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 

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