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Russian Altai, August 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:27 pm

Hi Everyone,

It’s been two weeks since I departed San Francisco for the Altai Republic in Southwestern Siberia. The long plane ride from SFO-LAX-Moscow-Novosibirsk was tiring and it was a relief to meet up with Alice Clark (volunteer for Snow Leopard Conservancy) at the Moscow Airport. I found out upon arriving in Moscow that my baggage had been misplaced along the way! I was worried about the idea of not having my bag (especially my warm clothing) for the upcoming expedition in the Siberian mountains. Our expedition was lead by Biosphere Expeditions (B.E.), an environmentally-focused tour group determined to join scientific field work with everyday people. Jenny Kraushaar, veterinarian and big cat specialist lead us along with Adam Stickler, team leader and Marine Biologist. After a long and tiring next few days, my bag finally came and I tailed the B.E. group a day behind and finally caught up with them. Whew! Let me tell you…it was key to have all of my clothing on this expedition. Once we left the familiar Soviet style city of Novosibirsk (New Siberia), we drove for two days into the Altai Republic. The scenery only got more beautiful as the flat lands drastically changed into vast, green valleys and steep, craggy mountains. To my delight, the Altai Republic is a hub for honey production in Russia. My love for honey seems to follow me as I travel and I was beaming as we passed small wooden stands along the road with Altaian people selling 1.5 litre beer bottles now filled with deep yellow and amber honey.

 

After we went through border control (our camp was just a few dozen kilometers from the Mongolian border), we drove through the darkness to the base of the Talduair mountain range in SW Siberia. This area is not known for an evident population of snow leopards but with a growing prey population, Biosphere Expeditions has hopes to find evidence that these mountains are suitable snow leopard habitat. So, we set out as amateur scientists into the long valleys and high mountains of the Altai in search of snow leopards and their prey species. We had multiple methods of recording our data: scat collection, camera traps, recording of tracks and snow leopard scrapes. It was very fun to spend hours in the mountains, surveying the landscape with binoculars even though most days did not produce sightings of argali or ibex and never of a snow leopard. The Chickachev Ridge, just on the other side of the Mongolian border is known as a hot spot for snow leopards but unfortunately due to permits, we weren’t allowed to survey the area. Fear not! We found plenty to do and were excited to see the wild ibex and argali while in the Altai, confirming that the area is promising for the flourishing of our beloved snow leopards.

cows

 

base camp

Here are some highlights from our expedition:

 

Among many treks, our voyage to a remote glacial lake was incredible! After traveling through the lush green valley, we came to a wall of rocks that we climbed with the guidance of Oleg, our guide and human mountain goat. Not only did Oleg carry himself, his large pack, and fire wood, but he also carried the pack of someone else! He scaled the crumbling skree and dense boulders with grace. There were plenty of Lord of the Rings comments and I couldn’t help but feeling like Gollum, grasping from rock to rock as we climbed higher and higher :) Once atop the mountain of boulders, we set eyes on a stunning glacial lake, probably only seen by a handful of people on earth. The camera traps were atop the high ridges and we left the advanced group, who planned to retrieve the cameras the next day. Unfortunately, a heavy blanket of snow covered them during the night and they were forced to come back to base camp, soaked from cold rain and snow, before getting the cameras.

 

This is Oleg making the treacherous ascent:

DSCN0705

 

hill side

Here is a snow leopard scrape we found:

scrape

Alice and I at the lake:

lake

We also were able to do some anthropological research and touring of the area. Genia, the Russian scholarship student of Anthropology from Novosibirsk brought us on a tour of ancient burial mounds in the area. Much of the Altai and surrounding areas are precious anthropological sites, with burial grounds and petroglyphs dating back to 1,000 B.C. She brought us to see Turkic burial grounds or Kurgans (mounds of stone 5-10 feet in diameter surrounded by square stone boundaries dating between 1st and 12th century A.D.), Scythian burial grounds (with circular stone boundaries representing the sun, moon, and circular nature of life and death), and petroglyphs that laid among the mountains speckled with petrified wood in the steppe. Genia spoke of the importance of these cultural monuments and naturally I thought of the controversy of building a pipeline through the Ukok Nature Reserve in SW Altai. This horrible prospect the pipeline is deeply rejected by many Altaian people as it will disrupt one of the most sacred sites in all of Siberia.

dataentry

Wan Lin and I compiling data in the mess tent

On our last day with Biosphere, we took the Land Rovers across the steppe to meet local herders and ask them about their experience with snow leopards, pallais cats, argali and ibex. This was very interesting as we had little interaction with the local people and we wanted to know their views on snow leopards. What we learned is that snow leopards have very little presence in this region of the Altai; the herders expressed an indifference to the animal as they haven’t had negative encounters with the cat. The herders live a harsh life on the Siberian steppe and rely greatly on their livestock for sustenance and income. The pallais cat (manul in Mongolian/Russian) has a greater presence and due to their smaller size, do not threaten the livestock.

 

This concluded our two weeks with B.E. and Alice and I were dropped off in Kosh-Agach to meet our lovely interpreter, Natalya, and attend a meeting involving WWF Altai and Mongolia. The meeting took place in the new Snow Leopard Musuem, which is a beautiful wooden yurt with a traditional low door that forces all visitors to bow as the enter the space. We were able to gather that snow leopards are very present within multiple regions in transboundary of Russian-Mongolia. The goal of this meeting was to write a proposal for the Darwin Initiative Award which assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives, this specific objective being to increase the livelihood of local people while decreasing the threats to the endangered snow leopard. The meeting was centered around the goal of the development of souvenir and goods production into the National and International markets. With cooperation between Mongolian, Russian and British experts, Alice and I eagerly soaked in the complicated process of developing a comprehensive and culturally sensitive proposal.

 

Now, we relax! Ah, yes, the sweet comfort of a bed with a hot shower and fresh bread, cheese and Altaian cuisine. We were treated to a lovely dinner with Maya, a woman who is a cultural expert of the Altai and fantastic cook, to boot. She graciously invited us into her home and served us a dinner of sliced meats and cheeses, cucumber and tomato salad and a local dish of fresh lamb, rice, and vegetables called Plov. The real cherry on top of the night was when she shared her white honey from Onguday, which tasted sweetly medicinal, like it healed with every spoonful! With the help of Natalya, we conversed with Maya about working in the Altai and her visits to the states. And on top of it all, we were delighted to meet her 8 month-old son, Tengis (‘of the heavens’ in Altain).

 

We have just met with Chagat, the director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development of the Altai (FSDA) and we will carry on our journey tomorrow morning.

 

Sending positivity from the Altai! This place is truly beautiful, in so many ways.

 

-Lucy O’Dea, Education Program Officer of Snow Leopard Conservancy

p.s. I would love to post more photos but the internet is acting up! More soon!

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Field Report from Jomsom Mustang, June 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:12 pm

Greeting from Annapurna!

I descended to Jomsom from the alpine pasture, yesterday, 21 June. I had arrived in Jomsom (Mustang) on the 18th of June on a jeep. There was no guarantee of flights from Pokhara (weather problem), so I had to hire a jeep on 17 June to reach Mustang in the morning of 18 June — the day when the snow leopard scouts committee was formed.

Mustang snow leopard scouts

Each and every year a new eco-club network is organized in Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) – Jomsom in which 11 members will get selected as the eco-club members, to serve for that year, from the student representatives from 11 different schools. This eco-club network is also the snow leopard scouts committee. All members are typically the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. There are reasons why we wish to have the students from 6, 7, and 8 grades [12 to 15 age group] as the snow leopard scouts: This is the age when children are most receptive about everything including nature conservation. These scouts along with other students, teachers, and governmental workers (over 35) were briefed on snow leopard activities. The new snow leopard scouts were then led to environmental/snow leopard camp from 19 to 21 June in the alpine pasture (camping elevation c. 4,000m). In total, 11 new members, one old snow leopard scout, one herder, one local teacher participated in the environmental camp. The program was coordinated by ACAP ranger, conservation education teacher, and SLC coordinator. Among others, the following activities took place –

1. Environmental debate. Students were grouped into two and they were given relevant materials on snow leopard and other local wildlife species to go through prior to the debate. The discussion and debate took two hours. The aim was to assess their interests and enthusiasm on snow leopard and other local flora and fauna.

2. Nature drawing and field-note writing.

3. Snow leopard sign tracking and blue sheep observation and classification

4. Learning about and installing cameras on strategic snow leopard walking trails.

Snow Leopard Scouts in Mustang

Note that this year students are going to install in total three cameras, NOT nine, as in 2011. In 2011, because the snow leopard scouts (lower Mustang) were able to capture three distinct, adult snow leopards, the plan for 2012 is to set three cameras in best locales where the probabilities of catching the snow leopard is highest. The objective was to monitor the three snow leopards of 2011 in 2012 also. On 20 June, students — after learning about the nitty-gritty of remote-camera technology and operating system — installed one camera in Vrapsa at the elevation of c. 4,559m. The interesting aspect of this year’s camera trapping was that OLD snow leopard scout was instrumental in guiding fresh snow leopard scouts.

Snow leopard award at Everest

Also attached is a photo image, not from Annapurna snow leopard scouts event, but that from Mt. Everest. If you remember well, I informed you earlier that I, as the representative of the Snow leopard Conservancy, was awarded a snow leopard dummy that students and teachers on Mt. Everest prepared – a strong indication that snow leopard conservation and education program so far conducted have been well received. This was presented June 5, the world environmental day, amid a huge gathering. This was also the day when snow leopard scouts, from eco-club members, were formed to represent the entire Khumbu. Talk to you later. Cheers, Som PS: I am off to upper Mustang tomorrow, 23 June, for ten days or so.

Reported by Som Ale our Regional Director for Nepal Education and Conservation

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Mongolian Scat Collection, February 2012

Dec 11, 2012 4:59 pm

Sleuthing for Snow Leopard Conservation through the DNA of Poop By Jan Janečka, Ph.D.

As the bitter wind bites the exposed flesh of my hands, I fumble with my GPS to get a location of the tracks we have just found.  Despite my fatigue and the pain in my legs, and the burning sensation in my lungs from the cold, I am excited as I follow the footsteps of a wild snow leopard just a few hours after he or she passed through the area.

Mountain range in Mongolia

We come up to the top of the ridge; the endless Gobi spreads below us its rocky camel-colored steppe-lands.  We find what we have been searching for – snow leopard poop. It may seem outlandish that I flew from Texas to the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and with my Mongolian colleagues embarked on a 700-mile expedition just to find scats, but with the breakthroughs in genetic analysis, there is a goldmine of information that we can now obtain from the droppings of the endangered snow leopard.

Gathering samples in the field in Mongolia

Snow leopards are among the most elusive animals. In addition, they occur in very remote areas hard to reach by biologists and even harder to work in. It is therefore not surprising we have very little information on the abundance of snow leopards in much of the mountainous areas they inhabit.

Yet for conservation, we need to get a handle on the number of snow leopards in an area. Why? Well, conservation actions are expensive and time consuming. To protect the species effectively we need to know in which areas they are threatened and where actions that protect these remarkable animals are most needed. In addition, we need to know if our efforts are working. Genetic analysis of scat can meet these informational needs.

Sample vial

Snow leopards deposit scat in very predictable places and the cold dry environment preserves the genetic material. We put a small piece of scat in each secure sampling tube, along with a desiccant. Back in the laboratory, the DNA is carefully extracted from the fecal material and a small portion of a gene is sequenced to verify that it is from a snow leopard. The scat is analyzed using the same techniques that forensic scientists use to identify evidence at a crime scene. Turns out that up to two thirds of the scats that we thought were snow leopard can be from red foxes. Genotyping of microsatellites provides a genetic fingerprint for recognizing individuals.  In the map below you can see locations where we collected the scats of three different cats. By collecting all scats over time, we can estimate abundance.

Data analysis of snow leopard ranges

We have compared camera trapping and these noninvasive genetics scat surveys in the Gobi Desert and found the genetic approach more rapid and cost effective. We have developed a partnership between Snow Leopard ConservancyTexas A&M UniversityMongolian Academy of Sciences, and Irbis Mongolia. Together, and with the generous financial partnership of the Bowman Family Foundation, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Tapeats Fund, and many individual donors, we are finally getting a handle on population information throughout Mongolia.

I am happy for the privilege of experiencing the snow leopard’s harsh realm while working with many dedicated biologists, conservationists, and local communities. Even if I never get closer to these remarkable animals than placing my hand in a fresh pugmark in the snow, or reaching for that next piece of poop, it is still a thrill that through my genetic work these cats are unwittingly contributing to their own conservation.

Reported by Jan Janecka, SLC Partner and Professor of Genetics at Texas A&M University

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