseback before us displaying their courage and bravery and paid a touching display of honour and respect to us all, a rare true mark of respect. Volodya was really very touched by this.

Within minutes all the riders had disappeared over the horizon up the valley, after a long wait we decided to drive up to see what was going on. We found them right beside our base camp still fighting hard. The game was eventually won by the upper valley.

On Saturday (6 August) we split into two teams, Volodya and Phil leading (9 people) in Kara-Tor, the first valley over the pass. And Shailoo leading a smaller group in Chon-Chikan, who of course saw the many petroglyphs that are in that valley, but none of the study species other than marmot. They had hopes of retrieving the two camera traps that the first team had set there, but they forgot to take the coordinates, John made a rather funny report saying “Anybody could have had them, nobody thought to ask if anybody had them, everybody thought somebody would have them, but in-fact nobody had them”. It didn’t really matter as they have plenty of battery power left to be collected by team three. They did see a fox though. I should also mention that John was not impressed by Volodya’s description of Chon-Chikan being a flat walk all the way up, John said “It started off with a steep bit, followed by a steep bit in the middle, and the end was steep”. The Kara-Tor group had more success, seeing many marmot, 15 ibex, an eagle and lammergeier. In fact we have seen lammergeier every day so far.

Lammergeier

Lammergeier

Sunday (7 August) was our day off and we were the guests of our neighbour “Talant”. In his yurt, where we sampled the excellent food prepared by Guelcan, his wife. After dinner several people – Jake, Hunter, Ruth, Star, Roland, Gerry and Fedor borrowed horses and spent the afternoon riding around.

Monday (8 August) we split into three groups. There was a group (Fedor, Gerry, Roland, Bernd, Hunter, Bekbalot and Rahat) who were keen to explore a high ridge, so they set off on foot and climbed to well over 4100 m, where they found snowcock and wolf scats. Another group went with Volodya back to set another camera trap. The third group walked into Dungurama, which translates as “noisy valley” aptly named as there are falling rocks every few minutes. This group found an old argali sheep scull with horns. It appears argali were once found throughout our study site, but these days they are largely absent, probably hunted to near local extinction.

Jake and argali skull

Jake and argali skull

Most of the team were keen to do an overnighter and they wanted it to be as challenging as possible, Volodya made mention of a valley within the study area that was so remote that it had not yet been explored. I think Volodya wished he hadn’t suggested it after finding out how difficult it would be on Tuesday (9 August). We obviously had to carry everything in with us, some carrying tents and stoves. A 15 km hike in to 3600 m under a hot punishing sun. We made camp by a small lake by the glacier. We saw no signs of snow leopard or ibex, but we saw some snowcock. The next morning after a surprisingly good sleep in our bivi-bags some of the lads – Fedor, Gerry and Bekbolot climbed up to the saddle in the ridge but could not see Bishkek despite being much closer to there than we were to base camp. The hike back down to the cars turned out to be a race to stay ahead of the rain, all of us getting a little wet. Getting back to the cars was nowhere near the end of this story – the cars were 1 hour from base camp and the gear leaver on one of the cars (the one blocking the other) had seized up and we couldn’t move it. After a tricky manoeuvre on the hillside to bypass the stricken car with the other, we placed the transfer box leaver to neutral to tow the stricken car backwards back down to the main valley road where we left it. We then needed two trips to get everyone back to base. Three hours later and in the dark we managed to get a bite to eat provided by a very concerned Emma. Meanwhile, we learned that Ray, who had been suffering from a bad knee, and who was one of the few who had stayed at base camp had decided to call it a day and had headed off back to Bishkek, apologising to all that he had to and wishing us all the best success with the rest of the expedition. Thanks for all your hard work Ray! Sorry I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

As Ray and Shailoo drove over the pass on the way out on Wednesday (10 August) they were lucky enough to see two argali sheep run across the track in front of the car. This, together with the scull we found the other day is the only evidence we’ve had for three years that argali are here in the valley.

Fedor setting a camera trap

Fedor setting a camera trap

On Thursday (11 August) Gerry, Roland, Bernd, and Fedor with much excitement discovered what appears to be the very first snow leopard scat ever found in the valley!

Friday (12 August) was our last field work day. We set off back along Issyk-Ata in a large group of 15 people. The objective being to try and study the Alamedin pass area, which is usually bypassed. Only Gerry, Brend and Fedor managed to find the route over there, everyone else stayed on the usual track.

Conclusion

Snow leopard tracks found again, and the very first scrape and scat ever found. Three separate sightings of ibex compared to the many sightings made by the first team. This follows the normal observed pattern of them moving to the higher reaches of the mountains as more herders move up the valleys. All findings fitting nicely to the distribution model built over the previous two years.  We have 12 camera traps set out in the field, all to be collected by the third team. The previous slot covered more cells (22) compared to this (16), but these were generally higher and more difficult to cover. Also a difficult overnighter to study an area Volodya has been longing to investigate and finally ten new bird species added to the primary list of 42 compiled by the first team, including sightings of snowcock by the team working at higher altitudes.

Thanks for all your hard work! You really have been quite a remarkable team and a huge pleasure for us to work with. Safe travel home, and I hope to meet you all again someday. Ready to go team 3?


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

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

The 2016 expedition is wrapping up and we have just arrived back in Pekanbaru after 12 nights in the field. The second group enjoyed brilliant blue skies and endless sunshine throughout their stay in Rimbang Baling reserve. This was great for afternoon swims in the river and everyone’s skin has turned golden. However, the lack of torrential downpours that the first group experienced means the river level has been very low. Going upriver has been slow and a lot of hard work, we often had to get out of the boats and push them across shallow rocks or walk along the shore while the boat driver worked hard to get the boat up the shallow rapids. What a couple of weeks ago took an hour to travel took us over two hours. It meant long days and everyone worked hard to get back the camera traps and survey the rainforest.

A second overnight group went to Aur Kuning to retrieve camera traps. They surveyed two areas the first day climbing to over 350 meters to retrieve the first camera and then another 260 meters for the second. “My favourite thing about the trip was sitting down on the second hill having a rest,” laughed Horry when they returned. “I really enjoyed spotting a tawny fish owl. It was unafraid and right next to us,” Peter said.

We also visited the school in Muara Bio village. This school only has eight pupils, but they were very attentive during Febri’s presentation about conservation and enjoyed the many games the group members played with them afterwards. The NASA pins Bob had brought from the US and the soft toy kangaroos Penny and John brought from Australia were particularly appreciated.

During the 2016 expedition we have surveyed sixteen cells, covering some 64 square kilometers. Most areas were surveyed twice, and seventeen camera traps were deployed. All areas surveyed showed presence of wild pigs, suggesting prey for tigers is common. Signs of illegal logging was also common within the reserve. Interviews with fifteen villagers along the Subayang river revealed that almost everyone is wary of tigers although most interviewees recognised that they are important and would help reduce the wild pig numbers as well as attracting tourists to the area. Despite the survey times being short and the high presence of humans in the study area, a large number of species including tiger prey were repeatedly recorded, pointing towards relatively good and intact habitat conditions in the areas of RB that were surveyed by the 2016 expedition.

I am now in Pekanbaru wrapping up and storing equipment with WWF until next year. Thank you to all our partners and participants for making this expedition a success. This project could not happen without your efforts and committment. Tigers are few and far between, as two years of our expedition work here have shown, and they need all they help they can get. If they are to survive, it will be in areas such as Rimbang Baling, where they can retreat into the farther reaches of a large reserve, away from humans and their logging, poaching and plantations. But with the support of the local people, it seems they could even return closer to the villages, where our research suggests there is a good prey base. Our work here is, amongst other things, to sway local attitudes in favour of tigers. And this kind of work is a generational game, so we are here to stay and look forward to many more years of working with WWF in tiger conservation in this beautiful corner of Sumatra. Thank you everyone for making this possible.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

The new group 2 arrivals have settled into the daily routine of Subayang field station, waking up to the call of gibbons and the daily scientific survey work. We have also been collecting the camera traps that the previous group deployed two weeks ago. So far they have captured; mouse deer, barking deer, pig-tailed macaques, wild pigs, poachers and bird catchers.

On Wednesday half of the group went to the village of Aur Kuning, three hours upriver from the station, to survey two areas we had not yet visited. One which was far into the jungle and they sure had some stories to tell upon their return. “There was no path, we had to cut our way through the jungle. It was very steep, and very very slippery,” says Brodie.

Ulva, one of the local placement participants, laughs as she tells us, “Everyone fell over many times on the slippery rocks and steep hills.”

The group spent the night in the village of Aur Kuning, and by the sound of things they were very well looked after. “It was all very good. The food was good and the house we slept in was good too,” reports a tired but happy John.

The other half of the team stayed behind and surveyed areas closer to the station recording long-tailed macaques, wild pigs, sun bears, water buffalo and siamangs. We also saw signs of illegal logging and traps set by poachers to catch song birds. Song bird competitions are common in the towns and therefore so is the demand for wild song birds. Birds are judged on the length and beauty of their song and the owner takes home a price.

Today we are having a well-deserved day off. It is tough work surveying the densely forested and hilly terrain within the Rimbang Bailig Reserve. But a day’s rest and a refreshing swim in the waterfall should see us fit to get back into the rainforest again tomorrow….


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia