Searching for the ghost cat in Tajikistan: Part One

Hail and rain hammered the ground just inches from my boots and a frozen wind sent a shiver down my spine. My two research assistants and I were huddled together under the only shelter we could find  – a glacially deposited boulder in a valley somewhere deep in the Hissar Mountain Range of Tajikistan. As I sat clutching my backpack to my body for warmth and reflecting on the challenges of the past week, I felt that maybe, just maybe, I would not succeed.

Tajikistan's Hissar Mountains are rugged and remote, ideal habitat for the snow leopard. Photo credit: Tara Meyer.

Tajikistan’s Hissar Mountains are rugged and remote, ideal habitat for the snow leopard. Photo credit: Tara Meyer.

When I first started telling people I was going to study snow leopards in Tajikistan for my summer research, the reactions I received were a mix of bewilderment and intrigue. Where is Tajikistan? Why do you want to go there? How will you conduct research if you do not speak the language? I admit going alone to a country few have heard of (or can pronounce) to conduct independent research in terrain that is completely merciless sounds a bit crazy. But the idea of this adventure exhilarated me. Plus I knew I would have research assistants, and support from my collaborators at Panthera, a U.S. based NGO whose mission is to research and conserve the world’s largest cats. It was Panthera’s in country Director Tanya Rosen, an F&ES alum, who first suggested that I spend my summer conducing research in Tajikistan. So I pitched the idea in Professor Os Schmitz’s Quantitative Research Methods course last fall, and before I knew it I was booking a plane ticket and buying “A Quick Guide to Russian”.

The Republic of Tajikistan is a very young country, having emerged from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Mountains, including the Pamir Range, which is often referred to as the “Roof of the World,” cover more than 90% of the country. Tajikistan is also home to a small but thriving population of the elusive cat I am now here to study: the snow leopard.

My study area, the Hissar Mountains, geographically links Uzbekistan’s Gissar Range (where snow leopards were discovered only last year) with the Pamirs in the east, meaning it may be the source of connectivity between two populations of this highly endangered species. Yet no one has ever studied snow leopards (or any wildlife) in the Hissar Range. Perhaps this is because—unlike most parts of the Pamirs—the Hissars are not protected from anthropogenic impacts such as livestock grazing, mining, or illegal hunting. They are also much more accessible to people, with parts of the range as close as 60km from Tajikistan’s capital city. This makes the Hissar Range an incredibly fascinating place to study human-wildlife interactions. Although my goals for the summer seemed easy enough at first – perform the first ever snow leopard survey in the Hissar Mountains using 40 motion-sensing cameras and DNA scat analyses, and conduct interviews to provide a local context– reality very quickly proved otherwise.

The author's snow leopard study area. Map by Tara Meyer.

The author’s snow leopard study area. Map by Tara Meyer.

The trouble started the day I arrived in Tajikistan, when a deadly attack aimed at the government in eastern Tajikistan stirred up trouble for foreigners traveling to the Pamirs. This was particularly bad news for Panthera, who was only one week away from starting a long-term snow leopard collaring and monitoring project there. Given these complications, Tanya made the difficult decision to postpone the collaring project until next year. Thankfully, since my research is in the western part of Tajikistan, we felt it would be okay for me to continue. So I began to program my cameras, charge batteries, and discuss my plan and methods with my two research assistants, Komil and Zayniddin. After struggling to communicate my research methods and goals with them for two days, I began a frantic search for a translator to accompany us into the field. But the people I interviewed on such short notice were not the right fit for our expedition. So on day five, I conceded, and Komil, Zayniddin and I bought 10 days worth of food at the bazaar, packed our backpacks into a 4WD Mitsubishi Pajero, and headed north into the mountains. I felt rushed, but I was eager to get started placing my cameras, given that I would have to return again in six weeks to pick them up.

As we drove, the magnificence and ruggedness of the iron-rich peaks molded by ancient seas and glacial deposits made my jaw drop in awe. I have traveled and hiked in many amazing mountain ranges around the world, but these mountains held a unique beauty. The road quickly turned from bumpy highway to a mandatory 4WD, one-lane mountain pass, which wound along a furious river. At the end of the road, literally, a derelict guesthouse that would become our basecamp for the week greeted us.

But the elements and terrain were not in our favor. Our first day in the field, Komil, Zayniddin and I were unable to find one good site to position even one camera, and we were forced to down-climb without any protective gear in some of the sketchiest terrain I have ever encountered, and arrived back at camp two hours after dark. Immediately, I found myself questioning my physical and mental ability to do this work. The next couple days were spent waiting out intermittent rain, hail and snow storms, and because this area was as foreign to Komil and Zayniddin as it was to me, we also searched for a local guide. On day five we finally gave up on the weather and the guide, and headed back out into the rain, my assistants both without jackets and me with a stomach virus. It was on this day, after hours of hiking precipitous mountain margins and finding no sign at all of either snow leopards or ibex that the three of us took cover from a exceptionally heavy surge of rain and hail under a large boulder on the valley bottom. Each of us knew we could not continue like this – so after a short, broken conversation, we hiked back through the rain to our car and began packing to leave. Sick, soaked, struggling to communicate, and feeling like the whole project was a complete disaster, we were about to drive away when a young Tajik guy walked up to the car sporting a backwards hat and a huge grin.

The author's research assistants, Komil and Zayniddin, survey the Hissar Range. Photo credit: Tara Meyer.

The author’s research assistants, Komil and Zayniddin, survey the Hissar Range. Photo credit: Tara Meyer.

When I first arrived in Tajikistan, Tanya had mentioned Khalil as someone who could potentially help with my fieldwork and translate from both Tajik and Russian to English. Currently pursuing his own master’s degree in Vienna, Khalil had been planning to help with the summer collaring project in the Pamirs before it was cancelled. However, Khalil arrived in Tajikistan after we planned to be in the mountains, so I had forgotten about him.

Within seconds of speaking to him I knew everything would be okay. Khalil explained that he was familiar with the study area, he had contacts in several villages and valleys, and most importantly, he understood me when I articulated my goals and methods for the project. He took one look at me and told me not to worry, because he “knows every stone.” Suddenly I felt my luck changing. I had found my Tajik “Pocahontas”. Great things were coming.

Edited by Timothy Brown.

Tara Meyer

Tara Meyer is completing her Master's of Environmental Sciences at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For her thesis Tara led a camera and DNA-based study aimed at documenting snow leopards for the first time in western Tajikistan. Tara studies large carnivore behavior, predator-prey interactions and solutions for human-wildlife coexistence across rapidly changing, human-impacted landscapes.

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7 Comments

  1. Superb. Bravo.

  2. patty obrien says:

    Tara, I LOVED reading about your adventure and studies abroad. I remember a segment on PLANET EARTH PBS series on a small group (about two or three) that were studying the snow leopard too. Worth a look at for you. Really cool experience. If only the world had more people like you in it, then the animals would be better off! Thank you for sharing…..love reading about it. Will pass this on to Dr. O and ann.

  3. Brilliant T. Looking forward to reading about your results and seeing pictures!

  4. Tara, This is an amzing start to the story that must have many more twists and turns. What a fantastic field experience in such remote and treacheroous terrain. GMF will seem so tame by all comparisons…bravo! Look forward to the next installment!

  5. Great story! Would like to know more about your adventure and how the snow leopards are doing? Have you read The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen ?

  6. Pingback: Back in action | Colin Donihue

  7. Mehrojiddin says:

    Tara, I have read your article with great pleasure! Exclusive!
    I thought about cooperation with you in forestry field. Because I’m interesting in landscape gardening and tree planting in the hills around Dushanbe City. We should talk about it. What do you think?

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