Mountains of the mind

It’s not the imposing spires of the Himalayas that are the world’s most challenging peaks; it’s the mountains of the mind. These mental massifs also dictate the success or failure of snow leopard conservation, and of nature conservation in general. Some parting thoughts from the series in Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 19.

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Two months on from finishing fieldwork, the snow leopard conservation journey continues.

The Himalayas may be thousands of miles from where I sit writing this, but their epic proportions feel much closer to home. That’s because the mountains that I’ve been working amongst over the last two months are not physical entities but mountains of data. With over 700 household questionnaires and 70 interviews collected there’s a lot of information to be sifted through and checked. I’ve just spent three weeks, for example, going through around 15,000 responses to open questions – were the respondent can say whatever they want rather than picking predetermined answers – and putting them in relevant categories. Only now am I ready to start analysing this data with statistics.

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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.

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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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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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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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Homeward bound

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 7, I finish setting up the first phase of data collection in the Everest region. Then it’s a gruelling, up-hill-and-down-dale trek out, with all those questionnaires strapped to my back.

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Another long walk for Jonny and a new chapter for the rest of the team.

My two weeks in the field setting up the research project were over. Due to family commitments, it was time to head home. So far, we’d conducted 15 interviews and almost 150 household surveys. We were well on our way to achieving our goal of 26 interviews and 260 questionnaires in the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park – 25% of all the households in the area.

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Yak yeti yak

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 6, Jonny et al come face-to-face with the realities – and mythologies – of living alongside large carnivores. Lock up your yaks.

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Close encounters of the feline kind. Some readers may find some of the photos in this blog distressing.

On Wednesday 19th we left Thame for Namche Bazaar. After a stopover there to refuel on chocolate cake and apple pie in the heavenly Namche Bakery, we set out the next day for our new destinations. Khunde and Khumjung are 330m/1,000ft m above Namche Bazzar at around 3,730m/12,300ft. We’d heard that there’d been some recent livestock losses there so we were keen to check them out.

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Life in the freezer

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 5, Jonny and the team experience -20 celsius blizzard conditions, as they face up to the harsh reality of winter life on the Roof of the World…

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Our second blog from the Nangpa valley describes what a bunch of snow leopard researchers get up to in their spare time. Silly nonsense, mostly.

All work and no play make Jonny & Co. a dull bunch. Having time-off is therefore an important part of our schedule, and we take every Sunday as a rest-day. Most evenings, though, the four of us can be found reading books and playing Uno, all the while sitting as close to the communal stove as we can get without going up in flames.

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The Snow Leopard Bank Ltd.

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 4 – The Snow Leopard Bank Ltd. – find out what microfinance has to do with macro-predators. And why both people & snow leopards are banking on the answer…

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What does a microfinance scheme have to do with snow leopard conservation? Quite a lot actually, as the first of two blogs from the Nangpa valley explains.

On Friday 14th we left Namche Bazaar for the Nangpa valley, the western part of Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park. This area is well away from the busy tourist trail to Everest Base Camp, and is quieter, less well-off and more dependent on agriculture and livestock. This valley was also were Tsering, one of our research assistants was from. As a local, he had spent a week with us making valuable introductions to contacts in the area, but now left due to prior commitments back in Kathmandu.

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The Bizarre Bazaar

In Snow Leopard Fieldwork Diaries 3 the team and I start collecting data in Namche Bazaar. Gateway to the Everest region and ‘capital’ of the Sherpa people, it is also – at 3440m – home to the world’s highest Irish pub…

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The team get stuck into data collection in our first village. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Namche Bazaar has now been the team’s home for most of a week. It’s a funny wee place: around 200 households sculpted into a horseshoe-shaped valley with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. It’s also a tourist hotspot and the numerous hotels stacked on top of each other, with their blue and green roofs and window-sashes, give it a gaudy Alpine-ski-resort feel.

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