Seven days in Little Tibet

One of the world’s most remote and extraordinary places, Nepal’s NarPhu valley has everything: stunning scenery, challenging trekking, Tibetan Buddhist culture, Cold War history. And did we mention the snow leopards? A week of wonder in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 17.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

A blow-by-blow account of a week spent in the restricted NarPhu valley searching for snow leopards and their calling cards.

Day 1

Start: Koto 2600m

Finish: Mehta 3560m

Net altitude gain: 960m

Journey time: 8 hours 45 minutes

Armed to the teeth with permits, we were let into the valley by the police without any problems. Immediately a different world: no tourists, no road, hardly any litter. The river gorge we followed was incredible – 1,000m/3,300ft rock walls towering over us on both sides, the sky a sliver of light far above. Sore neck from continually gaping upwards. Below the narrow path a sharp fall to certain death in the ferocious Naar khola (river). Exhausting walk. Out like a light.

Blue sheep, common throughout the valley

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Himalayan Fawlty Towers

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 16, Jonny and the team experience the Himalaya’s very own version of Fawlty Towers, and live to tell the tale. There’s never a dull moment in conservation social science research…

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

The worst hotel in town happens to be the only hotel in town. Expect fireworks.

A tired and hungry bunch of snow leopard researchers arrive at their accommodation after seven hours of exhausting hiking in the baking sun. What they don’t realise is that they have arrived at the NarPhu valley’s version of Fawlty Towers, staffed by the venerable manager (let’s call him Basil) and his hapless assistant (let’s call him Manuel). The scene is set for a memorable stay.

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Goldrush

A caterpillar fungus with a street value more than some illicit drugs, for which people will risk life and limb to gather in Asia’s high mountains. Read all about it in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 15.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

The extraordinary tale of the extraordinary fungus found widely in some snow leopard habitat.

At this time of year, high up in the Himalayas, multitudes of people can be seen combing the ground beneath them, as if looking for something lost. They proceed slowly on their hands and knees, painstakingly covering every square inch of hillside. Every so often, one stops, pulls out a trowel and digs carefully in the soil. Then they lift their prize to examine it in the light – a small, wizened, root-like object, its pale yellow colour obscured by a dusting of soil. Welcome to yartsagunbu season in Nepal. Welcome to the goldrush.

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No free lunch

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 14, Jonny and Maurice discuss the hidden perils of conservation social science research. Seven years on and they’re still publishing journal articles from this work.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

A bright idea for surveying tourists turns into a lot of extra work. Maurice and Jonny recount the sad story.

Maurice: ‘Rinzin, can you please check with him if he is happy to sell his last bottle of methylated spirits to us…’

Rinzin: ‘Yes, he is more than happy!’

Maurice: ‘Fantastic! And could you check with him that he really doesn’t need it…’

After much dialogue, headshaking and difficult facial expressions, it became clear there was, in fact, a problem.

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Wild Mustang

From its stunning arid landscapes to its Yakdonalds, the world’s deepest valley is full of surprises. Jonny gives a guided tour in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 13.

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A short digest of the team’s work over the last month in the western part of Annapurna Conservation Area.

Before it was a muscle-car or a horse breed from the New World, Mustang was a region of mid-western Nepal. It is the true heir to the title. Long before cars were invented or even before horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish, Mustang was the name given to this arid valley that runs south from the Tibetan border. Situated between the towering 8,000metre-plus peaks of Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, its Kali Gandakhi gorge is the deepest in the world. The vast mountains to the east block the passage of the annual monsoon into the valley so that little rain waters its barren landscape. In fact, moonscape might be a more appropriate description. But in its starkness it is stunning.

Jeeps crossing ancient river beds of Mustang's Kali Gandahki gorge Jeep crossing ancient river beds of Mustang’s Kali Gandahki…

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Stairway to heaven

3 planes, 2 buses, 3 jeeps + 12 hours of walking on the stairway to heaven just to get to snow leopard country, and my closest encounter so far with the mountain ghost. Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 12 explains.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

Jonny looks back on his exploratory trip to Nepal in the Autumn of 2013 and sets the scene for his return next week.

In October/November of last year I made my first fieldtrip to Nepal. This one was about setting the scene for the main research trips of 2014, which this blog has been describing. I came to do a practice run with the questionnaire I’d devised, to conduct interviews with locals on a range of background issues relevant to my study, and to check out the areas where the team and I would be collecting data later on: Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park (SNP) and Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA). As my government research permit hadn’t come through by then (or till a lot later – see Hakuna Matata), I wasn’t able to visit SNP. But I had got my research permit from the organisation that operates ACA – the

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Something old, something new

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 11, I reflect on the ins and outs of doing a PhD. Health warning: can cause Permanent Head Damage.

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Doing a PhD is a bit like getting married: it’s a big commitment. Jonny explains, with a little help from an old wedding rhyme.

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21st century conservation

Diverse, interdisciplinary, inclusive, digital: this is 21st century conservation in action, understanding nature and human nature to save the world, its people and its places. This is Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 10…

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Jonny suggests that studying the study’s research team can tell us a lot about conservation today.

Conservation has come a long way since 1903. Back then, a group of British statesmen and naturalists formed the world’s first international conservation organisation, calling it ‘The Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire’. These be-whiskered Anglo-Saxon gentlemen, with their guns and safari suits, lived in a very different world to the one we inhabit today, albeit in the twilight of an era that was to be extinguished by the cataclysm of World War I. The safari suits, if not the guns, may have mostly gone since then but conservation has not. Over a century later, the microcosm that is our research team provides a window on a changed world.

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Water of life

Not just a pretty face, snow leopards roam landscapes that provide water for 1/3 of the human race. In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 9, Jonny explains 4 ways in which water and wildlife connect on the Roof of the World.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

Water is key to understanding snow leopard habitat and snow leopard conservation. Jonny explains.

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Coleridge

Life in the Himalayas is defined by water. It’s everywhere, but like in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, there’s less of it to drink than you might think. That’s because the majority of the water is ice and snow. Indeed, there’s so much ice and snow here that the region has been dubbed ‘The Third Pole’. Across the snow leopard’s mountain kingdom – in the Himalayas and other Central Asian ranges – there are four main ways that water relates to the species.

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Oh deer, what can the matter be?

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 8, I look at the snow leopard’s 3 main large prey species in Nepal. Think fast food, very fast food and extremely fast food.

Snow Leopard Research Nepal

Jonny writes about the snow leopard’s preferred prey in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park.

Snow leopards are big cats. Weighing between 35kg/77lbs and 55kg/121lbs, and with an active lifestyle in a cold environment, they need to eat a lot of food to keep them going and keep them warm. Like all large felines, they tend to catch a big prey animal – like a wild sheep or goat – every couple of days if it’s available, and will often stay near the kill until it’s finished. A snow leopard killing three sheep-sized animals every two weeks could therefore get through around 75 in a year. That’s a lot of lamb chops.

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