There is never a dull moment during field work – and this time was no different. My colleague Abhishek Ghoshal and I had some wild adventures! Once, our car broke down in the middle of the mountains, way out of cell phone service, in the dark of night. It took us over three hours to get the engine running again.
Another time, we got caught in a hailstorm and took shelter in a cave on the steep cliffside where ibex had recently bedded. We drank fermented horse milk in a yurt camp. And one day we casually shared a taxi ride with a little boy of no more than four years and his falcon, who were going to the mountains to practice hunting.
The purpose of our field trip was to set up camera traps in as many valleys of the Kyrgyz Ala Too range as possible in order to be able to accurately estimate the area’s snow leopard population – something that has never been done before in this mountain range.
The Kyrgyz Ala Too Range of the western Tien Shan Mountains is a wild blend of high snow-capped mountain peaks, rumbling rivers with freezing turquoise waters, dense coniferous forests, and lush alpine pastures. The mountains are home to diverse and charismatic wildlife like the snow leopard, Asiatic ibex, and argali, as well as Kyrgyz nomadic herder communities who seasonally graze their sheep, goats, horses, and cows. The mountains shadow the bustling city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, and supply it with clean water and a fresh, cool mountain breeze.
Despite its proximity to Bishkek city (which has hosted two prominent international forums on snow leopard conservation), the Kyrgyz Ala Too range is mostly unexplored as far as snow leopard research and conservation are concerned: to date, there has never been a systematic snow leopard population survey conducted in these mountains.
But this summer and fall, Abhishek and I had the pleasure of working with colleagues from the Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the State Agency of Environment Protection and Forestry of the Kyrgyz Republic to set up an array of 36 remote motion-activated cameras.
Taking into consideration recent methodological developments in population ecology, we set up the cameras in systematic clusters (as opposed to uniform grids) across the length and breadth of the mountain range. This updated methodology will more allow study the Kyrgyz Ala Too’s snow leopards and estimate their population with greater ease and accuracy. Once the data is analyzed, this study will contribute to PAWS, the ongoing range-wide effort to estimate the world’s snow leopard population.
To our delight, many local people were extremely interested in and supportive of our work, right from the start. Abhishek and I were excited to learn that local government leaders, rangers, former hunters, and other community leaders want to come together to create local conservation programs. Various community members were asking, even pleading with us, to help them bring in local authorities to preserve these mountains and pastures that they, and the wildlife they share the land with, call home.
In Shamshy village, to the south of the protected area of the same name, we met a former local government leader named Erkin, who was very interested in conservation. We stayed with him and his family for several days, and they were incredibly helpful, taking the initiative to offer us all of their local knowledge, resources, contacts, and time.
Erkin expressed his unwavering support for any future conservation programs in his area and asked us to come and work with him as soon as possible. Erkin has personally seen the drastic degradation of landscape and the dwindling of wildlife populations and wants to do anything he can to reverse this trend. He’s very interested in helping us monitor wildlife populations, and also sees a need for anti-poaching programs and educational activities to create conservation awareness within the community.
We also encountered some skepticism, of course. A group of local herders saw us set up cameras near Shamshy village and immediately called Erkin to ask what we were doing there. It’s an open secret that illegal hunting is happening in this area, and our presence clearly caused concern and even alarm to some people.
However, Erkin put his name and authority behind our work to hold his own community accountable. He assured the herders that the cameras were there to monitor wildlife and requested them not to tamper with them in any way, saying that if anything happened to the cameras, he himself would be held accountable. He later told us that he hopes the cameras will indeed deter people from poaching.
In another nearby village named Buguchu, we stayed with Isa, a Wildlife Ranger with the Department of Forest and Hunting Inventory of the Kyrgyz Government. Like Erkin, Isa has witnessed firsthand the dramatic decline of wildlife populations over the last years:
“When I was a child, I used to see ibex and argali herds in the hills just behind our village quite often. Observing the beauty of these animals is what inspired me to become a wildlife ranger”, he said. “Unfortunately, we barely see any signs of them nowadays. It makes me sad to imagine that my daughters Sezem, Nagima, Ainazyk and Burulsun may never see ibex, argali or snow leopards with their own eyes. We have to do something to make sure these magnificent animals don’t disappear.”
It came as a heartening surprise to experience such a high level of immediate interest and support for our work in the Ala Too range. And the famous Kyrgyz hospitality shown to us was truly incredible. Erkin, Isa and their families opened the doors of their homes for us, inviting us in as if we were part of their own families. So did many other herders and rangers we met. They fed us to the point of bursting with all of their organic, home-grown, home-produced bread, vegetables, fruit jams, and dairy products. They welcomed us home each night with such lovely smiles and too many steaming cups of tea. They proudly showed us a lifetime of family photos.
We got to goof around with their children and milk their cows together to help make fresh cream and butter. We even had a water fight on the village main street with twenty local children.
I became so close with ranger Isa’s family during our five days of field work there. Isa calls me his “international sister,” and invited me to come back to his house as a guest along with my grandmother and uncle, who happened to be visiting me in Kyrgyzstan from Germany. So, once our work was done, I headed back to Isa’s place with my relatives, and we all enjoyed such a special time together. I’ll never forget the incredible warmth and hospitality Isa’s family showed us, both during and outside of field work trips.
I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to return to these villages later this month to retrieve the camera traps we spent over a month setting up. We’ve covered a total area of around 1,500 km2, systematically setting up 36 cameras. With winter well on its way, however, there’ll now be a lot of snow, perhaps making some of the cameras completely inaccessible until spring. If we do manage to get to all of them in time, we will be able to generate the first rough estimate of the Kyrgyz Ala Too’s snow leopard population by the end of the year!