I have just returned from 3.5 weeks in Kyrgyzstan where I lead 13 volunteers and 4 staff on the Snow Leopard expedition for Biosphere Expeditions.
Base camp was in the remoteness of the Tien Shan mountains at about 2800m. Every day we would go out on treks taking us well above 3000m in the search of snow leopard prints and other signs, setting camera traps, investigating signs of prey species and other animals and interviewing locals to collect as much data as possible on the biodiversity of this wonderful landscape.
Below is my write-up for the last diary entry at the end of the slot, originally published on Biosphere Exieditions’s blog. If you follow the link you will find some additional photo and a time lapse video that I took while we were taking the camp down.
08 August 2015
The last seven hours drive from base camp back to Bishkek marks the end of the 4th and last slot of the 2015 Tien Shan expedition studying the elusive snow leopard.
After the final two weeks’ work surrounded by the amazing Kyrgyz mountain landscape and having made new friends, it is hard to say final goodbyes, but everybody is proud of the legacy they have left behind on this last group: 32 surveyed cells, 18 mammals datasheets filled, 3 direct observations of ibex (also recorded on camera traps) and two additional species of birds (adding to the total of 48 species recorded throughout the entire 2015 Tien Shan expedition period), make for some impressive results.
And what a last team that was! From the very first day everybody settled in quickly and enthusiastically, learning swiftly (helped by old hands Ellen and Vincent, thanks!) and then logging direct sightings of ibex on the very first survey.
We did not record any sign of snow leopard as on the slots before, but plenty of prey species and other environmental data. As our scientist Volodya says, even zero signs recorded in a given cell represent important data (especially in revisited cells) as lack of wildlife signs in cells where it was recorded before helps us understand the direct influence of human presence and the impact of disturbances such as herders and their livestock moving to higher grounds as the snows melted and fresh grass ran out lower down (making a good case for setting up conservation areas to reduce human interference on wildlife). In fact, the melting of the snow allowed to us to survey areas that were previously inaccessible to the preceding slots, driving the 4x4s over and across hair-raising mountain pass roads and onto new valleys. We definitely put those off-road driving skills learned to good practice.
One of the highlights of the slot was witnessing a whole herd of ibex (we counted 10+ on 31st July) moving across a mountain ridge visible from Donguruma valley. A relatively short walk took us to 3618 m, from where we watched the ibexes in awe through our binoculars. Volodya later explained to us that this is repeated behaviour observed in this area where ibex tend to move from one valley to the next when disturbed.
Our last survey walk of the season was a trip to Issyk-ata Pass and Chunchikan valley to retrieve the last four camera traps. Unfortunately the camera traps from Issyk-ata only yielded photos of fellow volunteers (camera set-up & retrieval selfie time!) and empty landscape. However, after two weeks out in snow leopard territory, the camera traps from Chunchikan valley provided us with some good photos of a young ibex and a couple of interesting videos of another (or maybe the same) ibex going past the device and shaking its fluffy tail at us.
We also had the excitement of our toilet tent disappearing twice. Our detective work found that one of the neighbouring cows had unsuccessfully tried to use it! It was queues in the mornings after that with only one last toilet tent standing, but luckily we had no more cow incidents.
Special thanks to all our volunteers who put so much effort towards this expedition, our field scientist Volodya for sharing his knowledge and insights and for leading us through his work, to our local partners NABU and especially our two experienced and trusty Kyrgyz of the Gruppa Bars and last but not least our champion cook Emma.
Lots more photos of Kyrgyzstan on my Kyrgyzstan Flickr album.