Elusive Snow Leopards in the Celestial Mountains

July 22 2018

With Biosphere Expeditions, a group of citizen scientists will be surveying the Tien Shan mountains for signs of snow leopards, their prey and setting up remote cameras to better understand the movement of these elusive creatures in order to protect their populations.

July 22 2018

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Mission Underway


Today was our day off, which my quads are quite grateful for! Our Sunday of rest centred on watching our shepherd neighbours play a traditional sport, Buzkashi, and the events that naturally follow thereafter.

Buzkashi is popular and well known in Central Asia, though it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. One of our neighbours galloped into camp, took a large knife from the kitchen yurt, and then headed out of sight over a hill. We all sat expectantly on the slope of a hill, and watched as this same herder emerged out into the open flat with a head-less and hoof-less fresh goat carcass, and the rest of the neighbours on horseback. The goat was dropped off in the far distance, and a rock dropped close to us to mark a sole goalpost, and what ensued was an hour and a half of what I can only really describe as a rule-less game of rugby… But instead of a ball there was a goat carcass, and instead of tackling there was wrestling on horseback, and with the added tension of dogs nipping at the hands swooping down from the horseback to attempt to pick up the 30 kilogram carcass. There were falls, one even in the river because the game has no physical boundaries, a flip, a concussion, a dislocated elbow, and a displaced audience as six horses barrelled rapidly toward us.

Once the game was over, it was resourcefully followed by many different courses of the same tenderised goat, topped off with some fizzy fermented mare’s milk. While I opted not to have either, I did try a dried yoghurt ball which I concluded tasted like fresh udder, a taste I have clearly not acquired. Perhaps I’m not that adventurous after all.

We will be interviewing these neighbours at a later date to assess their perception of snow leopards in the area, so a bit of sociable facetime beforehand is always helpful.

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The home of the snow leopard is on the ancient trading route the Silk Road, where today numerous petroglyphs - stick-like rock carvings depicting animals and humans - are found throughout. Herders can even be spotted scanning the land with metal detectors in hopes of finding treasures!

With bureaucratic challenges on all fronts to protecting the land for snow leopards alone, cultural heritage is another, and potentially easier, route to land protection, especially with the tourism industry growing and delivering direct economic opportunity to locals.

So not only are we looking for signs of our furry friends, but also these incredible markers of historical megafauna. We are logging these in a nifty citizen science app, Lapis Guides, built by our expedition leader Amadeus DeKastle, as well as butterflies. The research of the latter concerns the presence of non-alpine butterflies in alpine areas as an early indicator of the effects of climate change on the ecosystem.

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Our task for the expedition is to survey and set camera traps across the surrounding valleys of basecamp, in order to understand the population of snow leopard in the area, it’s prey, and secondary prey - noting presence or absence, because no food means no leopards. This is all done through the cell methodology - which is explained by Biosphere Expeditions found Dr. Matthias Hammer in the video.

In practice this means looking for sightings and signs of recent activity of snow leopards, ibex, argali, snow cock and marmots. It is worth adding that all of these animals are particularly well camouflaged - the two images below (copyright of amazing photographer Inger Vandyke, taken in Ladakh, India) give you an idea of just how infamously hard snow leopards are to see, even if you are close to them. Give it a go, I promise you you'll be staring for minutes...

It's not just the leopards though. For a brief window of time, almost daily, I’m very excited to spot what turns out to be a rock. Rocks tumbled through snow also look remarkably like tracks, go figure.

Each day we are hiking a different valley, climbing elevations up to 4,000m over the morning to the glacier top where stop for lunch, set up or take down camera traps, and head back down. The terrain varies from gentle rolling grassy knolls to scaling moraine and negotiating loose rock scree underfoot with distances up to 16km. Thank goodness for robust boots!

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Preparation Stage


Our basecamp is an eight hour drive from Bishkek, and lucky for us being the second of two expedition groups, camp was mostly already set up. There are three yurts, one containing a kitchen that amazingly has a gas oven and cooktop; another with a wood stove that is used mostly for drying shoes and thermals, and occasionally for huddling on cold nights; and the last our communal yurt which holds expedition progress maps, wildlife books, a whiteboard, snacks, and a long table with benches either side - our new classroom, pantry, library, study, living and dining room in one. A truck used to transport the basecamp from Bishkek has morphed into an elaborate expedition “office” with regional maps, gear and paperwork all neatly aligned. We each have a comfortable tent to ourselves - luxury!

Our group of citizen scientists is intimidatingly interesting, comprised of zoologists, biology teachers, botanists, photographers and writers as well as hobbyist archaeologists and geologists. There is much to talk about and many to learn from.

We are joined by Expedition leader Amadeus DeKastle, Expedition scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar, and two Kyrgyz guides Bek and Beka (the name thing gets confusing between the three of us!) who also work for Biosphere associated NGO NABU in their anti-poaching unit, as well as a friendly group of neighbouring herders across the valley who appear in the evenings on horseback with their dogs.

Dinners and breakfasts at basecamp are lovingly prepared by our cook Goulya. I was delighted to read in the pre-trip dossier that due to the conservation nature of the expedition all meals Goulya cooked are vegetarian, a welcomed relief from the perennial state of inconveniencing group meals with 13 years meat-free!

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Packing for a trip of this magnitude is difficult! Being summer in Kyrgyzstan, and based on reports of the citizen science expedition group before us, it's time to cater to all weathers, including 35 degree temperatures in the day, below zero at night, wet weather and alpine snow storms! Layers, layers, layers... Here's a little video update from London on what my packing looks like right now!

I'm leaving for Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, tomorrow where I'll be meeting the rest of the volunteers and our guides. How exciting!

Expedition Background


As part of Biosphere Expedition's citizen science volunteering trip, I will be joined by 11 other volunteers, and scientists in venturing high into the beautiful Tien Shan (translation: Celestial) Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. We are united in our passion for nature and wildlife conservation, and are embarking on our adventure principally in the interests of better understanding the populations and behaviours of the elusive snow leopard. The objectives of the trip are:

(1) To estimate snow leopard numbers and activity through field signs, by tracking and observation.

(2) To assess the status and distribution of their prey species such as the Tien Shan argali and the Central Asian ibex.

(3) To survey small animals, such as marmots, and birds.

(4) To involve local people in snow leopard conservation through education, capacity-building and the creation of economic benefits.


The snow leopard is a notoriously shy creature. Estimations of the populations vary from 3,500-7,000, with difficulty in measuring due to the elusive pattern of its movements that each cover a home range of 100 square kilometres, and span 12 different countries - Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The challenges that face snow leopards are wide and systemic - human-wildlife killings due to retribution or perceptions of threat to livestock, a vastly shrinking habitat as the human population and its needs grow, climate change continues, migratory paths being blocked due to infrastructure and development projects, and of course the black market trade. The extent of illegal selling and trafficking is unknown, though in countries such as Kyrgyzstan where 25% live below the poverty line and there is little economic opportunity outside of the capital, and with snow leopard pelts and products fetching handsome sums in China, the fine is insufficient at deterring the economic temptation to relieve poverty.

With snow leopards being solitary creatures that cover such a vast area, protecting it is key to their genetic diversity, though presently only 6% of the land they live in is currently protected land. To add another layer of environmental and political complexity, the expanse snow leopards reside in also provides one third of the global population’s fresh water. These challenges weigh heavy, and with border conflicts, limited funding, and trying to reach consensus and drive progress and international cooperation between numerous governments and NGOs, ensuring protection of the snow leopard is no small task. However, the first international conference on the status of snow leopards in 2013, the Global Snow Leopard Forum, in which a mission to secure 20 landscapes across the cat’s ranges by 2020 was agreed, is a signal of hope for progress, with Biosphere’s population monitoring and surveying contributing to this mission.


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