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.

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

Well, the last traps are in and as of this year in Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan, despite three reliable and recent instances of horses being attacked and the clear sound of a leopard’s cough, we have not managed to bag a photograph. The last traps were from the Kashka Tor valley in which two horses had run-ins with our big cat. The first, you may remember from a few weeks ago, was killed, leading to an overnighter in that valley a few days after the camera traps were placed. The second, very recent attack was on a foal whose mother apparently drove off the leopard leading to a survivor with fresh and quite dramatic wounds, which we have photographed. The feeling amongst those with a perspective to speak from are that the most likely cause of such damage is in fact a snow leopard.
Today is the last day on the ground here and it was spent by some on an interview run into the East Karakol valley system. This time the team sought to focus on the relationship between the women of the Kyrgyz herder culture and the leopard, because in the small glimpses of such that we had obtained thus far, it appears that they have a more ambivalent attitude to the animal than the men, who speak in very patriotic terms about the Kyrgyzstan national symbol. It will be interesting to hear what the interviews yield.

The rest of us went about preparing the base camp for tomorrow’s hectic pack-down. We have quite a lot of stuff to load into the trucks in the morning, but the work we did today will make it much easier.

This afternoon, Volodia will sum up the expedition science achievements and discuss the likely evolution of the project. I understand that there is some interest in a night of vodka on the part of some team members who have been sitting on a stash for this occasion. I better pack my stuff up now then…

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

As I signed off on the last diary entry, I could see the first lot of team members cresting the ridge that separates us from their target valley for that day. As I packed up the satellite coms, they were close enough for me to see that there was a spring in their step. Although it was really just a training run with Volodya, they found quite a lot, amongst which was clear footprints of a Palas’ cat or manul. The next day was also productive, with the first real survey yielding access into Issyk Attar’s upper reaches where a fantastic high traffic pass was discovered. Tracks and scats of all kinds and so fresh that the urine patches of many argali were still clearly visible amongst the still wet droppings. There are two platforms below the pass and each has a wide mud flat, which has captured the comings and goings of herds of beasts as they negotiate the pass into the valley systems to the north. This will surely be a big focus of next year’s explorations.

This morning the heat of yesterday’s excitement was significantly cooled off by the fact that we all awoke in igloos. As our tents bowed in under the weight of a good layer of snow, we were woken by the freezing sides of the inner tent settling on our heads. The drumming of tent walls being pounded from within to dislodge the heavy snow blanket woke those not already up, and when we opened the zips and stepped outside, we were in another land from that which had seen us off to bed the previous night.The entire valley was covered in snow.

The day’s plans now out of the window, we fixed a couple of tents before the first snowball hit its mark. Thomas and Robert started it, but Katie and then Susanna quickly returned fire, and pretty soon it was on for young and old. When Shiloh emerged from his tent, he was imediately pelted, but, as an ex riot cop, he just stood there and only moved a little when the trajectory of a snowball included him. No-one hit him despite the flurry of projectiles he was simultaneously monitoring.

The newest member of the team, named Matthias by his creator Gary, can be found front and centre of the team photo below.

The snowman

An addendum. It is now a few days since I prepared the above. Some technical issues have prevented me from sending the August 15 diary and we have more news. The cold weather is intensifying and snow is now a feature of our days and nights. The cold has caused havoc with some of our equipment and is making sending diaries difficult. The traditional Sunday off saw most of the team pay a visit to our neighbours down the road who live in a very beautiful yurt and display fantastic traditional Kyrgyz hospitality. On their way back to base camp, our people stopped at another yurt and learned that only three days previously a horse was attacked by what the herders say was a leopard in a valley close to base refered to as No Name Valley. This has led to a revision of our plans for the day and a team has been sent to the herder to find out the precise details. The urgency is warrented by the fact that the horse survived the attack and is sporting the wounds which, if leopard, will be highly characteristic of such and need to be photographed as soon as possible. We have a vet on the team as well, who may be pressed into action if we find the horse’s condition requires her attention. Stay tuned.

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

The training and induction days of the final slot went off without a hitch except to say that, due to a problem with the partner organisation’s cars we got to base camp a car short. It was expected to arrive the next day, driven by NABU’s Aman, after being repaired. When it did not arrive we waited, thinking that the serious nature of the problem might have resulted in a delay in Bishkek. When, by the afternoon of the next day Aman still hadn’t arrived, we set out to find a phone signal about an hour down the road towards Koshkor. We discovered that the car had left Bishkek the previous day. We discovered also that he had reached his birth village at the foot of the range that day. At this point I became concerned that he may have run into trouble, so we went on into the village to ask around.

The concensus in the village was that he had left that morning, but he had not made it to the base camp. All this took quite a while and it was dark by the time we all agreed that we would need to search. A slow and poorly lit drive back yielded no results despite numerous stops to peer into the deep gorges in the moonlight.

The next morning I told the team of the situation and the need to mount a potentially grizzly search for our colleague who had dissapeared without a trace. To their immense credit, everyone on the team stepped forward to participate in what could easily have turned into a very unpleasant task. A basic plan was formed and with the ready collaboration of the entire team we honed the search on the fly with one car canvasing locals while the other two slowly cruised the valley stopping to scan the deep floor at the bottom of the precipitous valley walls. Wherever a view of the bottom of the slope was not possible from the car, the car would stop and the searchers would fan out to investigate the valley floor. The other car would pass them and do the same at the next occluded view point. In this way they leap-frogged each other to the end of the valley. At the bottom of the range, as we gathered and I prepared to push further on into the flats below and raise an official search, a car appeared and we quickly realised that it was Aman. His breakes had begun to fail after leaving the village, as had his mobile phone, fully in line with Murphy’s law. For safety sake, he had headed back to fix this second car issue but no-one was the wiser. Needless to say he was surprised by the overly happy welcoming party that had come down the mountain to meet him. A very good ending, all things considered.

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

The best laid plans… The teams returned late yesterday with stories of awesome landscapes, uncrossable glacial torrents, bits of horse left rotting and some interesting interactions with curious wildlife…but no snow leopard.

The team that went to the original base camp valley had hoped to make camp in the general vicinity of the attack on the horse. When Rhys looked around his possition, he actually found a leg and then another a bit further away a third was found.

Pieces of horse

They had the spot and spent two days surveying out from there into any likely habitat they could reach. Unfortunately to no avail as far as the leopard was concerned. They were compensated, however, by the occurance of another major herders’ games event. During the last slot we were informed of an “annual” Herders’ Olympics downvalley from us. Well it seems that “annual” means fortnightly in these parts and so the team were met with huge crowds and even a media presence from Bishkek there to cover the games.

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The other team returned to the valley in which I had heard a the coughing sound and conducted a couple of days of hard survey, but again did not find any evidence of our animal. They did remark on the beuty of the place though and were accompanied by Talant our very helpful neighbour and some of his horses to carry gear and due to his seniority within that particular group, Meinhard got a horse to ride along with Talant and Kurmanbek (spelled correctly this time), one of our NABU participants.

Jhong Wen on horse Kyrgyz games5

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

We have decided to strike while the iron is hot. As you know, as a result of our recent interviews with local herders, we have discovered two very recent incidents involving alleged leopard attacks on young horses in two of the bigger and more remote valleys in this system. Each were within the fortnight or so and in response to the more local account, we investigated on horseback the site of an atttack. As we placed a camera beside a heavily used pass, the unmistakeable cough of what we surmised to be a big cat in the cliffs above could be heard. Whilst none of the party saw the animal, we are now fairly certain that there is a snow leopard in that location.

The more distant and more recent incident is in fact in the valley of the original base camp. The stories are very similar, with a young horse discovered dead with large puncture and crush wounds to the throat. This is highly typical of the leopard method of killing large prey, gripping the throat and asphixiating the quarry (there is a photo sequence of this killing method on http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/20/the-first-ever-successful-snow-leopard-hunt-and-kill-caught-on-camera/). The fact that a snow leopard will apparently abandon the kill at the slightest disturbance has led to the almost ubiquitously believed folk tale that the snow leopard is in fact drinking the blood of its prey rather than eating its flesh. Either way, large dead animals with “vampire-like” neck wounds can only mean one thing and the consistency of the stories as told by the herders who recently lost their horses, and by the wider community of herders throughout our huge survey region who’ve simply heard about those losses, suggests that we are not being led on a wild goose chase by folk who just want to tell us what we want to hear.

So, the hot iron… We have decided to split the team into two overnighters who will each attend an incident site and attempt to make a more thorough investigation of the environs surrounding the two kills. One team has returned to the valley of the original base camp and will atempt to get to the bottom of that story before heading further into the valley with Volodya. The other team has been deployed back into the valley that was the subject of my recent experience and will spend two days making a careful survey of its upper reaches. We have sent the FLIR thermographic equipment with the second team as they will be camping closer to the cliffs and will have a better chance to use the gear to best effect. The first team have a powerful spotting scope to scan the wider valley ends that they will face.

Your truly has remained at base camp with our awesome chef, Emma, as it represents a “central” point of contact that either group will be able to find me at should the need arise, rather than trying to locate me in either of the large ranges that each group will be negotiating.

For some reason I feel like this will be an exciting next couple of days… For the team at least. At least I’ll eat well…

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

Our neighbours from a yurt down the road reported that one of their young horses was killed by a leopard about two weeks ago. He offered to take us to the site of the attack on horseback to set up some camera traps. Today we took him up on his offer and what ensued was a hard ride up a long valley in sometimes driving snow and other times baking sun. When we got to the end of the valley, we ascended on foot beyond the moraine to a vegetated pass in a protected hollow below a small glacier. Signs of leopard prey were common and fresh with footprints and scat everywhere. While we were setting up the third camera, a small disturbance high above us sent some stones tumbling and a second or so later a percussive cough, characteristic of a leopard was clearly heard. The local guys believe that a mother and cubs are resident in this place from where they make hunting forays into the valley propper. I can’t wait to pick up those cameras with the last slot….

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

With a population density of one animal per 100 square kilometers, our chance of stumbling upon a snow leopard are rather low. Nevertheless, with the gear at our disposal and in the hands of this motivated team, we can go a long way towards assessing this landscape’s potential for harbouring our target creature. With the various optical scopes and binoculars we have seen many of the animals on the leopard’s menu and we’ve even seen fellow peak predators in the form of a lone wolf, sighted yesterday. It was a young wolf, which suggests a population in the active state of sustaining itself. The other predators we’ve seen are mostly eagles, which still speaks of a landscape capable of supporting a reasonable number of predators.

Testing our FLIR unit, we find that it will clearly display warm marmot mounds with their nervous tennants in the dead of night from over a hundred metres away, so I have high hopes that the upcoming overnighters will put it to good use on the cliffs and crags (leopard habitat) that their temporary camp will be established within easy sight of.

Yesterday, the team on the interview detail went out and visited a number of yurts. Kyrgyz hospitality is famous and also quite socially impossible to refuse. At each yurt we were invited inside and stuffed with bread and fermented horse milk and other delights until a number of us felt much the worse for wear. We discovered a great deal of consistent reportage of recent leopard incidents and the result is a fairly good idea of where a snow leopard and cubs are currently residing. We are heading there on horseback in the next few days to place camera traps, inching ever closer to our object of desire. Will we get there during the 2014 expedition?

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

We woke up after an especially chilly night to find the mountains surrounding the camp were dusted with fresh snow. It is all gone now but it was impressive to see and it explained the need for the extra layers.

Fresh dusting Denis

The little stream beside the base camp is deceptively placid looking. Today, the team went on a preliminary field survey to help them find their feet.

First survey slot 5 Deniss

After crossing the creek, glacier-fed from only a couple of kilometers away, it was harder to find their feet than many expected. Some, including our excellent Kyrgyz placement Aliashkar, actually had to get visual confirmation that they were still attached to their legs! No-one fell in though, despite the fact that the last metre of the crossing was very swift and finding good ground with numb toes is not an easy task. The video of our first overnighter at below shows you what a river crossing looks like.

Today I also introduced a piece of awesome technology to the team. The thermography company, FLIR, have lent me one of their quite amazing field units. This device images the world in terms of the heat differences in the landscape. Subtle differences in temperature of fractions of a degree are rendered clearly visible. Mammals of course, being warm-bodied, stand out clearly against the cool alpine background. Perfect, I explained to FLIR, for finding warm white things in the snow at night. We will send the unit out into the field in the coming days, but I expect its greatest utility to be discovered on the overnighters when the team will have the time and the proximity to scan the rocky ends of the valleys from close up. Thanks to FLIR for this generous loan.

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

The first day of the fourth slot of the Tien Shan snow leopard expedition was an early test of the team member’s metel. Intel recieved prior to our departure from Bishkek indicated that the terrible tunnel at the top of the main pass into our mountains was the subject of some major works and that a four hour delay could be expected. A quick survey of our new group revealed that we were blessed with a plethora of experienced 4×4 drivers, including a park ranger and some who had completed a 4×4 training course. Just as well because we now had the option of taking our heavily laden cars over the alternate route, which we had discovered on the previous slot. It is by far a more interesting route and as we skirted within metres of the Kazakhstan border and on up into the range beside Lake Issyk Kul, we were treated to some awesome scenery and some great windows into Kyrgyz culture not as evident on the route, which we were now avoiding.

kyrgyz alatoo

As we approached our entry valley we could see that the conditions, which till now were fine, were about to take a turn for the worse. Ahead was a thick dark weather system that clad the entire range down to the foothills. We ascended the valley and negotiated the tricky bits easily. Our drivers didn’t break a sweat, partly because of their experience and partly because it was freezing. When we approached the top, the cloud was so thick that we had to crawl along at a snail’s pace with our hazard lights flashing just to see the car ahead.

fog

It was on the decent that the real test came. The last car came on over the radis ond said they could smell a problem. We stopped and foung that car three had a completely flat tyre and was now running on a rim. The smell was the shredding rubber.

flat-tyre

The team came together then and in the freezing gale and 20 metre visibility, we jacked up the vehicle and with some effort and no feeling in our fingers replaced the wheel. It was a great introduction to the team into the valley that would be their home for the next two weeks. Go team!

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