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

Five years on from the initial pledge from twelve nations at the “Snow Leopard Conservation and the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme” forum, Biosphere Expeditions continues to contribute to snow leopard protection in Kyrgyzstan. Their snow leopard conservation expedition to the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range, in close cooperation with NABU Kyrgyzstan, gives local people and international citizen scientists the chance to come and play an active and hands-on part in the conservation of this iconic species.

2017 saw the twelve countries reconvene in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to update the status of their pledges of five years ago. Controversially, and not supported by Biosphere Expeditions, some experts called for the IUCN status of the snow leopard to be changed from Endangered to Vulnerable, even though only 2% of the snow leopard’s range has been studied scientifically.

Biosphere Expeditions’ study has yielded important results in a region that has not been studied properly since the 1980s. A report to the Kyrgyz government is being prepared by the expedition scientist Dr. Volodymyr Tytar for 2018. This report will recommend that Kyrgyz Ala Too be protected as a wildlife sanctuary, specifically to benefit the snow leopard.

The snow leopard, like many species, is threatened by poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. One goal formulated in Bishkek is the 20/20 pledge – to protect 20 snow leopard landscapes that have over 100 breeding adults by 2020, and to promote sustainable development in areas where the species lives.

“This is as big as it gets in terms of top-level conservation news”, says Dr. Tytar, “and it is a privilege to be part of the challenge, together with my colleagues in field science, local people and international citizen scientists, to preserve this iconic cat. But what we do goes far beyond a single cat species, beautiful as it is in its own right, because successful species conservation is all about creating positive impact well beyond the target species, namely for those people that share their daily lives and landscapes with the snow leopard. As specified in the Conservation Strategy for Snow Leopard in Russia, 2012-2022, much can be achieved in the socio-economic context of snow leopard conservation by ‘…developing collaborations with such internationally known organisations as Biosphere Expeditions…’ (p.81). And this is exactly what we have set out do with our research expedition here in Kyrgyzstan, which I am very proud of”, Dr. Tytar adds.

“Four of the key themes at the Bishkek conference as ways forward in snow leopard conservation were private conservation initiatives, local involvement, capacity-building and ecotourism”, says Dr. Tytar. “Our project ticks all those boxes beautifully in an expedition that does it all. Funded by the private donations of our citizen science participants, we involve local people and organisations and bring benefits to herders and other people on the ground. For us these are the key factors to ensure the future of the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan and elswhere”, Dr. Tytar concludes.

Over the past four years, Dr. Tytar has been able to produce GIS models that transform collected data into visual representations that suggest locations within the study site that are suitable habitat for snow leopards. “Using these models we have been able to find sings of both snow leopard prey species and the snow leopard itself,” says Dr. Tytar. “With each new year’s data we are refining the model and gaining a better understanding of the snow leopard population within the Kyrgyz Ala Too Range.”

A new initiative to gather more data for more of the year was started this summer also. Community members from the surrounding area were trained in camera trapping techniques in order to extend the study season another six months. Essentially, these community members will continue to monitor camera traps within the Kyrgyz Ala Too before and after future expeditions. “This new incentive will be a great opportunity for local communities to learn more about their natural habitat and become more interested in many aspects of conservation,” suggested Jana Schweizer, a citizen scientist from the USA.

Key points of future Biosphere Expeditions snow leopard expedition to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan are:

1. Continue to evaluate and map the current status of snow leopard populations in the Kyrgyz Ala too range.

2. The fifth expedition will take place between June and August 2018 and will continue to work in close co-operation with the Bishkek office of German conservation organisation NABU (Naturschutzbund = nature conservation alliance) and its “Gruppa Bars”, an anti-poaching and snow leopard ranger group, as well as the newly created community monitoring group.

3. Local people, community monitors as well as student placements, as well as international citizen science volunteers from around the world will continue to join in the effort and, through their collective effort and funding, make it possible. Anyone can take part and details about the expedition and how to join are at www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan.

A picture selection from the expedition is below

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Maldives: Bleaching devastates vulnerable inner, sheltered reefs, whilst the more resilient outer reefs with stronger currents, bounce back

Two Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check survey teams have been laying underwater transects over a two-week period from 15 – 28 July 2017 in order to get a clearer idea of the impact of the April/May 2016 bleaching event. Biosphere Expeditions has been collecting these types of data from Ari atoll since 2011, visiting the same sites repeatedly in order to create a reliable dataset.

It was soon apparent that many inner reef sites had not recovered from the bleaching and that hard coral had reduced dramatically to an average of only 8% . Over time, many of these corals will be broken down into rubble, so it is essential that grazers – parrotfish and surgeonfish continue to do the job of cleaning the dead coral of algae, in order to allow new coral ‘recruits’ to settle on the old dead coral.

However, fish stocks are depleted too. Important fish, such as parrotfish (for grazing the reef of algae that colonise corals after death) and grouper (an important food fish), were recorded, but not in any great numbers, which is another cause for concern. Grouper numbers, for example, were woefully low, with densities averaging only about 1 individual per 100 sqm of reef. Parrotfish, on the other hand, were abundant, sometimes reaching densities of 14 individuals per 100 sqm – densities at which the fish should be able to graze away the emerging algae.

Hope for inner reef remains in some isolated spots, such as Holiday thilla, to the south of Ari atoll, where many coral recruits were recorded. Overall, though, the picture was one of coral death, destruction and decline.

The picture was more encouraging for outer reefs that are more heavily dominated by Porites colonies. Here, much of the reef appeared to have totally recovered from the heating in 2016, with hard coral cover at an average of 38%.

The second half of the expedition visited sites further afield in Vaavu Atoll, attempting to glean information from historic survey sites first surveyed in the late 1990s.

Here too there was a mix of good and largely bad news, with healthy sites generally located in more exposed and southerly locations on atolls.

The expedition was joined by Maldivians and an international team of fee-paying citizen scientists. Maldivians ranged from members of the new NGO Reef Check Maldives , created as a result of Biosphere Expeditions’ placement and capacity-building programme for local people, to consultant marine ecologists, government staff, and Maldivians working for the tourist industry.

We are encouraged by the keen participation of our Maldivian colleagues and look forward to seeing go Reef Check Maldives from strength to strength. Because this is what is needed in the absence of any sensible government strategy that balances economic development against protecting the reef foundation on which the country itself, as well as its economy, identity and culture is built on: Civil society stepping up where the government is failing its people to protect the nation’s reefs and with it the nation’s wellbeing.

The expedition is kindly supported by the Marine Conservation Society and The Rufford Foundation.

A selection of pictures from the expedition is below.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

Hello everyone

With a week to go before the expeditions starts, it’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader in South Africa this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this project.

I am not on route yet, but I am in the midst of preparations. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, and Dr. Alan Lee, our project scientist for the duration of the expedition. It’s great to be returning to work with Alan (and his family) for a third year. I’ll save the rest of the introductions until later next week, so they are fresh in your memory.

Craig (front) and Alan (back)

I am guessing many of you, like me, are in a whirl of preparation and beginning to think about packing your bags. So I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in my adopted home – Scotland!

Hopefully you have also seen the recently published 2016 South Africa expedition report, so will have an idea of some of the planned activities. This also is my opportunity to flag up our expanding bat survey work. As this year, in the spirit of citizen science, we are hoping to turn your iPad or iPhone (if you are travelling with them) into a bat detector.

I’ll leave you to continue your preparations and will be in touch later this week from South Africa. I look forward to meeting group 1 next weekend.

Safe travels…

Craig
Expedition leader

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

What an end to the 2017 Tian Shan expedition! Group 4 was fantastic and we were able to cover a lot of ground during the second week, even with frozen mornings every day.

When I last wrote, we were in Dong Alysh enjoying the zoological museum. On our return to base we found out that it had been snowing all morning, but the afternoon sun had melted everything. So we all got ready the next day for our first full day out in the valley across the river from base camp, Kashka Tor. We split into three groups to cover lots of ground and pushed ourselves hard – and did not stop for the next few days of surveys either.

Our by then well-earnt day off was spent at Kolya’s yurt. This is just a bit to the west of base camp and we spent a good amount of time riding horses and even learning some fun horse tricks.

Monday was next and we meant business. We started cranking through cells one by one really quickly. One of our groups also had two community camera trapping members come up from the village of Dong Alysh for training on camera trapping. They were able to set four camera traps that day on a ridge line near base camp.


‌And then, right towards the end of the expedition, one of the valleys in which we have surveyed in each group came up aces. The east side of Chong Chikan held four separate places with snow leopard tracks and some very fresh wolf scat and tracks. What a way to end the season! Volodya was of course very excited to have seen both species co-inhabiting and competing for resources in the same place where we knew it was happening.

‌Friday was spent packing up base camp and then having a super last evening together with local neighbours joining us for a bonfire.

‌So in the end, group 4 covered 56 cells and had two ibex sightings, a snowcock sighting, and then most amazingly, wolf and snow leopard sign in the same place.

I would like to end this expedition diary by saying thank you to everyone. You expeditioners could have spent your summer lying on a beach somewhere. Instead you chose to help us – and Kyrgyzstan and snow leopard / nature conservation. Thank you so much for this and for all the effort and resources you put in – it really is very much appreciated by all involved, whether it’s Biosphere Expeditions, NABU or the local people. Thank you also to NABU and of course the Grupa Bars representatives Aman and Shiloo. Gulya – you have been an amazing cook and really made the expedition complete. Volodya – thank you for being our superb scientist answering all our questions. And thank you to all the local people who have helped, hosted us, talked to us and shown an interest in our work. And last but not least, thank you Biosphere Expeditions for being the NGO you are and making it all possible for all of us.

I hope to see many of you again, somewhere, sometime on this beautiful planet of ours.

Best wishes

Amadeus
Expedition leader

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

Ever since the gale force winds at the end of group 3, the weather here has been quite strange. We left Bishkek on a cool Monday morning. Once we arrived at base, there was plenty of work to do. Aman and Shailoo both went to the neighbour to help take down their yurt so we could reassemble it at base. Everyone else got busy finishing up the cleaning job left from group 3’s storm. That evening we all got settled in and ended the night with a large pot of Ukrainian borscht made by Volodya.

The next day is usually a training day, but the circumstances required a bit of a change. We spent the first half of the day putting up the new yurt and switching the old yurt to become Gulya’s new kitchen area. The base camp looked great again! At the same time as the yurt setup, some of the group drove down the valley to the opening ceremony of a new NABU snow leopard statue. Tolkunbek, the local director of NABU, was very glad that we made the effort to have Biosphere Expeditions represented at this ceremony.

Wednesday got started early with training in methodology, equipment, and camera trapping followed by a short half day out in Sary Kul. We thought our first day out tradition would continue with rain, but although the clouds threatened, the weather stayed clear.

But that did not last through the night. Waking up this morning, we were surrounded by snow. Our initial plan of surveying Irii Suu and Takyr Tor just was not be feasible in such conditions, so plan B took immediate effect and now we’re here in Dong Alysh at the zoological museum, working with our local partners on camera trap training and hoping that tomorrow’s weather will be clear and beautiful so we can get started with our full day surveys.

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

When we last checked in, we were in the zoological museum in the village of Dong Alysh on the other side of the pass from our camp. Seeing such an impressive museum in such a small village was reassuring for us all as it means that the young people in the area are learning about their natural environment and why it is important, and keeping this heritage with them throughout adulthood. Jana from the USA said, “Its amazing that such a museum even exists out here!”

While we were away at the museum, it had actually snowed at base camp, but by the time we were back it was all melted and the clouds cleared up to start drying things out. The weather had finally turned in our favour.

Sunday was our day off and we made good use of it by washing and drying all our damp clothes, bathing in the river, and then spending the afternoon at a neighbour’s yurt for a late lunch mixed in with some horse riding. One of our expeditioners, Kate from New Zealand, has been riding horses her whole life and the looks on all the local Kyrgyz herdsmen’s faces when she started riding the “feisty” horse were priceless! They were shocked! Aman, one of our guides, showed us how he could reach down from horseback and grab a hat while galloping. By the end of the meal, we almost had to be rolled back to basecamp. All in all the day off was as perfect as it could be.

Surveys started right back up again with the weather cooperating nicely. On Wednesday we were able to send out an overnight group to collect some camera traps that group 1 had set up during their overnighter. Some herders came up to Volodya during the overnighter trip to tell him that one of their foals had been attacked by a snow leopard that week and wanted to know if we had found any other evidence of the cat. In fact we did find evidence of a cat…but of a lynx! On the camera trap in the same valley as the herders had their foal attacked, a lynx decided to pose beautifully in front of the camera trap. “This is something extraordinary!” Volodya said.

Friday we had a half day survey as the local herders were going to have a game of Kok Boru, or as many of us started calling it, “Kyrgyz polo”. This is a traditional nomadic game played on horseback and can get very exciting! The game was great and then abruptly ended as everyone saw some large dark clouds rolling in from down the valley. We all quickly ran back to basecamp and sheltered in the yurt. When the storm reached us, we quickly realised that this was no ordinary storm…it was a full-blown hurricane and it took all of us holding the yurt together to keep it from flying away. Both our mess tent and Gulya’s wonderfully organised kitchen tent were lifted up and ripped apart by the wind and hail. We watched through openings of the yurt as our basecamp was destroyed in less than 15 minutes of strong winds. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, all the personal tents held strong, and nothing of value (other than our two large tents) was lost. A standing ovation to group 3 members who, as soon as the wind had died down, were all outside cleaning up the aftermath. Our large mess tents have to be ordered in, so group 4, we’ll hire a yurt from a neighbour to house the kitchen and mess tent area.

I’ll wrap up this entry by sharing group 3’s recordings. We were able to survey 49 cells, had 5 direct sightings of ibex, 26 cells had signs of marmot presence, 7 cells with snowcock sign, 1 new species of butterfly for the region (Karanasa kirgisorum), over 150 petroglyph recordings taken, many camera trap photos of ibex, but perhaps most excitingly, images of a lynx in a location where traditionally they are not thought to live! One more group to get something snowleopardy!

Thank you so much group 3! Three down, one more to go. See you Monday, group 4.

 

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

Today is stormy with rain and snow, so we decided to take a trip to the zoology a museum on the other side of the Karakol pass in Doing Alysha, which is where I’m now writing from.

Meeting up with group 3 in Bishkek went perfectly. Now that the Karakol pass between our two valleys has been cleared of snow by group 2, it was possible to travel the shorter route to base camp from Bishkek. Once at base we unloaded groceries and got everyone settled in. Training on Tuesday held perfect weather again, so in an effort to keep traditions alive, we made sure that on our first day out for a survey, it rained. The weather cooperated all day till just after lunch when the clouds rolled in and the thunder started. Fortunately, the rain was only short-lived and everything dried up quickly for an all-round good survey. We have already, in only two survey days, collected information in 12 cells, seen one ibex (and lots of ibex sign), countless marmots, and plenty of birds, butterflies, and petroglyphs. Hoping for many more sunny survey days next week!

And the office tells me that the article by Matthias Gräub (group 1) in Swiss magazine “Tierwelt” (animal world) is now online on https://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/volunteeringinkyrgyzstan#press , alongside many others.

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

One of the questions on a Reef Check site description form is ‘Is this the best reef in the area?’ Distressed by our recurrent findings of unhealthy degraded reefs, we decided to go in search of just that, so on 26 July, after consulting the knowledgeable crew of our research vessel, we surveyed Litholu Kandu, an outer reef on the far eastern tip of Vaavu Atoll. We were not disappointed. This may not have been a pristine reef, but in comparison to what we had been seeing, it was a sight for sore eyes. As we headed north we found that the reefs once again were suffering, and these weren’t just the inner reefs, but the outer reefs as well.

On 27 July we performed our whale shark transect, but were not as fortunate as last week, and no whale sharks were sighted. But a large pod of around 50 spinner dolphins put on a great show of leaping and spinning, really playing up to their name.

For our final day the weather turned and our last transect, on a particularly silted reef, we battled with the wind, rain and poor visibility. The site we were surveying in Embudhu, South Male’, previously had 30% hard coral cover (in 2012), but now foreign investors in conjunction with the ministry of tourism here in the Maldives are reclaiming 7 km of land to build tourist islands akin to those in Dubai. As if the reefs aren’t having to cope with enough already! It was a sad way to end our week, but another example of why these surveys are really important, and why the world, and the Maldives, really need to wake up to what is going on just below the surface!

And what is going on is that inner reefs are devastated. Outer reefs aren’t in the places we’ve been to. If you look at IUCN ratings, over 30% cover is OK, so there may be opportunities for some recovery, but the problem is that impacts just keep increasing – sedimentation, pollution, ocean warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, you name it, it’s all here in the Maldives, which is why the inner reefs are indeed knackered and may not recover…..and this is of course where most of the resorts are….

We’ve been coming here since 2011 and even in this short time things have become much worse. Unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what they are doing to their reefs, which are after all the basis for everything in the country, including the very country itself, then greed, ignorance, apathy and short-sightedness will win the day and kill the reefs – and with it much of the country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. There’s no nice way to put this. What we are documenting is the rapid decline of a country in more ways than one.

Thank you to a fantastic team who have worked really hard in the face of an ecological crisis. This was the first time that Biosphere Expeditions has run an expedition for those already trained in Reef Check protocols and methodology, and it has been a great success. To be able to get to work quickly after a brief refresher, and to travel to distant locations has been a real bonus. It has also been great for participants of previous expeditions to meet up with old friends, and to make new ones. Everyone hopes that other diving destinations will follow suit and if they do, I hope to see you all in another location continuing the good work!

We would also like to thank the fantastic crew of our research vessel. The food has been amazing, and the knowledge and skill of the dive guides has really helped the whole operation run smoothly. A special thank you to Inthi, for being flexible and accommodating at all times.

So until next year… we wish the Maldivian reefs a year of recovery. `They need all the luck and help they can get.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

To continue in the general trend, Vaavu Atoll has, so far, heralded a mixture of good and bad news for the reef. Fotteyo, the first site we surveyed on 24 July was a welcome example of a healthy reef, even though it was an inner reef. Could this be because it was uninhabited, we wondered?

Our second site caused some consternation as the latitude and longitude of the historic data we were using, didn’t match up to the name of the reef we were supposed to be surveying. We stuck with the lat/longs but were disappointed when we found most of the coral dead. The following morning, just to corroborate our findings and to make sure that we had covered all our bases, we also surveyed the actual Maaduvaree reef (across the channel from the lat/longs we had), in the hope that we may find a completely different story, but it was only marginally healthier. The upside was that there was a resident pod of spinner dolphins in the area and a couple of the team, Lori and Farah actually saw them underwater during the dive. For those who missed them, a stunning double rainbow, caused by a sudden downpour lifted the spirits of everyone else.

On the way to our next site, Vattaru, we dropped in to witness a school of reef sharks, some of them visibly pregnant, and then continued on to survey another completely uninhabited island reef. We had high hopes, due to our experience at Fotteyo, but here, the sub-aquatic picture was completely different. This reef was made up of individual coral outcrops, some of which were healthy with some evidence of new recruits, but the majority of the rest of the site was dominated by rock, rubble and sand. There was also some indication of recent bleaching and bleaching in progress, which was unsurprising as the water temperature was 31 degrees Celsius – too hot for coral to tolerate.

Tomorrow, 26 July, we will continue to survey the reefs of Vaavu Atoll, and do our best to document what is going on in this underwater ecosystem. We are trying to remain positive, but what we have seen so far of the Maldivian reefs, reveals a story of very significant degradation.

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

Interim science report (groups 1 and 2) from our expedition scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar.

Dr. Volodya Tytar

To date all sectors (A, B, C, D and E) of the planned study area have been visited. Maps of these areas are available at https://app.box.com/s/aars70mqox56bd6dmzbwa9wn2yhxb2wk).

In total 72 cells have been surveyed by both teams (groups 1 and 2) and in 34 cells (47%) snow leopard prey (Siberian ibex, marmots, Himalayan snowcock) was recorded once or more times. The most frequent records are of marmot, particularly at lower altitudes. Together there have been 12 observations of live ibex on ridges, alongside with numerous records of tracks and droppings in places reached on foot.

Two or perhaps three signs of snow leopard presence were found. One scat sample (cell T17), one doubtful track (AF20) and one fairly distinct pugmark in mud (recorded in cell AF21).

For the first time live observations of ibex in Kyrgyzstan were accomplished (thanks to Sven Pelka from slot 2, Germany) using a drone.

Ground surveys (particularly in slot 2 when snow fields encountered in slot 1 were melting away) revealed ibex presence in areas of predicted good habitat (from surveys in previous years and the models developed from there, see expedition reports in www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports) suitability for the animals. These, in particular, are upper reaches of valleys (together with the adjacent ridges) of Chon-Chikan (cells AC15 and AD16), Kara-Tor (AH14, AI15) and Dunguruma (AL14). These results will significantly help to improve the model used for guiding and planning our research in the area.

In all places where ibex activity was recorded, camera traps were set. To date there are 14 such traps in the field. It will be the task of groups 3 and 4 to check and retrieve them by the end of the expedition.

To date the expedition has also recorded 42 bird species (or two-thirds of the list of 2016). Amongst them are such Red Data Book species as the bearded vulture, golden eagle, black stork, which are protected in Kyrgyzstan.

Team members also continue to interview locals for the purpose of ascertaining attitudes towards snow leopards and snow leopard conservation. Nine such interviews have been accomplished so far. In general, they confirm positive attitudes and understanding of the need to protect snow leopards.