When the ‘snow’ in snow leopard conservation becomes perilous

Aibek Sergek uulu, the eco-education coordinator from our Kyrgyzstan Program, recently shared his harrowing experience traveling to set up research cameras in the Sarychat mountains during a snowstorm.

Monitoring snow leopards and other wildlife in harsh mountain environments is not an easy task. Yet, for many years, our team at the Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK) has done just that to accurately assess the snow leopard population. We monitor animals and conduct research by setting up camera traps in many areas, including the Sarychat-Eertash Nature Reserve. 

As a result of this endeavor, we have identified 12-14 adult snow leopards every year in Sarychat. Each one is named and has an identification “passport.” Conducting this fieldwork can be full of surprising and sometimes perilous events, as Aibek recounts below.

“I would like to tell you about a scary situation that happened recently. It was a clear spring day as we set off to the Nature Reserve early in the morning to set up camera traps. We prepared the day before, took the food, packed the car and headed out from Bishkek. We made one last stop to refuel near Lake Issyk Kul before driving up the mountain.

Approximate journey of Aibek

On the way, we talked about one of the snow leopards we named “Hero Mother” and how she must have another litter of cubs by now. We named her Hero Mother because we have seen her since 2013 and she has consistently given birth to new litters every two to three years. 

Elmir and I planned to set up seven camera traps in Uch-Kul. On the first day, Elmir, who had previously worked as a ranger in the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, said we should first take care of the camera locations nearby. 

We reached Kara-Say at noon. It was a little windy and it had started snowing. At one point, the wind started to increase. In Koendu, Sarychat’s rangers were waiting for us with horses, and we would meet at 16:00. However, the wind kept getting stronger and covered the road with snow, and it seemed we would not reach our destination on time. 

As we got closer to Koendu, the snow blowing on the road got thicker and the car started getting stuck. The snow was so thick that it was impossible to continue driving. We tried a lot, but we couldn’t go further. Unfortunately, we had to turn back. We called the office via satellite phone and told the rangers waiting with their horses to go back to their homes as we wouldn’t be able to get through the mountain pass today. 

We began our trek back. After one kilometer, the road we had passed before was blocked, and we would get stuck every 10 meters. Having two cars was good because if one got stuck, another could pull it out. It was getting dark, we were tired, and the wind chilled our bones. We put on all the thick clothes we had packed and got into the car to warm up. We took turns shoveling snow and then driving a bit until we got stuck again. 

Our only thought was to get home safely. We were worried about what would happen if we ran out of gas. We had enough food for a week, but the cold weather was concerning.

We put chains on the wheels, but when we drove hard, they broke off. When we tried to put them back on, they broke off again. It was one of the longest and hardest struggles of our lives. In high-altitude conditions with low oxygen, you feel light-headed and tired. 

Soon it was two o’clock in the morning and we had only moved a little. Then it was three in the morning; then it was four in the morning . . . 

We were exhausted, so we tried to get some sleep. The car thermometer showed -24⁰C. We all fell asleep, but there were fears that we would not wake up due to gas poisoning. After what was the longest night, there was no dawn. We tried to find a way out through what little light shone through the snow clouds.

We called for help, but the road maintenance equipment would not arrive for at least four days, which was not very promising. But we were hopeful to get out of this snowstorm. By mid-morning, we began to have success, but we still moved slowly. 

By 14:00, we had set off on a bumpy road but soon broke down again and had to stop for good. We called for emergency help and this time, they sent a car. Luckily we were close enough that it could reach us that night. By the time it got dark, our cars were being towed to Kara-Sai. 

We returned to the city late in the evening, the snow was behind us and we were safe. We decided we would return to set up camera traps when the road reopened.” 

Aibek’s story brings to life the sometimes harsh realities of snow leopard conservation. We are extremely grateful that Aibek and his companions made it safely out of the snowstorm. They will forever be snow leopard heroes to us. 

Note: Snowstorms are not unusual in snow leopard habitats across the Third Pole. However, alongside global warming, these regions are believed to be experiencing an increasing frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events, such as blizzards, floods or drought, that often result in climate disasters.

If you’d like to help ensure our teams are always equipped with the proper gear and resources to brave the elements, please consider making a donation here.

Thank you to Aibek and the team at SLF-Kyrgyzstan for their commitment to snow leopard conservation.

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