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.
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.
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!
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.
First off, I’d like to say a big thank you to all the members of group 2: Yryskeldi, Andy, Carol, Brian Martin, Franzesca, Christof, Christina, Christore, Amy (from the UK), Amy (from the US), Maria and Sven. You made the last two weeks very enjoyable and successful by working well as a team!
Our first day of training held perfect weather, but just like in group 1, our first day out in the field had stormy skies in store. But unlike group 1, the weather would continue to be wet for another few days. On Thursday we decided to try and dig the snow off the high mountain pass between the East and West Karakol river valleys and make an attempt to reach Dong Alysh, the first village along the road. An hour of snow digging later (and a few blisters here and there) and we had opened the road! In Dong Alysh we met with some local partners who will be continuing our camera trapping efforts throughout the rest of the year (thank you to the Nando Peretti Foundation for supporting this). We also got the chance to visit the natural history museum in the local school. In the end, the bad weather allowed us a great opportunity to open the pass, meet our local partners and visit the museum.
Now that the pass was open, it was time to get busy on the other side…as long as the weather held out. Fortunately, the rain had passed and we were left with clear beautiful skies. Splitting into three groups each day, we were able to make up for lost time at the beginning and saw more than 30 ibex, an army of marmots, and lots of wonderful birds, butterflies, and petroglyphs. The snow leopard kept away, but we are hopeful that the camera traps we’ve been setting will catch one! More on this during later groups.
On the last day of the expedition, we decided to take a trip to the NABU rehabilitation centre, where injured snow leopards and other wildlife are nursed back to health. Seeing the work NABU is doing to take care of wild animals rescued from poachers was inspiring for all of us and made us realise that we are part of something bigger in snow leopard and wildlife conservation.
Group 2 was full of amazing people, experiences and memories. Thank you again. Looking forward to group 3 starting 31 July!
Group 1 is safely back in Bishkek, after an excellent fortnight in the mountains with a great group. Thank you all!
We found 1.5 snow leopard signs, saw plenty of ibex and other wildlife, amazing wildflowers and landscapes, and were so lucky with the weather too.
But I will let the videos below speak for themselves. These were done by Matthias, so from now on it will be text and pictures only every fortnight when we change over in Bishkek, but I think the videos will last all of us for the expedition’s duration.
Thank you again to group 1 of Adnan, Cate, Gina, Jannis, Lisa, Matthias, Nadia, Neil, Nitin, Shruti, Uli, Urmas, the Grupa Bars members Aman and Shailo, our scientist Volodya and our amazing cook Gulia, as well as Biosphere Expeditions staff Tessa, Amadeus & Matthias.
See you on Monday, group 2! You have big boots to fill 😉
This by special courier from the mountains (from group 2 onwards, there will only be an update/summary every two weeks as groups change over in Bishkek).
Group 1 has arrived, gone to the mountains, put up the yurt, had its training sessions and conducted its first week of field surveys. Many ibex, marmots, birds and other wildlife have been spotted, but there is no sign of our quarry yet. But then snow leopard research & conservation is a long game. All is well with the team in the mountains.