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Mountain ghosts: protecting snow leopards and other animals of the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Snow leopard volunteering in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia


WildlifeExtra This expedition was honoured on WildlifeExtra's "Life-changing volunteering trips" list.
BBC Wildlife Our former Altai snow leopard expedition, which was very similar to this new expedition,  was honoured in BBC Wildlife magazine's "Top Ten Conservation Holidays" list.
Our former Altai snow leopard expedition, which was very similar to this new expedition, was honoured in The Independent in Sunday’s "Top Ten Outdoor Pursuits" list.
NG Our former Altai snow leopard expedition, which was very similar to this new expedition,  was honoured in the National Geographic Traveler "Tours of a Lifetime" list.
Sunday Times

Our former Altai snow leopard expedition, which was very similar to this new expedition,  was honoured in the Sunday Times "Summer 100" list as the "Most satisfying trip of the year".

These conservation working holidays will take you to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan to survey snow leopards and their prey animals such as the Tien Shan argali mountain sheep and the Central Asian ibex, as well as other animals including marmots and birds. You will be working as part of a small international team from a mobile tented base camp set at various locations and altitudes of around 2000 m. You will be covering ground in the expedition vehicles and on foot, looking for tracks, kills, scats and the animals themselves, and setting camera traps. True expedition-style base camp conditions, testing but satisfying mountain surveying, off road driving, and variable mountain weather, make this our most challenging (and very rewarding) expedition.

Snow leopardSnow leopardIbexLandscape Climbing!Locals

PRICE = Expedition contribution (land only per slot)
£1860 (approx. €2320 | US$3080 | AU$3290).
Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in British pound sterling and the approximate Euro and US Dollar equivalent. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and an up to date Euro and US Dollar exchange rate.
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2015: 8 - 20 June | 22 June - 4 July || 13 -25 July | 27 July - 8 August (12 nights).
Team members can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified).
How long can I join for?

Check detailed availability & sign up
Green: Expeditions of status green have spaces available.

Open steppe and high mountains.

Weather expected during expedition
High mountain summer weather usually means hot sunshine during the day, but it can turn cold at any time of the year, including brief snow showers.

Expedition base
Tent camp of dome, mess and kitchen, as well as shower and toilet tents. Each team member has his/her own tent.

Team size
Up to 12 team members + 1 local scientist + 1 expedition leader.

Skills & prerequisites required
None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.
Can laypeople really be of help to serious research & conservation projects?

Fitness level required
Ability to walk about 5-15 km per day in mountainous terrain of 2000 – 3500 m altitude and ability to tolerate camping at an altitude of approximately 2000 m. Those who feel able to, can climb to higher altitudes of and spend the night in more remote survey locations. Those of lower fitness level can monitor wildlife lower altitudes, do vehicle-based work. Please note that medical evidence shows that altitude sickness is not usually a problem at altitudes below 3500 m.
Will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?

Team assembly point
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
What about carbon neutrality and other environmental and social impact?
Who books my flights?

And finally
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.

Check detailed availability & sign up


These conservation working holidays will conduct a survey of snow leopards as well as their prey species such as argali (a mountain sheep) and the Central Asian ibex. The expedition will also survey other animals such as marmots, birds and small mammals, and work with the local anti-poaching patrol “группы барс” (snow leopard group) and other local people on capacity-building and incentive creation projects. Very little is known about snow leopard numbers in Kyrgyzstan. Data collected by this expedition will be crucial in the fight for wild snow leopard survival, in the creation of protected areas and local incentives for snow leopard conservation.

Aims & objectives

(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.
(2) To survey small animals, such as marmots, and birds.
(3) To involve local people in snow leopard conservation through education, capacity-building and the creation of economic benefits.


Kyrgyzstan is a country located in Central Asia and often referred to as the "Switzerland of Central Asia". Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan is further from the sea than any other country and all its rivers flow into closed drainage systems, which do not reach the sea. The mountainous region of the Tien Shan covers over 80% of the country, with the remainder made up of valleys and basins. The highest peak is Jengish Chokusu (Pik Pobedy) 7,439 m and more than half the country is above 2,500 metres. Steppe and alpine vegetation dominate the landscape; glaciers and eternal snow cover over 3 percent of the country’s total area. The climate in Kyrgyzstan is continental with a small amount of rainfall.

Little is known about the status and distribution of the globally endangered snow leopard in the area and its interaction with prey animals such as the Tien Shan argali and Central Asian ibex, and its reliance on smaller prey such as marmots, ground squirrels and game birds. Biosphere Expeditions will provide vital data on these issues, which can then be used in the formulation of management and protection plans. The expedition will also work with locals in an effort to build capacity, educate and involve local people in snow leopard conservation and generate income through responsible tourism activities. Working from a mobile base camp, the expedition will work in areas that are protected (such as Ala Archa National Park) and those that are not.

Study species

Snow leopard (Uncia uncia), Central Asia ibex (Capra sibirica alaiana), Tien Shan argali (Ovis ammon karelini)
Other (study) species, all in mountain habitats of granite cliffs, lakes and conifer forests - Mammals: marmot, ground squirrel, pika, manul, lynx, wolf, bear, wild boar, red and roe deer. Wolverine and other mustelids. Birds: The Tien Shan mountains harbour a very rich bird life, including black eared kite, upland buzzard, tawny eagle, imperial eagle, golden eagle, saker falcon, cinereous vulture, snowcock, Demoiselle crane, greater sand plover, solitary snipe, Pallas's sandgrouse and rose-coloured starling.

Typical day

Activities are usually decided the night before and then confirmed in the morning, depending on the weather. The whole set-up of the expedition is quite flexible so that you can participate according to the weather conditions, your skills and general fitness.

Your typical day may consist of (1) taking your survey group’s vehicle into the mountains to survey access points and from there search in the mountains and valleys for snow leopards, argali, ibex and their field signs, or (2) climbing a mountain and spending the night there, observing using field scopes and searching for snow leopard and other animal activity, or (3) placing or checking camera traps, or (4) finding and identifying other animals such as birds and small mammals by various means by day and occasionally by night, or (5) working with the anti-poaching patrol on educational and other snow-leopard conservation activities with and within local communities.

Most research groups will return to our mobile tented base for the night where food is prepared by the expedition cook. There will also be rest and admin days as required and on some days you may be asked to help out with some camp and kitchen work.

Research area

The Kyrgyz Ala-Too (Кыргыз Ала-Тоосу, also Kyrgyz Alatau, Kyrgyz Range) is a large range in the northern Tien Shan mountains. The range is situated just south of the capital city of Bishkek and the views from the city itself are stunning and form a backdrop that is unique in the world. The Kyrgyz Ala-Too range stretches for a total length of 454 km from the west end of Issyk-Kul to the town of Taraz in Kazakhstan. It runs in an east-west direction, separating into the Chuy, Kochkor, Suusamyr and Talas valleys. The western part of Kyrgyz Ala-Too serves as a natural border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The range’s highest mountain is Alamyudyun Peak at 4855 m.

The mountains are divided by several river valleys and there is a great variety of landscape. There are hollows with semi-desert landscapes, alpine peaks, narrow river canyons and broad valleys, highland tundra and deep natural limestone gorges, open steppes, permanent snow and glaciers and tracts of forest, as well as a multitude of lakes, wild rivers and waterfalls. Forests of larch, cedar, spruce and pine (but very few deciduous trees) cover more than a half of the mountain territory.

Many threatened animal and plant species, a great number of them endemic, are present in the area with a recent count showing at least 70 mammal, 376 bird, 44 fish species and over 3000 insect species.

The Kyrgyz people are descendants of several different nomadic Turkish ethnic groups in Central Asia and were first mentioned in writing in 201 BC. Kyrgyzstan is one of the active members of the Turkic Council and the TÜRKSOY community. Kyrgyzstan's history is one of Turkish and Mongol, and more recently Soviet and Russian domination. Independence from the Soviet Union was declared on 31 August 1991 and Kyrgyzstan became, and has stayed, a unitary parliamentary republic.


NABU On this expedition our main partner is the German conservation organisation NABU (Naturschutzbund = nature conservation alliance) . Founded in 1899, NABU is one of the oldest and largest environment associations in Germany. The association encompasses more than 450,000 members and sponsors, who commit themselves to the conservation of threatened habitats, flora and fauna, to climate protection and energy policy. In Kyrgyzstan, NABU, in cooperation with the Kyrgyz government, is implementing a programme to conserve the snow leopard through a twin approach of research and the prevention of illegal hunting and trade of the endangered species. Biosphere Expeditions assists NABU in these activities and is supported in turn by Swarovski Optik and Motorola.

Check detailed availability & sign up


Map Kyrgyzstan

Map of the region and study site.

Google map 

Google map of all Biosphere Expeditions study sites, expedition bases, assembly points, office locations, etc.


Snow leopard

Snow leopard.

Snow leopard caught in a camera trap

Snow leopard caught in a camera trap.

 Picture courtesy of NABU / Tolkunbek Asykulov

Snow leopard caught in a camera trap

Snow leopard caught in a camera trap.

 Picture courtesy of NABU / Tolkunbek Asykulov

Altai ibex

Altai ibex
(primary study species of the expedition).


(another primary study species of the expedition).

Kyrgyz Alatoo range

Kyrgyz Alatoo range, expedition study site.

Kyrgyz Alatoo range

In the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.

Kyrgyz Alatoo range

In the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.

Kyrgyz Alatoo range

In the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.

In the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.

In the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.

Ala Archa National Park Ala Archa National Park, in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range.
Near a base camp site.

Near a base camp site.


Grupa Barz - NABU's snow leopard ranger group that we work with - together with expedition scientist Dr Volodya Tyar (right) and Biosphere Expeditions staff member Ines Beyer (middle).


Base camp. Dome tents for team members (one tent per person), as well as larger mess tent. Kitchen and equipment tent in the trees.
Courtesy of Tessa McGregor.




Dinner is served!
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Downtime at base camp.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Camp fire.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


 Learning how to use maps, GPS and compass.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Learning how to use maps, GPS and compass.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Deciding on a survey route.


Briefing before going out on a survey.
Courtesy of Tessa McGregor.


Conducting an interview with a local herdsman.


Preparing a hide.
Courtesy of Tessa McGregor.


Bird surveying.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.



Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Courtesy of Tessa McGregor.


Surveying every nook and cranny Wink
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Surveying a ridge.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


High altitude observation point.


Radioing in from the mountain top.
Courtesy of Tessa McGregor.


 Sweeping a slope.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.


Sunset & downtime after a day's work.
Courtesy of Andy Stronach.



Tien Shan expedition summary. 

Tien Shan expedition impressions.

Overnight survey.

YouTube Watch more Tien Shan expedition
on YouTube.  


NABU Spendenaktion für Schneeleoparden
in German
Go to article
Naturschutz heute Zwölf Staaten, ein Ziel
in German
pdf View article 372.59 Kb

Please note that the press coverage below is from our former Altai snow leopard expedition. The Altai expedition was run along very similar lines to the new Tien Shan snow leopard expedition, so the coverage below, despite being from the Altai, will give you a very good idea of what it will be like in the Tien Shan.

Wild Travel Fade to white
in English
pdf View article 943.50 Kb

Here be snow leopards
in English
pdf View article 2.08 Mb

BBC What are we saving now
in English
pdf View article 83.51 Kb

On the prowl
in English
 pdf View article 3.98 Mb


Walking on the wild side
in  English
pdf View article 113.73 Kb

 Rheinischer Merkur Wo steckt Leo?
in German
pdf View article 185.79 Kb


in German
pdf View article 735.57 Kb

Ecotourisme Sur les traces du léopard des neige
in French
pdf VIew article 225.81 Kb
4x4 Club Altaian journey
in Russian
pdf View article 11.00 Mb
Geo On the trail of the snow leopard
in Russian
pdf View article 23.42 Mb 
Kommersant Ученые посчитают снежных барсов
in Russian
Go to article
 National Geographic Traveler Travel for Earth
in Chinese
pdf View article 7.30 Mb


“It has always been our dream to conduct this kind of large-scale study. But so far we have had neither the money, nor the people to do it. Biosphere Expeditions has changed all that and enabled us to realise many of our ambitions. The data gathered, combined with the weight of Biosphere Expeditions' international reputation, will be vital in our efforts of protecting the area and its wildlife such as the elusive snow leopard.”
Volodymyr Tytar, local scientist, Tien Shan & Altai.

“I liked the team spirit, patience, organisation. And the food was awesome. Top marks for the staff too! Really great expedition, thank you. I loved it.”
Sharon Heywood, 40, UK.

“After 40 years experience in the mountains and 20 years of nature conservation work with NABU, we have just had two perfect weeks of merging these two and enriching our lives. We have seen breathtaking landscapes, learnt a lot and met like-minded people. Biosphere Expeditions is an extraordinary organistion and our days in the Tien Shan will stay with us forever.”
Dieter von Helmstadt, 64, Germany and Monique Mannaert, 65, Belgium.

“The overall organisation was excellent, thank you! Team – really funny, great staff, amazing landscape, good food and I always felt safe and well informed.”
Marlies Sperandino, 29, Austria. 

Feedback from team members about their experiences and
reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).

“The base camp was well set up. Food was great. Enjoyed meeting local people. Exellent expedition leader. Was good to interact with NABU/Grupa Bars who have been up-close and personal with snow leopards. Enjoyed the daily excursions, and the overnighters are a great idea.”
John Oliver, 23, UK.

“I liked how we learnt how to observe tracks, animals, etc. and how to use the equipment; the beautiful landscapes and wild nature; the possibility to be more or less active and the freedom to choose activities.”
Aude Neuville, 50, Belgium.

“I loved putting up and checking the camera traps and being out in the mountains. Thank you for a super duper expedition!”
Liss Myrås, 43, Sweden.

“We had a very welcoming and flexible expedition leader. I must also single out our NABU guide Aman. He was aboslutely exceptional in every respect – hard working, friendly, excellent tracker and guide. He really made the expedition and I know others in the group think the same.”
James Smith, 36, UK.


The expedition briefing contains very detailed information on this expedition, including instructions on how to get to the assembly point, what you will be doing whilst on expedition and who your expedition leader and scientists will be.

You can access briefings via the Download Centre.


Join this snow leopard volunteering holiday in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

Check detailed availability & sign up

An easy way to grow your contribution

Many employers, particularly in the USA and Canada, but also elsewhere, will match fund charitable contributions made by their employees, retirees and employees’ spouses. That means you may well be able to increase significantly the contribution you make towards wildlife contribution. > more information

You may be able to reduce the net cost of your expedition

Depending on your country of origin, a portion of your expedition contribution and additional expenses (such as additional food, lodging and transportation) may be tax-deductible. Have a look at for more details and examples.



Awards & accreditations


Latest ezine

Biosphere Expeditions wins National Geographic accolade more



Magazine2014.gif Our annual Biosphere Expeditions Magazine is packed with stories from the field, achievements, looks behind the scenes and an overview over our expeditions, projects, taster days and other activities.



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