Elusive Snow Leopards in the Celestial Mountains

July 22 2018
land

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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Debriefing Stage

It was on day ten, having collected one of our final traps, that we reached our expedition nirvana: a snow leopard snapped on camera. Not only was this a wonderful confirmation of the need for conservation in the area, and a gratifying result for the days of climbing and scouting, but also serves to inspire others to support the protection of this beautiful creature.


Over our two weeks we covered 35 cells of the valley map, 26 of which had signs of snow leopard prey species found in them, live ibex sightings, and a total of 41 bird species and 23 butterfly species were recorded, some for the first time in our study area.

You can read the Biosphere write up of the expedition here and I'll be sure to update Open Explorer when the report is published on the research results of the 2018 expeditions.

It was a truly exceptional expedition, with huge thanks to the team for making the experience unforgettable. If you are interested in joining next year can find out more here! Biosphere also have a number of other spectacular offerings, if the timings, climate or physical challenge for this trip isn't the one for you.

Until next time explorers!

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Preparation Stage

CONTINUING TO SURVEY & CHECKING CAMERA TRAPS


We resumed normal research schedule on day eight, though as the end of the trip drew close there was the added urgency that despite all our efforts we had had no confirmed sightings of a leopard or primary prey. We had seen many a marmot - they are extremely cute, though thankfully remained at a distance, as they are also carriers of Black Plague. While the lack of success was not surprising given the shy nature of the snow leopards and their crepuscular prey, we were all quietly still hopeful of a bigger find.

Our final few days focused on collecting all the remaining camera traps from the glaciers, and in the evenings huddling around a tablet in anticipation of what might be on the SD card. One evening the intensity of this exercise was broken by an eruption of laughter, when one trap proved to have captured hundreds of images of various herders ascending glaciers to try and get phone reception. Our first celebration happened when we saw beautiful footage of an abundance of ibex grazing. Some of our most hardy volunteers, desperate to sight ibex at early morning graze, then braved the rain and did an overnight hike with bivvy bags up to the same glacier. There were exhausted but unbeatable smiles when they returned to camp to show us their own photos.

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USING LAPIS GUIDES FOR DATA COLLECTION IN THE FIELD


Guest post by Expedition Leader, Amadeus DeKastle

Although there are a number of trained scientists that do come along on our expeditions, many of our members have very little, if any, scientific training. At the beginning of each expedition, we take a couple days to sit down and learn how a bunch of "non-scientist" expedition members are going to be able to collect valuable data. To be fair, we aren't expecting our volunteers to run complicated DNA analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA) samples. Instead, we make sure that the tasks being done are simple enough that anyone can do them with only a small amount of training, yet at the same time making sure that these tasks are meaningful and valuable to the scientific goals of the expedition.

So what does this mean? This is what a local shepherd I met here in Kyrgyzstan thinks it means; "Anyone can be a scientist". He is right! It is possible for everyone to provide scientific data to a project. We call it "Citizen Science", and this is actually becoming a very popular method of garnering larger datasets by scientists. So in reality, every one of our members is a citizen scientist. There are a variety of tools that we can teach these new citizen scientists how to use in order to collect data; GPS, compass, camera traps, etc. but there is another tool that we can use that we almost don't even need to do any training for: the smartphone!

As mentioned in a previous post, we've been using our smartphones during the entire expedition to catalogue secondary data while doing our best to search for our primary research species, the snow leopard. As important as the snow leopard is, it depends on its surroundings in order to live here. That is why we are collecting information about other aspects of the environment as well; to build an overall picture of the health of the environment that the snow leopard calls home.

So how are we collecting data with our phones? We are using an app, called Lapis Guides, which I've been involved with since its creation. It is a platform that allows any scientist to create a "mini-app" for collecting geographical data on their project. For our expedition we use two different mini-apps: Butterflies and Petroglyphs. It always seems that some people gravitate more towards one of these mini-apps than the others, which is great! Whats more, these apps are so easy to use. You just take a photo, retrieve a GPS signal, and log the data. Then when you are back to an internet signal, your data will get sent to a data server where the project scientists will be able to use your contributions.

I'd like to talk a bit now about how we are using this data that is being collected during the expedition. Butterflies seem like a fairly insignificant part of the ecosystem, but in fact they are environmental indicators. Since many species depend on a specific plant species for food during their development, they require habitats that have this plant species growing in them. If the environment is changing, then the types and distributions of butterflies may change as well. Climate change is having an effect everywhere, but alpine areas are often at a much higher risk. By looking for altitudinal distribution shifts over time of certain butterfly species, we can determine if environmental changes are allowing plants, and thus butterflies as well, to begin inhabiting higher elevations. These shifts, if there, would indicate that alpine regions are changing as a result of climate change, and may have adverse effects on other species, like the snow leopard.

Petroglyphs of course aren't alive, and thus aren't really part of the environment, right? Well, sort of right... They aren't part of our "present" environment, but I think everyone can agree that the images carved into those stones must have been real at some point in the past. In this way, we can take an amazing look back in time to what the environment once looked like. Although entirely dominated by depictions of ibex, it is possible to come across petroglyph carvings of red deer, argali, wolves, snow leopards, camels, and humans (among others). For our study area, this is very interesting, as the red deer hasn't been seen in this region for quite a long time. Studying these petroglyphs, we can draw conclusions about the past, but what is even more important, is to safeguard these wonderful examples of cultural heritage in the region. We can't protect them unless we know they are there! I've added a video with one of our previous expedition members talking about his experience with collecting data on the petroglyphs in our study area.

If you are interested to learn more about these citizen science projects, or others using the Lapis Guides platform, please go to www.lapisguides.org. We'd love to see you get involved in any one of these projects, because remember, anyone can be a scientist.

BUZKASHI: A DAY OFF WITH NEIGHBOURS & A GOAT


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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PETROGLYPHS & BUTTERFLIES


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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SURVEYING THE LAND


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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EXPEDITION SET UP


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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GETTING READY


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

EXPEDITION AIMS


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.

CONTEXT: SNOW LEOPARD POPULATIONS TODAY

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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