News from Tshewang and Rodney from Bhutan

Dec 11, 2012 5:43 pm

On Tuesday, October 16, Rodney Jackson posted on his Facebook page:

“I’m off to Thimpu, Bhutan for three weeks to work with our partners to establish a community-based stewardship program. I will report back at the earliest opportunity!”

Here is the first report on the trip from Tshewang Wangchuk, the executive director of the Bhutan Foundation and member of the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy:

Rodney and I made the two day trek into the mountains and are now in Soe Dangojang, at the base of Mt. Jumolhari, Bhutan’s sacred mountain.

For the last two days we were working with local communities, the park officials and other government officials to discuss details of a community-led snow leopard conservation program for the region. Today we will hike with community members to set up their camera traps. We will then cross the ridge, two lakes, a big pass and then move to the next community, Soe Yaksa.

During the day we get clear blue skies, great view of the peaks, but night time temperatures are well below freezing. Cell phone coverage is amazing here, but the internet is very very slow – so we will send pictures later. However from today we are behind another mountian so there will be no cell phone coverage.

There is a lot of snow leopard activity in the region and the people are excited about working together to minimize yak mortality, increase their income, and conserve snow leopards.

Will send you more updates once we have better access to the internet, which will only be around the 29th or so. Best wishes from the base of Mt. Jumolhari where the yaks are strong, the snow leopards thriving, and internet rather slow (but at least we have it).

Yakse village viewKnot exercise_Soe


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There and Back Again: An Update from the Altai, September 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:34 pm

Greetings from Gorno-Altaisk, the capital city of the Altai Republic. We arrived here three days ago and it really feels like an emergence into the modern world. The streets are bustling with people living their city lives, destinations in mind, plans to meet and people to see. Gorno is a picturesque city, nestled between rolling green hills and lined with trees, changing with the arrival of autumn–the city will turn on the heat soon, warming the lives of the Siberians who endure a frigidly cold winter that lasts until May.

It couldn’t have been a better time to arrive, as we got to celebrate the 84th birthday of the city with what seemed like the whole population last night. The city square (where the Snow Leopard Day Festival will be held in just one week) transformed into a stage filled with music, dance, light shows and fireworks. Children sat on shoulders, teenagers pushed through the crowd, old women watched in awe and we just soaked it all in.
We are staying in the apartment of our translator, Natalya and her two young daughters. Much time is spent in humorous ways of communication: funny faces, humming and singing, and the very few words any of us know in our non-native tongues. Kids are always the most fun to communicate with when there is a lack of linguistic relation.

Now that I’ve brought you up to speed with current life, let’s go back two weeks to where I last left you.

We left Kosh-Agach after helping in the museum interviewing students, teachers, and local conservationists. This is a much deserved shout-out to Alice, SLC volunteer, who has been a great help throughout the trip, especially when it comes to entertaining the unusual amount of babies that have been present during our interviews. Without her, our film would be laden with the hiccups, screams, laughs, and chirps of Russian infants. And more notably, Alice has contributed countless valuable questions that will enrich and further our understanding of the development of SLC’s work in the Altai.
Our journey back along the road that we came signified the turning of our trip toward the our ascent back to the States. Chiminsky Pass, the paved two-lane highway that cuts through the Altai mountains, is said to have been built  on the bodies of the Russians who did the work, which means this highway was extremeley dangerous and difficult to build but now allows access into some of the most remote territories on earth.

The thick clouds dispersed in front of a beautifully sunny day made for some of the most dramatic scenery as we twisted down in elevation to our next destination, Chui-Oozy, a small eco-tourism settlement. Before arriving, we witnessed the most breathtaking double rainbow in the existence of my little life. We all sat in awe, in the middle of the empty highway, staring, mouths open.

We spent three days in Chui-Oozy, under the hospitality of Galina, a kind-eyed Altaian woman who let us interview her about tourism and her perspective of the current issues in the Altai and her hopes for the future. We also  visited a petroglyph site that depicted life up to 15,000 years ago. Wild animals, people, and the heavens were all strewn about the rocks–such ancient history so tangible and present. I felt human, and a part of such a truly amazing history of human consciousness.

We left Chui-Oozy, toward Inegen, a small settlement along a truly terrifying road that, as the locals told us, government officials won’t even travel. To travel this road was the best choice we could have made. Inegen is a magical place, as if from a fairytale you only fantasized about as a child. Set along the jade-green Khatun River and nestled in a lush, green valley between tall, protective mountains, Inegen probably only has 100-200 residents. It’s unique placement in the Argut River Valley, is a microclimate, perfectly abundant with healthy soil, sunshine and rain to have endless gardens. Each house is enveloped in green, thick gardens bursting with colorful flowers, perfectly delicious produce, and apple trees bearing the most crisp, sweet fruit.

We stayed in Irbis Eco-lodge, a small settlement on the outskirts of town owned by Olga and Slava, a sweet couple who have lived in Inegen all of their lives. I was gleeful, admiring the craftsmenship of their wooden yurts and felt blessed to spend a week sleeping in these round homes that I have had the aspiration to build ever since I spent time in Mongolia. With a sweet little dog named Malush (little one, in Russian), a fuzzy, furry white goat, and a lone horse, we spent our days enjoying the simplicity and quietness of life in Inegen. Again, we were greeted by the town with a curiosity that turned in to honest hospitality. And we met people passionate about saving the snow leopard and protecting the land that these people share with the wild animals of the Altai. We visited the school, visited peoples’ homes and shared countless cups of tea, homemade bread and jams, preserved vegetables and various salads.

It was hard to leave this place as this is the life I strive to live: simple, honoring nature and our place in the family of things, harvesting food grown in the yard, building the home I live in.

We left as dawn broke on Friday and as our trusty Russian utility van left the last of the bumpy, unpaved, dirt roads to be traveled on this trip, I felt a wave of nostalgia (already!) for the unpaved life, the gritty, the unpredictable, the undeveloped–a life that I revel in each time I leave the comfort of my own.


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Nepal Snow Leopard Scouts Update August-September 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:31 pm

Snow Leopard Conservancy – Nepal program

Snow Leopard Scouts – Lower Mustang

Street Drama:  Snow Leopard Scouts – Lower Mustang performed the snow leopard street drama “Mountain  Queen, the Snow Leopard” in Muktinath during the Yartung (horse-riding) festival (2-3 August 2012).   Yartung, the most locally popular annual festival in Mukinath, attracts several hundreds of people from Mustang, Manang and Dolpo districts.  Yartung is celebrated in almost all sizable villages in these districts but the Yartung in Muktinath is special because of its strategic location – Muktinath, the holy abode for Buddhists and Hindus alike. The recently formed snow leopard scouts committee members along with other motivated students brilliantly performed the snow leopard drama.  The main aim of the street theatre was send a strong snow leopard conservation message to locals, civil servants, and national and international visitors. Students also performed local cultural dances and songs.  The Snow Leopard Scouts-Lower Mustang plan to publish the underlying story of the street drama in the form of a colorful comic book for a wide circulation.

Students performing street drama: Note the snow leopard trapped in poorly-constructed livestock corral
Photo of drama

Local people watching street drama
Audience watching the drama

Horse riding event during the Yartung festival
Yartung horse racing

Snow Leopard Scouts – Pokhara, Kaski Chapter

Interschool arts competition:  The Snow Leopard Scouts – Pokhara, Kaski chapter has been registered as Snow Leopard “Open Scouts Troop” of the environmental wing under Nepal Scouts – Kaski.  The Inter-school snow leopard art competition was held on 8 September 2012 in Nepal Scouts – Kaski office.  The program was jointly organized by SLC’s Nepal program, Annapurna Conservation Area Project, and Nepal Scouts, to motivate and mobilize youths for conservation and education activities.  The program was inaugurated and chaired by Sarada Prajuli, Kaski District Commissioner of Nepal Scouts.  In total, 45 students and 20 teachers from 31 schools, 10 special guests from different organizations, 12 members from Nepal Scouts-Kaski, and a few reporters from local newspapers attended the program.  Students were instructed to draw a comic-style nature drawing depicting snow leopard and its prey.  The essential element of the arts competition was that students were to include the images of snow leopard and associated species “conversing”! The best three students were awarded during the occasion.  The participants watched wildlife documentaries and were given lectures on the importance of snow leopard and biodiversity conservation.  Nepal Scouts hosted the program – led by the District Joint Commissioner, Dhiraj Thapa.  The event was highlighted in three local newspapers (Adarsha Samaj, Himjut, Kalam and United Pokhara).

The snow leopard event banner (note the snow leopard image on the background of “snow leopard scouts logo”)
pokhara art competition banner

Snow leopard arts display for juries and others for inspection
pokhara art judging

Participants watching snow leopard-wildlife documentary
pokhara audience watching wildlife documentary

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Russian Altai Report August/September 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:29 pm

I write you all from the frontier town of Kosh-Agach and the town is bustling with the anticipation of the first day of school (September 1st for all schools in Russia). There are kids running through the streets, extactic about their new school clothes and supplies and parents with furrowed brows, double checking that everything is in place before summer ends. Along with the end of summer comes the beginning of winter (as autumn and spring are short lived here) with the first snow fall often arriving in the beginning of October.

We’ve settled nicely in our little hotel room, sharing quarters with the family that owns Hotel Centralnaya. By now we are famiiar with their two baby boys and countless family members that are in and out, drinking tea and cooking meals in the kitchen. There are lots of laughs even with our language barrier and they find it funny that we seem to make friends with new guests every night, discussing everything from Kyrgz farmers, Russian border guards, and the slightly sensitve subject of the harvesting of Red Deer antlers for traditional medicine. Many people are curious about us and ask with honest curiosity about our work and what it means to us. All of these answers become more clear every day as we visit local activists, organization leaders and teachers.

So far, our most notable interview has been with Maya Erlenbaeva, cultural expert of Altaian culture (she’s Altaian, herself!), and former deputy-director of Quiet Zone Ukok Nature Park. She is a lovely woman, mentioned in Darla’s last visit to the Altai, who lives here in Kosh-Agach and has a deep understanding of the importance of conservation and preserving the culture and traditions of the native Altaian people. Her son, Tengis, mentioned in the last blog entry, is truly beautiful.

Maya and Tengis in his warm wool vest:
Natalya and I interviewing Maya:

We are all very happy with our first official interview, and we fimed the whole thing! One of our many goals here in the Altai is to gather enough footage and interviews to make a short film about the Altai. We know that Altaian culture has a lot to teach the rest of us humans living on earth and their reverential relationship with the snow leopard must be shared.

Maya explained that Altaians believe (they are traditionally a Shamanistic culture) that the snow leopard is the guardian of their ancestors. Up in the high mountains, these ancestors live as spirits and the snow leopard is the intermediary between the living world and the spiritual world. A person who kills a snow leopard will be punished by the spirits, so it is forbidden to kill this totemic animal.
Maya’s words were inspiring, informative and necessary for the world to hear. We are thankful for her ardent participation and look forward to sharing more with you all when the film is completed!

We also finished tidying up and adding our own touch to the Snow Leopard Museum and visitor center that just opened 10 days ago! Here is the display we created:


And I will leave you with a gorgeous shot of the Altai Mountains:

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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.



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:



hill side

Here is a snow leopard scrape we found:


Alice and I at the 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.


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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