Follow me to lands of Snow Leopards.

And so the adventure begins! People going on a vacation may start like this, but things are quite different, challenging and sometime unpleasant, when you have to travel as part of your work. We were going on such a journey to the remote Valley of Terich in the foothills of Terichmir, the highest peak in the Hindukush Mountain range.

The team struggling to make a safe start

The team struggling to make a safe start

View of Tirich Valley

View of Tirich Valley

A distance of 629 Km from Islamabad, took us almost 30 hours,to Terich Valley. Our first destination was SLF regional office Chitral which was at a distance of 440 Km. On Nov 10th, we as a team of four researchers, started our journey and were very excited but soon our excitement changed into worrisome. We received news of snow fall at Lowari Pass, perhaps the only difficulty and adventure one would have before reaching Chitral. Vehicular movement was hampering due to Snow fall at the pass but we reached the top with little difficulty. It was 9 at night, while turning to the north face of mountain, our pickup suddenly slipped to the edge of the narrow road. The driver was quick enough to apply breaks and turn it to the left but the substrate couldn’t support all this and the pickup skidded and parked on oblique angle to the road. We had just made a narrow escape from deathbut it was neither possible nor wise to travel any further without snow chains. So the crew started working on it and after scrambling half an hour in the freezing cold it was done. Until we climbed down in the valley, all of us remained silent while rubbing hands in order to get warmth. After mid night we reached the SLF regional office Chitral.

Posing for a photograph, the team is ready to move forward

Posing for a photograph, the team is ready to move forward

The lone camera trap

The lone camera trap

On 12th of Nov the journey again started for a distance of 189 Km (from Chitral to Terich) and the crew doubled. Snow fall started on the midway and get heavier when we entered the valley, thanks to the villagers who came to make our way finally to our basecamp. The basic infrastructure of the valley had just recovered from the summer floods and the following earthquake. It took us one more day to muster up courage and move in the field.

Wildlife research and field activities involve many things others couldn’t imagine, one of them is, associated weather conditions. In Terich Valley we were welcomed by more than 18 inches of snow on the ground. The slopes were very steep. Avalanches and rock fall wasn’t unusual. We were confined to the lower reaches and less dangerous sites by natural conditions. Installation of 28 cameras continued for the next six days by three different teams in different areas of the Valley which were rebaited and taken down following a fixed schedule of 40 days.

Team members trying to acclimatize themselves

Team members trying to acclimatize themselves

After the exhausting field day, everyone gathered around to tell their stories of daily adventures. The stories ranged from where they went, what they did and with whom they interacted. In some cases, they had escaped a rock fall or had stepped into the freezing water underneath the snow. Appropriate guidance and cautionary measures were given by the experienced crew members.

Communities in the remote areas usually have little knowledge or sometimes they are already misinformed about conservation partners and research activities thus have developed sensitivities towards certain things. When someone enters into the community, he might be taken as an antagonist and suddenly, related sensitivities arise. Address such circumstances and people with science and scientific knowledge, because science is convincing”, says Hussain Ali senior research associate who led the team. “And most people have already come across the experience in their lives but they haven’t noticed it. When you refresh their memories with science they accept and believe it”, he elaborated.

After installation of the cameras a three membered team remained in the valley for a period of 52 days gathering information from the locals and monitoring the cameras. Meanwhile a survey of the ungulate population was also conducted using double observer method.The team frequently visited schools and other community gatherings to educate and aware the people about the need of conservation efforts. During the visits many misconceptions about carnivores were dispelled and other conservation related issues were discussed and resolved. During our stay the valley remained disconnected from rest of the district for several days due to frequent blockage of the road from land sliding.

Snow Leopard captured at a camera station

Snow Leopard captured at a camera station

Pug marks of Snow Leopard

Pug marks of Snow Leopard

Despite the troublesome weather conditions which we faced every day in the field, results of the study were encouraging. A number of animals including snow leopard, ibex, wild cat, jackals, fox, cape hare, stone marten and other mammals and birds were recorded in the cameras.  A presentation was also given to villagers about the animals in their area. Many of the people expressed their excitement and joy knowing who else is sharing their backyard. The goals of our visit to the Valley were positively met and it was time to say goodbye to the valley and the villagers.

The unfavorable natural conditions were still chasing us,the only road connecting Chitral was blocked at a distance of 2 Km from our camp and our pickup had been left on the other side of the blockage. So again the villagers came to help us and shifted all our equipment to the pickup. We returned to Chitral on 31st December with everlasting memories. Of course, the best thing about the memories was in their making.