Chasing Ghosts in the Mongolian Altai

Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province is an incredibly remote, but beautiful region of mostly untouched wilderness situated right on the borders of Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. It features rugged 3,000-4,000m (9,842-13,123m) snowcapped peaks, with glacier-fed lakes, rivers, and a large variety of wildlife that includes snow leopards, wolves, wolverines, and Siberian brown bears.

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This region first captivated me after learning of The Altai Project’s work on the Russian side. The photos of the challenging terrain, and diverse flora and fauna practically screamed at me to one day apply a field project within it. Eventually the wish came true when I met a researcher with the Green Initiative NGO who is surveying this little studied area for snow leopards. Of course we got chatting about a project I wanted to start that ideally requires samples from different regions, and behold, a new study site opened up with an epic collaboration!

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The sound of groaning, cracking ice is so very comforting when you’re as remote as humanly possible.

Simply getting to the study sites within the Siilkhem National Parks was an adventure in itself. A 5-hour drive from the city of Ölgii, the road is nothing more than a dirt path that bumps over endless steppe, through rocky valleys, and over frozen rivers and lakes. This pilot season being in March, its somewhat a last chance to access certain areas before those very same waterways melt. Already, the ice was beginning to thaw as the top layers cracked and shifted under our Soviet era Russian van.

Something that stands out about this region compared to others in the country I’ve been in is that there is a lot of wild prey. Large herds of ibex traverse the mountain ranges and thrive within the valleys. Though I was informed about this ahead of time, I still wasn’t prepared to see such a herd behind our host family’s camp. Early that first morning, on the slope behind the family’s corral, grazed a few dozen ibex. A great sign that we were in an area where a large predator would be present. That would not be the last time we saw the large, wild goats.

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Part of the herd where we counted 50 ibex!

Almost every valley we surveyed supported them. For one herd, a teammate and I counted 50 ibex as they ran down the steep slope right near where we were, and down across the valley. The ibex were close enough that we could hear their grunts as they effortlessly descended down lose scree (smaller rocks. Often sharp-edged). We quietly sat perfectly still. Any shift of a rock can be heard by the wary animals.

Argali sheep are another wild ungulate that snow leopards in this region prey on, and the Altai is one of the only places in Mongolia where you will find them scattered about. Standing 85-135 cm (3-4 ft) high at the shoulder, and weighing up to 328kg (723lbs), this is the largest big sheep species in the world. The impressive horns of the rams also make it a prize for many trophy hunters. It was very exciting to see a small group of males on a ridge as we were headed to a transect site. Even from a distance they are massive!

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Argali ram

The terrain is much more difficult in this region than in others in some ways. The mountains are higher, steeper, and covered with thicker, loose scree. Every step is a delicate balance of finding your footing, and trying not to set off rock slides that can easily catch your leg. Hiking back down is a careful process of side-stepping and sliding, letting the rocks shift a bit before taking your next step. We often found ourselves needing the use of crampons to keep traction on ice from mountain streams, rivers that we had to cross, and sections of glacier near the peaks.

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Wolf track. We found several sets around a fresh ibex kill.

There is usually more snow here than in other parts of Mongolia. However, this particular year was warmer, so less snow was found throughout the landscape in general. Valleys, draws, and plateaus still had deep powder that came up to our thighs in those features though. These features are also the best areas to find sign of wildlife passing through. Unfortunately, the deep snow makes traveling more difficult than it already is. Our van got stuck several times trying to find a spot to park before we hiked the rest of the way. Nothing some shoveling, and a track made of well-positioned rocks can’t fix!

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At least we got stuck with a lovely mountain view!

Everything about this environment is what a snow leopard lover would imagine as the perfect home for the cats. From day 1 of the field season, the team was not disappointed with signs of snow leopards, not only living here, but breeding! Fresh tracks crisscrossed though valleys, including a set of tracks belonging to a small cub following its mother, and a larger set of tracks that could possibly be a male. A couple teammates heard the yowl of a snow leopard echoing in that same valley one morning. Enough scat to use for our pilot study was collected as well in just a short amount of time between both national parks we surveyed.

Most incredible of all was I FINALLY got a glimpse of a wild snow leopard in person for the first time since I started studying them in 2014! It was late one evening as we were all heading out of a very promising valley. My teammate, Alex, saw some motion on the slope on his side of the van and hollered for us to stop, his high-powered camera lens pointed out the window. Immediately I jumped to that side of the vehicle to see what he saw, and caught the ghostly figure of a smoky-gray big cat leap, from one boulder to another before disappearing into a deep outcrop. The most distinct feature was the ridiculously long tail! The ranger, driver, and interpreter we were with did not believe us, but there could be no mistake. We saw a snow leopard! No other similar-sized animal in this region moves like the way a snow leopard does. Too late to hike up a bit to try to get a closer look, we came back to that site the following day. Sure enough, fresh tracks were right where we saw the cat. Solidifying the fact that Alex and I weren’t crazy. We. Saw. A. Snow leopard!

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The valley where we glimpsed the snow leopard. We can only hope it takes a selfie on one of our camera traps!

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Wild Med for a Wild Life

img_6317You’re on the last trap of the exhausting day’s trap-line several miles from the truck, and at least an hour’s drive from any sort of civilization. The tell-tale sign that something was caught is seen around where the trap was set; nearby branches and vegetation are torn up, there is a track of a drag mark from the anchor digging through the leaf litter, and a bit of the chain’s bright orange flagging tape is tangled among some shrubbery up ahead. Then you see the animal you’ve been waiting for, a wolf laying low with his paw secured in the padded foothold trap.

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Looking snazzy in my mosquito net while collaring a wolf in Minnesota.

Quickly, you and your small team of three others ground your gear and you prepare the telazol-xylazine mixture for the syringe at the end of the jabstick so the predator can be sedated. Sensing a threat, the wolf gets up to try to escape. A teammate distracts the wolf from one side so you can get close enough, about 6 feet, to stick the syringe into the muscle on the animal’s rear end. The wolf lunges for you and snaps at the jabstick. Heart pounding from the adrenaline rush, you manage to get the drug injected….at least most of it…

After several minutes, the wolf is snoozing. Your team sets to work tagging an ear, fastening a radio collar, taking various body measurements, weight, temperature, and drawing blood. You have maybe 10 minutes to complete the processing before the sedative wears off.  

Suddenly it begins to downpour freezing rain. Hurried and focused on the task, it wasn’t noticed that the wolf was beginning to wake up early. Your teammate attempts to get an age estimate from the teeth when CRUNCH, the semi-conscious carnivore swiftly clamps down on his hand with 1400lbs per square inch of power! Screaming, your teammate manages to pull free from the now wobbly wolf as his hand gushes blood through open fractured bones…

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The above scenario is not a true story from my own experiences, but is a situation that has happened in some similar manner to other field biologists. Fieldwork can be exciting and rewarding as species are studied in remote wilderness. However, the job does not come without risks. Other than possible injuries from handling a study species, you have the environment in general to contend with. Some environmental aspects to keep in mind are climate, terrain, and altitude. Working in a scorching desert is far different than working in frigid mountains.

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Doesn’t seem so bad..except for the loose snow on packed ice, which hides rocks loosened from the large livestock herds that erode the terrain… Oh, and its -35C with an added breeze

Navigating through wetlands differs from navigating through dense forests or open plains. Stinging insects, and venomous spiders and snakes may also be a concern to look out for, as well as being in a territory where you are not at the top of the food chain. There is even the underestimated hazard of being infected by parasites, exotic viruses, or bacteria.

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Beware the cryptic coloration of venomous species like this Cottonmouth in Florida. Photo by Jeff Miller, Seven Bear Photography 

I have yet to meet a fellow field researcher who has not experienced any injury or illness of sorts from either of the issues mentioned. If there are those who have somehow avoided them, its only a matter of time before they too can share their #fieldworkfail stories with colleagues as a macabre badge of initiation. The environment you work in will determine how you prepare for your fieldwork and how you handle the unique challenges that are presented.

No matter how careful you may be, or how experienced you are in the wilderness, incidents can happen. Nature is unforgiving at the best conditions, let alone when we become complacent. How you deal with certain hazards or ailments could mean the difference between life or death. Hence why preventative measures should always be taken to minimize unfortunate events.

Wilderness First Aid

Anyone who spends time working or recreating in a remote environment should have training in wilderness first aid. “But I took a First Aid and CPR class at my local community center!” That’s great, but providing care in a rural setting is much different than in an urban setting.

Main Distinctions:

1. Adverse conditions, climate and terrain, affects both the victim and rescuer. You should know how to provide protection from the elements, and how you will carry or drag someone out of a sketchy situation if that is what is needed.

 2. Communication is limited or nonexistent. Satellite phones aren’t always reliable, and trained falcons are hard to come by. How are you going to send for, or find help? What if you are in a country where hardly anyone else speaks your language?

3. Lack of transportation. You’re in the middle of nowhere without a vehicle, or perhaps in a country with no helicopter rescue. All those tips from your first aid classes about providing supportive care then calling for an evac to pick you up are suddenly useless. You ARE the evac. If you’re lucky, you may have access to a local’s horse.

4. Conventional first aid supplies are limited. You should at the very least have a basic backpacker’s first aid kit. Otherwise, you should know how to improvise with what’s around you; rig bandages, slings, or splints using random pieces of gear, duct tape, paracord, or utilize things in nature. Out on the steppe where there are no branches to splint your teammate’s broken ankle after he fell in a marmot hole? Sure, that sun-bleached goat femur and your belts will do the trick!

5. More involved medical care. You may need to provide the level of supportive care that in an urban setting an EMS or paramedic would do. It could be hours or days before proper help is acquired.

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Practicing a hypothermic wrap during an AWLS course with Wild Med Adventures, LLC.

Situational Awareness

One of the most valuable skills I have been able to transfer from my past military experience is situational awareness. It is the ability to pay attention to everything around you, including the environment, what is going on with your peers, and how you are doing as well. Take in the details and mentally note how they change or may change so that you can respond accordingly. Working in the wilderness requires that to be second nature. In the event that someone does need medical care or to be rescued, your own safety and being able to stay calm needs to also be prioritized. You will be no help if you are careless and become a victim too.

Returning to the earlier scenario:

  • What factors are there that led up to the incident?
  • What environmental obstacles did the field team have to deal with?
  • How could the incident have been avoided?
  • What gear or items from nature, are possibly available to stabilize the injury until that teammate can make it back to town?
  • Pun aside; the victim is not out of the woods yet. What are some other issues he can have in response to the mangled hand, blood loss, stress of the situation, and the environment etc? How will you handle that?
  • What should the rest of the team do to make sure the scene is safe? There is still a partially drugged wolf to monitor…
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Be familiar with the gear you have at your disposal! It may be of use in more ways than one!

These are just a handful of questions that would need to be instantly answered to either prevent an incident, or to prevent an incident from getting worse.

I recently took an Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS) course through Wild Med Adventures LLC  in the Adirondacks to not only review some rusty skills, but to learn all new ones. The course was incredibly informative with lectures covering a wide range of wilderness related topics, skills workshops, and scenarios. The instructors are all passionate medical professionals with expertise in austere environments and the enthusiasm to teach. I highly recommend this type of training as an added skillset. You never know when it will come in handy, and certainly don’t want to find out the hard way!

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Best course ever!

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To Survive Living High

From the deepest oceans to the highest peaks, and from the hottest deserts to the Earth’s poles, there is life that has evolved incredible adaptations to survive in their extreme environments…

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Low oxygen results in a hypoxic environment. Hypoxia occurs when not enough oxygen is carried by the blood supply, leading to neurological and organ failure. Hemoglobin is a protein found in vertebrates’ blood that bonds to, and transports, oxygen.

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Oxygen molecules binding to hemoglobin in human red blood cells (Photo from Google images)

To combat a low oxygen environment, hemoglobin levels in lowland species increase. Mammals and birds that dive store more oxygen in their lungs, blood, and tissues than their non-diving counterparts. Fish increase the ventilation of water over gills to push more oxygen into their circulatory system. Some species that live at deep depths have larger gill surface area, while species that frequent those depths may gape their mouth open wider to allow more flow over their gills.

maxresdefaultAt high altitude, a response to cope with the low oxygen is heavier breathing, and vasodilation in an effort to carry the amount of oxygen the body requires to function. The inability for enough oxygen to be processed also affects the body’s ability to stay warm. Being on the top of a mountain with strong winds and often freezing temperatures, along with the affect of your body shutting down from not allowing the proper time to acclimate, makes for an unpleasant experience. To learn more about the science behind the physiological affects of being at high altitude, check out this blog and short film by Untamed Science!

To help compensate, species living at high altitude have various morphological characteristics, such as larger lungs and more powerful hearts. Tibetan yaks, a prime example of high altitude adaptations, have both these features, as well as having blood vessels that don’t constrict. They also have a high metabolism, and several genes that are specific for processing low oxygen that other cattle lack. While in the womb, a fetus has a higher percentage of hemoglobin for effective oxygen flow. Tibetan yaks retain their fetal hemoglobin levels into adulthood!

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Wild Tibetan yak

Being a high altitude species, living between 2500-5400m above sea level, one would assume that snow leopards also have a more complex physiology, like the Tibetan yak, to help them survive their extreme environment. However, research conducted by Janecka et al. (2015), discovered that this is not the case.

The hemoglobin levels of snow leopards is the same as a house cat and their other lowland cousins such as lions, jaguars, tigers, and cougars. Their blood is physiologically not adapted to efficiently bind to oxygen at the altitude that they live at. Snow leopards take in half the amount of oxygen per breath as they would at sea level, which is comparable to what the human body processes at around 5000m.

So how does a snow leopard cope? Similar to many other high altitude species, snow leopards have larger lungs and a more powerful heart than lowland relatives. In relation to other cat species, snow leopards also have wide, but short, nasal cavities.

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Nasal cavity comparison between the common leopard, Panthera pardus (left) and snow leopard, Panthera uncia (right) (Photo by Animal Almanac)

The wider nasal cavities helps to warm air before it reaches the lungs, but may also aid in bringing more air in with each breath. Until more research is conducted, it has been hypothesized that snow leopards breathe quicker and harder to compensate for lower oxygen.

Resources

Altitude.org http://www.altitude.org/home.php

Arnold, C. (2015). Leopards Breathe Like Pussycats? http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150805-snow-leopards-cats-animals-science-pets/

BGI Shenzhen. (2012). Yak genome provides new insights into high altitude adaptation. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120705144619.htm

Janecka, J., Neilson, S., Anderson, S., Hoffmann, F., Weber, R., Anderson, T., Storz, J., and Fago, F. (2015). Genetically based low oxygen affinities of felid hemoglobins: lack of biochemical adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia in the snow leopard. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218: 2402-2409. http://jeb.biologists.org/content/218/15/2402

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Family Ties: The Snow Leopard’s Identity Crisis

Based on the name “snow leopard”, one would assume this big spotted cat was a species of leopard, and closely related to Panthera pardus.

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Common leopard, Panthera pardus

However, this is not the case. In fact, snow leopards are more genetically linked to tigers!

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Let’s back up to the snow leopard’s taxonomic classification. Since the 1930’s, this cat was known by the scientific name Uncia uncia, “uncia” being Latin for “ounce”, but this “ounce” comes from a word for lynx (yet, this cat is not related to lynx). It was in a genus all on its own. The big cat genus Panthera originally made up the four species (tiger, lion jaguar, and leopard) that had similar skull features, and had the ability to roar. This ability is due to large vocal folds covered by a fibro-elastic pad in the larynx, and a partially ossified hyoid bone. In other words, they have unique larynx morphology in comparison to the other cat genera. Snow leopards lack this feature, so are one of three big cats that can’t roar (the other two species are cheetahs and pumas). They can, however, make a variety of other calls such as chuffs, growls, yowls, purrs, and groans. You can hear a snow leopard yowl here.

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The Lion King’s Simba showing off his specially developed larynx

A genetics study by Davis, Li, & Murphy (2010) was conducted to compare the lineage of big cats through analyzing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). It discovered that tigers and snow leopards are actually “sister species”. This led to the snow leopard’s taxonomic name change to Panthera uncia.

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Comparison of a tiger and snow leopard (Photo from Google Images)

So how and when did these species evolve in relation to each other? About 3.9 million years ago (mya), around the end of the Pliocene epoch, tigers and snow leopards split off from Panthera’s felid ancestor. By the time these two species had become separate species, jaguars, lions, and leopards were just starting to branch off from that same ancestor. Leopards and lions split into their own species around 3.1-1.95 mya, while jaguars split 3.6-2.5 mya.

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The snow leopard’s place in relation to other felids. Driscoll, C.A et al. (2009). The taming of the cat. Scientific American, 300: 68-75.

What’s in a Name?

 The word “leopard” derives from the Latin word “leopardus” and from the Greek word “leopardos”, translating to “lion-panther”. It was thought that the animal was a hybrid of a lioness and a male panther (a leopard or jaguar with a melanistic, or dark, coat color). I know what you’re thinking….you just heard me tell you how snow leopards aren’t related to leopards or jaguars, so how can they still have “leopard” in their common name?! The ancient Sanskrit word “prdakuh” translates to “panther, tiger”. See? It works out.

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WHEW!

 

References

Davis, B.W.; Li, G.; Murphy, W.J. (2010).Supermatrix and species tree methods resolve phylogenetic relationships within the big cats, Panthera (Carnivora: Felidae)Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 56 (1): 64–76. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2010.01.036.

Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R. A., Habib, B. (2008). “Panthera uncia”IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Online Etymology Dictionary: Leopard http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=leopard&allowed_in_frame=0

Pocock, R. I. (1930). The panthers and ounces of Asia. Part II. The panthers of Kashmir, India, and Ceylon. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 34 (2): 307–36

Snow Leopard Trust. Behavior http://www.snowleopard.org/learn/cat-facts/behavior

Walker, M. (2010). Tigers evolved with snow leopards, gene study reveals http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8512000/8512455.stm

Wikipedia: Panthera. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panthera

 

 

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Goat Wars: Phantom Menace

The following is an excerpt from my field journal…

DISCLAIMER: Descriptions of fresh snow leopard kill sites may seem graphic to some readers.

2-14-2016

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Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well!

“… We checked the 3 camera traps we set around the 4 goat carcasses from the start of the season. This was where each goat was owned by a different herder. Herders often combine their livestock into a larger herd to help move them to pasture easier, and keep them safer as a whole. In order to tell them apart, horns of each herd are uniquely painted. There was NO fresh sign of a snow leopard anywhere near them. The kills were apparently abandoned. The camera traps only showed crows having a feast, And feast they did! The bones were picked completely clean. For 2 of the remains, all that was left were the stomach’s dried and frozen mound of undigested vegetation.

Around the area, a fox was present. Evidence of tracks, scat, and bits of gnawed bones trailing along its path, showed it carried its share of the meal off. Surprisingly, the fox was not captured on the camera traps. In a valley, a bit south, we found fresh cat tracks so placed a camera trap from the goat site there.

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Snow leopard tracks go right past where a camera trap was set. But no image. GAH!!

We also visited the site where cats have been seen on many occasions by herders, and where park staff have gotten photos. We thought for sure a cat would be on our camera traps. There were fresh tracks everywhere. In fact, tracks went right in front of and past 2 cameras! A perfect opportunity! However, neither camera got the shot. Only hundreds of images of goats. We don’t know what happened. Both camera traps were working when we retested them. So either both cameras happened to glitch at the same time from the cold, or we really were dealing with a ghost.

Disappointed, we reset one, then moved the other to a new spot where a local woman showed us a busy area for tracks. They crisscrossed between a couple saddles, and up a few small draws. There was a total of 3 different sets. One being very small, a possible cub from last spring. Hope our next try is successful!

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An adult pugmark (left) next to a cub’s pugmark (right)

On the way back down the mountain, the woman showed us a couple of freshly killed goats that a cat had taken. For the first one, tracks led right to the uneaten animal as steam still rose from the body’s spilled fluids. Its neck torn open in the method only a big cat would do.

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A still steaming snow leopard kill. A stark reminder of the conflict herders face.

The other goat was being scavenged on by the local herders’ dogs. It appears to me that the dogs have associated snow leopard kills with a feast, and so will scare the cat off of kills. The downside to that is that the easily spooked, hungry cat will prey on more livestock again sooner or more frequently.

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At least the dogs get a good meal…

When we left that site, we stopped just around the bend at a camp where two goats survived an attack 2 nights prior. One died the following day, but the other was barely clinging onto life with a large clump of frozen blood hanging from the wound on its neck. I doubt it’ll last much longer. One thing is for sure, for a site with mountains that are only just over 2,000m, there is a TON of cat activity!”

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We All Have Mountains

Due to the recent threads on social media ,and articles about early career scientists and potential scientists (such as kids) feeling discouraged from entering science based on the seemingly endless hurdles, I decided to share this post. On the surface, most graduate students and senior scientists appear to have everything all together. To a young scientist, their mentors and science idols have these incredible care3fbd8a27-bbf0-46b9-8e78-b74bb3b632b5-originalers or projects that may seem impossible for anyone just starting out to obtain. You don’t hear about their stories of working miscellaneous jobs and under-the-table work unrelated to the field just to get by or pay for projects. You don’t hear about the countless job applications and grant proposals they send in, only to be shut down time and time again. You don’t hear about the days, weeks, months, or even years where they struggle with self-doubt and question whether they made the right life choices leading up to what they strive for. And you certainly don’t hear about the fights against anxiety and depression from various frustrations. What is often portrayed is only a small fraction of the whole story. Similar to an iceberg, the bulk of the reality scientists constantly deal with is kept hidden.

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My best attempt at looking all “epic and contemplative”

I am often asked what the hardest part of my fieldwork is. Most of the time I’ll toss out an answer about language barriers, culture shock, or unpredictable environmental conditions. Saves on getting into more personal discussions. In actuality, the hardest part is rest days.

My field team is very small. It’s just myself, and one or two others who are locals. Even if I am around more people, I only have one person who speaks English to really talk to so more often than not I spend a lot of time feeling alone. On rest days, my teammate and I relax to give our tired bodies a break from climbing mountains, and give each other space since we spend so much time together. Physically, rest days are amazing. Mentally….not so much….

 

The following is an excerpt from my field journal which describes the mental battle I face when not busy doing fieldwork. It can also be applied to the time in between field seasons, when life is significantly less stable since I’m no longer affiliated with a university, and not directly affiliated with any organization. I’m in a transition as an independent researcher, and that alone has a vast array of hurdles:

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How I feel when I make the mistake of comparing myself to others in my field

“… Lazy days are great to a point, but get boring fast. I’ll be done with my last remaining book soon and already exhausted the songs on my MP3 player. These days do provide undisturbed time to contemplate my current situation in life and wonder about the future once I return home. So much uncertainty! Very few people truly discover their life’s calling. I have. Yet, the part where I can support myself lingers on as a persistent obstacle. All I can do is take things one step at a time, see where my side projects and new networks lead me. Its just more pressing to settle into some self-sufficient life of my own as I further enter my 30’s (having a delayed start to my science career journey due to military obligations and a plethora of other roadblocks).

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If all other motivational avenues fail, just remember you are still doing much better than this guy! 😉

For now, all those ideas of things that may happen, and things I know will happen in time seem so far away. Life on the steppe, up against the shelter of mountains has its own pace, dictated by the harsh climate and extreme seasons. In a way, Mongolian life is much more laid back. There are many things you can’t control so you have to take everything as it comes. Don’t think, just do. At the same time, you better be physically and mentally prepared for the winds to change or you will feel left behind like the countless sun-bleached bones scattered throughout the landscape.

Perhaps that is exactly why I’ve been drawn to Mongolia. Not just for the rich culture and hospitable people, but for the sheer unpredictability of conditions here that reflect the route my own life’s journey has taken. This land represents the ultimate challenge on various levels, from working in the field on unforgiving terrain that is the complete opposite of where I’m from, to finding a niche studying one of the world’s most endangered and elusive big cats – a concept that I’ve been told was impossible my whole life. It makes me glad I refused to listen to all the negative criticism and not simply settle for the lifestyle people have repeatedly suggested.

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When life throws you a blizzard, make snow angels!

I still wonder how differently things would have been if any of the more traditional career paths I tried for actually worked out. Would I be happy? At the very least, content? Most likely there would still be that part of me yearning for travel, desiring a sense of adventure, risk, and a chance to push beyond personal limits. I don’t know what the future will bring, but right here, as I listen to my teammate and host speak in their language to each other while smelling the aroma of tonight’s mutton boiling on the stove, I’m just accounting the fresh memories of the mountains I’ve climbed for signs of an unknown snow leopard population. Right now, I’m living the dream.

Maybe it’s the stubborn Army veteran side of me who hasn’t let go of the first two lines of the Warrior’s Ethos: “…I will never accept defeat. I will never quit…”, but I refuse to let anything destroy this sense of purpose I’ve discovered…”

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Its just not an inspirational blog without a photo of some awesome landscape to help you feel all Zen

 

 

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Where Snow Leopards & Lammergeiers Reign

Excerpt from my field journal…

2-3-2016

“I woke up early to the young dog I’ve grown quite fond of barking nonstop. That’s when I heard the faint familiar, mournful sounding call of a camel echoing across the steppe in the direction of the dog…

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A bearded vulture, or lammergeier, soars overhead

Today’s hike was just up the ridge behind camp again. A shorter, 7km hike. We needed to reset the camera trap our neighbor removed. He showed up last night, proudly handing it to us. Why?! Gah! Our shocked faces gave away that we weren’t pleased. Locals know we are out there camera trapping and know not to touch them. Our neighbor was even with us when we set that one! Along the climb, almost to the top, a pair of bearded vultures graced us with their magnificent presence, soaring low directly above our heads. We couldn’t help but stand there and admire them for at least 20 minutes, until they continued on their way.

To our annoyance, the spot where the removed camera trap was, there was fresh snow leopard sign. Nooooo!!! ::falls to knees to yell at the sky. Sobs internally:: While we were around the area of a couple other camera traps, we checked the SD cards. On two of them we got a snow leopard!! Three images on each! I feel like my energy has been rejuvenated. We were sure to get more!

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We decided to move one of the camera traps that kept getting goats to another area with fresh sign. For every ONE image of a snow leopard we get, there can be over 1,000 images of livestock to sort through. On the way to that section of the ridge, I think my free climbing skills graduated from “ibex” to “snow leopard”. I’m not sure we could’ve gone a more complicated route. The thick, bushes of thorns wasn’t even the concern. Slipping and falling was. One huge boulder/rock face in particular had a very steep grade and was completely polished down. Add the frozen lichen and sections of snow hiding crevasses that dropped to….who knows…and it was a recipe for a potential disaster. The “hand/footholds” were mere divots, hardly visible but for their tiny shadow. I dug my fingertips in and braced myself as close to the rock as I could.

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The rest of the way up to the ridge-line wasn’t as bad but still had plenty of spots where you had to be creative and flexible to pull yourself up or across a section and reach around boulders or ledges. The rock was smoothed down all over and areas showed evidence of where snowmelt has continuously worn it away. I have come to the conclusion that if you want to to study a high altitude cat, you must aspire to become a mountain ninja…”

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Becoming an Ibex

Excerpt from my field journal..

1-28-2016

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The ibex knows we can only wish to be as awesome at climbing as he is. We’re amateurs in comparison

“If I didn’t already from previous work here so far, today was definitely the day where I earned my ibex horns….

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Becoming one with my inner goat!

Our host used his old, front heavy, Japanese pickup to drive my teammate and I to a site near a family I’ve already interviewed. In the last 2 years, they say they’ve lost 200 livestock from snow leopard attacks (though there’s a huge difference between actual losses, and perceived losses. Also losses from illness, or being too weak to survive the harsh climate). The route to the site proved difficult to make until we loaded a bunch of heavy rocks in the back of the truck bed. The vehicle wasn’t heavy enough to make it up the compacted snow covered hills.

It was assumed we would go up the mountain where the herder says the cats are coming from, try to find sign, and go back. A simple day. The majority of the mountains we climb here are more like strenuous hikes with a bunch of rock scrambling. There are plenty of occasions where we have to carefully maneuver across narrow ledges, hugging the rock wall. However, the usual treks are always doable….tricky but doable. This mountain was a challenge that stretched beyond my comfort zone of what should be attempted without climbing gear. Although it was small in comparison to the higher, snow coated ones in the area that we spend most our time on, it was a pain to navigate. The only way up and across was by somehow climbing up smooth, steep rock faces with barely any cracks for hand and footholds, or the sections that appeared to have “friendlier” routes (I say that loosely), were rockslides waiting to happen at the slightest bump of the wrong stones.

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This mountain doesn’t look so bad does it? Looks can be deceiving..

Not wanting to risk one of the incredibly sketchy, almost straight up, narrow-edged ways my teammate managed, I went down a bit and cut across, meeting up on the ridge further along. Even someone who spends every day of his life in this terrain admitted that this little mountain was dangerous. Needless to say, we had many “sentence enhancers” during the course of the day to express how we felt about it. It often took teamwork to help each other up the more precarious sections, a nice test for trust. We eventually made it to the top, only finding an old scat that wasn’t worth collecting and a track….also a lost goat that stared at us in confusion.

Despite the complicated climb of a mountain that was only a little over 2,000m, the view was fantastic. The snow covered nearby mountains reflected the sun back at us across the sparking, white steppe. In the distance, the peak of Otgontenger Uul, Mongolia’s most sacred mountain could be seen.

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Not a bad view

Seeing the sun was going to be setting in the next hour it was time to head back. But how?! For at least 10 minutes we were almost convinced we were stuck. Each direction was a pretty treacherous drop off. Going the way we came was out of the question as well. Not without ropes! After some pacing on the ridge and weighing our few options, we chose the lesser of the “evils” and carefully worked our way down. Each step sent the loose rocks and ice chunks tumbling. By now I’ve come to fully appreciate the grip in my Columbia omni-heat boots. They have been super trusty in more ways than I imagined on this trip.

Safely back at the family’s ger, we settled in for some dinner. I also took this opportunity to give them one of the solar powered Foxlights predator deterrents that Snow Leopard Conservancy sent me to test. Hopefully the device helps to protect their herd!”

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A Foxlights set up behind the corral to ward of snow leopards

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The Longest Day..

Excerpt from my field journal…

1-24-2016

“We climbed the neighboring mountain that has a distinct peak shape that usually marks our way back to camp. The walk to the valley between it and another seemed to take forever. Hiking up the draw that wasn’t as steep as others technically wasn’t too bad but there was far deeper snow so it added to the physical exertion aspect. Plus, since I’m still sick from a bout of tonsillitis, the effort on my ability to breathe was multiplied. My teammate has been incredibly patient with my slower pace, however.

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A camp dog offers her moral support after a climb that took entirely too long while being sick

For the whole climb up and across the ridge-line that was shaped more like the rough spine of some great beast, one of the camp dogs tagged along. Dogs in Mongolia are basically scavengers, living off scraps of meals, and to my recent discovery, human waste (Bleh!!) so they aren’t seen as companion animals. The locals are amused at the tone of voice I use when talking to the dogs. I miss my own so having them around lifts my spirits.

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We did find some scat and tracks. The set of tracks was pretty intermingled with human and livestock, but from what we could see they belonged to a smaller snow leopard. Quite possibly a cub from last year, and the same smaller cat that’s behind our camp.

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A snow leopard pugmark in the middle of an older bootprint shows just how closely humans and this big cat share the land

…Later that evening, our neighbor Bekh stopped by to take us to try to interview a few herders. On the way to the first family, his car kept getting stuck up a hill. After several attempts of reversing and flooring it up the snow/ice packed “road”, we made it past the trouble spot only to get stuck again further along. His tiny vehicle just couldn’t make it over some rocks and repeatedly fishtailed into the snowbanks, getting caught on buried shrubbery. We were soon forced to give up on that route altogether. The second home only had a woman there so we couldn’t interview her. We can only talk to the head man since they know more about the livestock business and snow leopard issues. When I asked Bekh and my teammate about talking to the women, they only laughed and said “they don’t know or care about those things. Women have different priorities: take care of the home and children.” (As I’m constantly asked why I’m still single and not making babies at my age, because it’s the thing women do. Oy)

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Our neighbor, Bekh, often joined us at the start of a hike for snow leopard sign before returning to his herd

Our third ger was more successful. Bekh’s car struggled a bit to get there but we managed. Two men, and two boys were home. The strong smell of cigarettes lingered in the stale air, along with the odor of burning manure from the stove. As usual, we were offered tea. The interview was relatively quick, but I waited around until the guys I was with used the herder’s phone to call some people in the city…

What was supposed to be a simple 3-ger visit, turned into a 1-ger visit that took several hours to accomplish! By then I was too tired and cold to even think about trying another interview in the middle of the night. On the plus side, we saw a few Corsac foxes run along the road in front of the car, startled by the headlights. Their fluffy tails bobbed behind them while they tried to decide where to go before disappearing off-road into the steppe. The full moon made the snow covered landscape glow and shimmer, outlining the silhouettes of the terrain and visible animals.”

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Life at Winter Base Camp

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Mornings are the hardest part of the day. Night temperatures drop to -40C (and sometimes even as low as -50) so willing myself out of my cozy sleeping bag takes extra effort. During the day, a ger can be kept warm throughout -20- -30C temperatures as wood is continuously added to the stove. It can become quite toasty like a sauna in there! However, during the night, the stove is cooled, so the top of the ger can be closed. There’s no wind chill factor, but the temperature is still pretty much what it is outside.

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I unbury myself from my cocoon to find hoarfrost coating the outer shell of my sleeping bag. The fog from my breath as it hits the freezing morning air is thick and sluggish. First thought: “Must. Get. Warm!” Shivering, I urge my stiff muscles to the stove and build a fire after opening the top of the ger and attaching the stovepipe. Minutes later, half choking on smoke from the burning wood that had ice crystals in it, I add more layers over my thermals which have more or less become a second skin. To get circulation moving, I recommend some sort of exercise. It doesn’t matter what it is; jumping jacks, push ups, river dancing, the Electric Slide…whatever does the trick to regain feeling in frozen limbs.

Outside, the livestock owned by my host are getting restless. Goats and sheep are bleating, the cows are bellowing, and the anxious horses snort at the ends of their tie lines ready to work to lead the herds out to pasture. Soon the herders will be cracking their whips and whistling for the livestock to move off of the slope behind camp. Sometimes, my teammate and I climb up the mountain to help encourage the goats down. Nothing like climbing a mountain to warm you up before a day of climbing mountains!

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The goats spar while they wait to go out to pasture

But first, breakfast. More importantly, coffee! I gather containers of snow to boil for our day’s drinking water. By now the fire is warm enough to thaw things out. Everything is frozen, the boortsog (Mongolian donuts), jam, peanut butter, my stash of granola bars, our batch of eggs…everything. As I go about my morning routine of gathering snow, answering “Nature’s call” behind a boulder hoping not to get frostbite on my arse (which would be pretty inconvenient), and cleaning the dishes from last night’s dinner, I’m followed around by a couple of the camp dogs. Covered in thick, wooly coats, they try to mooch for any food scraps. Frost still sprinkles their fur, but they don’t seem to notice. Visitors to Mongolia are generally warned to keep a distance from the dogs, but I’ve managed to make friends with the four at our camp.

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I spoiled the camp dogs. Always gave them extra snacks 😉

Winter days in Mongolia are very short. The sun doesn’t even start to rise until 9am, and then sets by 5pm. By the time its light enough out, and my teammate and I are ready for field work after morning chores, its almost noon. That leaves us for a few good hours to hike transects that might have snow leopard sign before having to head back off the mountains before dark. When we return from collecting data along various ridges, we prepare our dinner from scratch.

I clean and peel vegetables: a carrot, onion, several potatoes, and sometimes a bit of cabbage, while my teammate cuts them and the thawed mutton before we mix them into some pasta or rice. The meal is usually a soup, and is generally bland in flavor. If we are feeling fancy, we may season it or add some salsa type sauce. Enough food is made each night to feed at least 10 people. Why? Because we have to make enough food for the host and his nephew, as well as our neighbor and other random visitors who may stop by on their way home. Herders are out with their animals all day without eating, so each person is hungry enough to eat about 4 heaping bowls (I’m content with one serving). When people stop by, even unannounced, you are obligated to feed them. There are never any leftovers for the next day.

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Mmmm…Mutton soup….again..

After dinner, I’m left to myself for the remainder of the night, reading or writing in my journal to pass the time by the light of my headlamp.

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Awesome story about the journey of Tim Cope, who travelled the route of Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary via horse! 

By around 6-7pm, the herd has returned on their own from grazing, so the muffled sound of hundreds of hooves can be heard through the walls of my ger. Goats bleat to one another as they settle in at the base of the mountain, sounding almost human in their calls. At the host’s ger, the dogs growl and snap at each other, asserting dominance over who gets the larger portion of scraps tossed out to them.

By around 8pm, the evening is relatively quiet. I step outside to admire the clear night sky, unable to remember the names of all the constellations, as they are all visible. The snow covered steppe glows blue, reflecting the bright moon as it positions itself from over a nearby mountain. A light dusting of snow gently falls, shimmering against the moonlight. A peaceful end to another day…

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The livestock return home on their own at the end of the day

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