Kyrgyzstan - The country of snow leopards
We arrive in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan at the end of October. This small Central Asian country is renowned for the beauty of its mountainous scenery, Issyk-Kul Lake (which is about 1600 meters above sea level), but also for its wildlife, particularly snow leopards.
Our priority is to meet the various organizations working for the protection of the snow leopard and to offer our services as eco-volunteers.
We park Totoy in the city center in the parking close to the opera, where we sleep. It is here that we meet Oleg who is intrigued and interested in our vehicle. He is a driver who works for the United Nations, drives a Toyota and knows very well the off-road. The next day, a young man comes to us, he is called Sanjar, we talk with him about our project and proposes us his help if we need. We ask him where we can recharge our gas cylinders that are not standard in Asia. He comes back to us in the day and takes us on the outskirts of the city to recharge our bottles. We stop on the edge of the road where we distinguish a tanker behind which the gasman is waiting for us. As usual, he is surprised by our blue bottles and he has no connection desired. But he seems confident and take out of his toolbox Teflon roller, rubber gasket and a steel ball. We look a little worried and skeptical, but after a quarter of an hour, many manipulations and gas leaks, he announced that the two bottles are full. Obviously, we do not think about safety or precautionary principle as in France, here they rely on their own resources. Sanjar explains that this man is very experienced and always has solutions to help customers. We thank him and ask him the price of recharging but refuses to be paid, we insist, and with the help of Sanjar, end up settlement.
When we got back in the car park of the Opera, we are surprised to find Oleg and his wife Sveta waiting for us for 1h30 in their Toyota and they invite us into their dacha (country house) south of Bishkek. We spend a great evening with them and their daughter Anastacia. The next day is spent for Totoy: general check in Oleg workshop, changing a stub axle, realization of mudguards to protect the bumper... In parallel, they prepare delicious Kyrgyz dishes (Lagman, Plov...), that we enjoy with their homemade white wine.
The weekend ends and Anastacia explains that there will be snow, what surprised us because the weather is very good (15 to 20 ° C). The next day, the change is radical because we wake with 10cm of snow. It is true that the weather changes very quickly in this mountainous country.
We now have to meet the different organizations of protection of snow leopard and we note with astonishment that there are at least 8, and few of them work together. The appointments follow one another with those that we have selected:
- Panthera trust: American Association who claims to be "leader" in protecting cats. They do not need eco-volunteer nor tourist, but gladly accept donations. They are present in Kyrgyzstan for a short time, but allow themselves to criticize the work of other local organizations. Obviously, we have not knocked on the right door.
- International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT): American Association also very active on the ground in the east and that directly involve local people in the conservation of the snow leopard. Indeed, they propose to the local people to manufacture traditional products which are then sold on their website, ensuring them an income. An additional 30% bonus on sales is granted if people follow a conservation pact of leopards and its preys in a specific area. The people must stop hunting and monitor the area while fighting against attempts to poaching and corruption. An independent organization performs checks to see if the pact is respected and if that is the case, then the bonuses are paid to residents. Contact with Kuban and Cholpon was very good and we helped them to sort their goods before shipment to the United States. At their next expedition in the two villages who are partners to the project, we will accompany them.
- Panthera France: French organization that works in partnership with Objectif Sciences International and organizes high-end eco-tourism. We had good contact by email with Anne Ouvrard who is behind the project but who unfortunately is not present in autumn and winter. She advised us however to contact Bastien who works with her and who was still there when we arrived. We shared a lot with Bastien who knows very well the field and gave us many contacts and valuable tips for our stay.
- NABU: German organization which finances part of the rehabilitation center of the snow leopard located north of Lake Issyk-Kul. It also works with a group of rangers trained to fight against poaching, called Gruppa Bars, meaning "group of leopards "in Russian. We meet Tolkunbek, the Director of Nabu Kyrgyzstan, who delivers us permission to visit the rehabilitation center and help the rangers even though currently there is no eco-volunteer program.
It was after obtaining this authorization that we drive to Lake Issyk-Kul and specifically to the village of Ananyevo north of the lake. We take the path that leads to the reserve and are stopped in front of a metal barrier. The night begins to fall and after a few minutes we see a figure in the shadows, it is a ranger who comes to us on horseback. The image is beautiful, we arrive in another world where the horse replaces the car. We continue our progress towards the mountain and arrive at a shelter built by the rangers where we spend the night.
The next day we discover a splendid view of the lake we overlook. The mountains merge with the clouds and seem directly to come from the blue water.
Victor Kulagin, the center's director, is an endearing man with a strong character, but we really get through to him from the very beginning, and moreover, Celine talks to him in Russian what he really appreciates. He tells us that we are extreme people and he likes our way of traveling and approaching the animals. In fact, he hates journalists who come to make a show. He gives us the example of reporters doing shots with backpacks filled with plastic, climbing up the rocks nearby the snow leopards enclosures and then, connecting the images in order to think they observe leopards in the wild. Examples succeed and are not lacking, we laugh until he said coldly, "Now you are at home and you can stay as long as you want at the center."
We help the rangers in their daily tasks and make a film about their work. The days follow each other, rangers groups too, but their kindness, their sense of hospitality and sharing really affect us. We live with them and like them, which allows us to create bonds of friendship and have a real vision of the field. Indeed, they are the ones who best know the area and the animals that live there and yet their work is not often highlighted in the reports.
We invite you to watch this film we made with them and it is also one of the rangers, Maxim, with whom we recorded the voiceover in Russian. We decided together not to show images of the killing donkeys which are food given to leopards and other animals from the center, in order not to offend the most sensitive. But that's part of the work of rangers who perform this task with speed and incredible precision.
You will not see also Celine capturing mice in our "private hotel", which was infested, and gave them with a big smile to our neighbor lynx. In fact, we had mice that did not fear man since one of them slipped under my pants to the knee when I tried to catch it. It was not unusual to be woken up when they went on us during the night.
After 3 weeks at the center, we take the direction of Karakol to meet Nazgul who is in charge, within the United Nations, of the creation of a new protected area in the east. The project is large and very difficult to achieve because many conflicts arise between hunting societies, the inhabitants of the area, companies that exploit minerals and China, who wants to build a dam. We explain our project and show her all the different videos we made previously. She looks forward and discusses with his collaborator, Zhyldyz. She then asked if we would be able to make a promotional film of this new protected area in order to communicate about the usefulness of the project to the authorities, residents, schools. Her idea is that we should visit the various reserves of the country to shoot landscapes, animals and the work of the rangers. We are very pleasantly surprised and realize that its proposal is a real opportunity for us to work with all the reserves on a very important national project for the conservation of the snow leopard and the country's biodiversity. Nazgul indicates that they will deliver us the documents necessary to obtain a 6 month renewable visa so that we can work calmly in winter and especially in spring, as the future protected area is completely isolated from the world for the winter. Indeed, it is in this area that there is the highest peak of the country at about 7,439 meters.
Then we meet the director of the reserve Karakol offering us to go with his team on an argali and ibex counting. We decide to follow them with Totoy, but quickly find the limits of our car with not suitable tires for snow. Indeed, we take a mountain track where there is in some places from 50cm to 1 meter of snow. The rangers are equipped with snow tires and chains on our side it is hell in the first big climb and what we have already explained them is confirmed, we must equip ourselves with chains and try it later. Most people who see our Totoy with our MUD tires, think we can go anywhere and then we have to explain to them that these tires are provided for mud as their name suggests. Finally rangers will spend 7 hours on the road to do 15 km and sleeping in a tent at -11 ° C, strong boys ...
We do not find chains in Karakol, but we have to come back to Bishkek to participate to a show dedicated to volunteering, but also to review our various contacts and carry out procedures for obtaining our visa. Oleg, Sveta and Anastacia welcome us again very warmly and the sauna Oleg prepared for us is very good. It's always a pleasure to share a moment with them and they tell us that we can stay at home again. We can not thank them enough for their generosity and for the support they give us every day.
We take our return to the capital to present our video about snow leopards to Nabu and specifically to Tolkunbek, the director. He welcomes us with open arms and even gives Celine a kiss, which is not really a local custom. He thanked us for the work we have done in the center and for making the film. He wishes now to have a Kyrgyz version for presentation in schools. He asks us what is our program for the end of the year and to our surprise, he proposes to follow for 8 days the famous team of rangers specialized in the fight against poaching: the Gruppa Bars. The end of the year looks bright and new adventures await us.
View the album on Flickr.
You can see our pictures on this link.
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