Mountain ghosts: protecting snow leopards and other animals of the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan
This citizen science expedition 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.
Expedition contribution: £1860 (ca. €2320 | US$3080 | AU$3290) land only per group dates as shown below. Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in £ and the approximate € | US$ | AU$ equivalents. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and up to date exchange rates.
Dates & meeting point: 8 - 20 June | 22 June - 4 July || 13 -25 July | 27 July - 8 August 2015 (13 days). Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to the assembly point are in the .
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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.
Tent camp of dome, mess and kitchen, as well as shower and toilet tents. Each team member has his/her own tent.
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.
Fitness level required
Ability to walk about 5-15 km per day in high mountain terrain and up to 4000 m altitude, as well as tolerate base camp altitude of up to 3000 m. Those who feel able to, can also take part in overnight surveys in remote and high locations. Those of lower fitness level can monitor wildlife near base camp or do vehicle-based work. Please note that medical evidence shows that altitude sickness is not usually a problem at altitudes below 3500 m.
Team assembly point
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% 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 finally (almost)
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.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
This expedition started in 2014 and in its first year found evidence of snow leopard in a previously unstudied range. Next to the research activities, a local capacity-building and educational programme has engaged the local population of herders and created employment and economic incentives for snow leopard conservation. Kyrgyzstanis, including the local anti-poaching unit, have been trained in survey techniques as part of a placement programme. Once snow leopard population numbers have been researched in the area, Biosphere Expeditions and its partner NABU will seek to influence decision-makers in government towards the creation of protected areas and other snow leopard protection measures.
Scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
This expedition was honoured on WildlifeExtra's "Life-changing volunteering trips" list.
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 National Geographic Traveler "Tours of a Lifetime" 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.
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".
|Life-changing volunteering trips for 2014
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|Auf Schneeleopardensuche im Tien Shan
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|Spendenaktion für Schneeleoparden
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|Zwölf Staaten, ein Ziel
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Please note that the press coverage below is from our previous snow leopard expedition to the nearby Altai mountains. However, they will give you a good impression of the new Tien Shan mountains / Kyrgyzstan expedition.
|Fade to white
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|Here be snow leopards
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|What are we saving now
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|On the prowl
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|Walking on the wild side
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|Wo steckt Leo?
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|Sur les traces du léopard des neige
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|On the trail of the snow leopard
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“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.
“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.
Expedition diary / blog
See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page