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The day we found Snow Leopard tracks in the Altai

Martyn Roberts, United Kingdom

We were at the top of the mountain when the call came through on the radio.

I was in the Altai Republic in Central Asia with Biosphere Expeditions as a member of the first team to take part in a survey of snow leopards in this part of the world. Getting to base camp had been an expedition in itself. Novosibirsk in Kazakstan [the nearest international airport] had been reached from the UK by a series of complicated flights that had included a nightmare transfer between terminals in Moscow.

This had been followed by a two-day drive to the tented base camp 60km from the nearest human habitation. It was getting dark as we arrived and the 2 person tents we were to share were cosy to say the least. After a very welcome nights sleep we were up early for a couple of days training on how to fill in the data sheets, identify tracks and prints and what to do with useful animal droppings amongst other things.

By the end of this time we had also got to grips with the long drop toilets and outdoor cold showers as well as the local cuisine. Fortunately we had stocked up with large boxes of Moldovan wine and local vodka from the 24-hour supermarket in Novosibirsk.

The next day four of us set off up one of the mountains to do our first surveying with our guide Oleg, ironically named Big Oleg because he was far older but much smaller than Little Oleg. We spent most of the morning relentlessly climbing the endlessly steep mountain with minimal communication from Oleg who only became animated when we stopped to take on water. He bizarrely claimed this would make things worse for us. Being typically British and too polite to question this or telling him he was talking rubbish, we meekly went along with what he said.

By early afternoon when we reached what appeared to be the top but was another ridge, I was seriously questioned what on earth had motivated me to sign up for the expedition. My 47 year old bones were creaking and I was struggling to breathe. We hadnít seen a thing except spectacular but desolate and rocky mountains. Our guide was intent on keeping going as though were regular triathlon competitors and we had very little idea what we were supposed to be doing. Energy and motivation levels were dropping rapidly.

Then everything changed. The radio crackled in to life. One of the other groups were nearer than we thought and though barely able to speak through excitement told us that they had just discovered fairly fresh snow leopard tracks ! After a few moments we located them just visible down in the valley bottom. We set off down the scree slope using the technique Oleg demonstrated so that we could do it at speed. How we all got to the bottom safely Iíll never know.

On arrival we found the other group silently staring in to a gully that was well shaded and filled with snow. A set of very clear paw prints ran from top to bottom. Yuriy, the expedition scientist, confirmed they were snow leopard tracks and a few days to a week old at the most. Staring in awe at them I was overcome with a feeling of complete exhilaration. One of the rarest big cats in the world had passed through where I was standing. They were here and what we were going to do would help them and where they lived to survive.

All the trials and tribulations of the past days fell away as we embarked on our tasks of recording and photographing the critical evidence we could only previously dream of finding. The long walk back to base camp that night seemed to go by in seconds.

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