by Dr. Justine Shanti
In the Fall 2020, snow leopard expert Dr. Justine Shanti decided to make public some of the field notes she had taken in 2013 and 2014 as she was starting her Ph.D at the Beijing Forestry University, in China. I was struck by the authenticity, the beauty and the power of her words, along with the quality of the photos Justine would share. We are very pleased today to share with you parts of Justine's incredible journey.
Justine is now the Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Network, coordinator of the Population Assessment of the World's Snow Leopards (PAWS) and Regional Ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT).
However, if there is one thing I would say to describe Justine, it would be how much of an endless source of inspiration and empowerment she can be.
Now it is your time to dive into the start of her PhD journey back in 2013. Be ready to feel the cold of the high Qilianshan mountain and the warmth of the beauty and peoples of these regions.
Foreword by Sherry Young
January 3rd, 2013
After much delay we are finally off on a quest to the northern boundaries of the "roof of the world"- Gansu's high mountain range to start the first field season of my PhD (planned until mid April).
It is hard to describe where we are to go or what awaits us over the next few months of fieldwork. But what is for sure is that we will not be encircled by pristine untouched mountaintops. The Tibetan Plateau once described as being "harder then the road to heaven" is now only a short flight and four-wheel drive away from Beijing. Jonathan Watts wrote during his journey across the Tibetan Plateau: "the further we progressed alongside the track, the more obvious was the damage to the roof of the world. It was leaking. Overgrazing had stripped off much of its thin grassy cover and global warming was burning through its liquid insulation."
So instead of imagining how the place may have transformed or changed since my short trip to the field site last year, I try and prepare myself more for the certain struggle of the blistering cold. The altitude of my field site averages an estimated 4500m, ranging from 3500- 5500m, the temperature at a nearby city was -18 earlier today (and i cant imagine what it will be at higher elevations), this years winter has been unusually cold (perhaps linked to a record loss in sea ice) and according to some local contacts there has recently been some heavy snow. The prospect of camping in such an environment suddenly seems terrifying and unrealistic. But at least my local guide has suggested that I should make sure to bring my own large supply of coal. So why not be a bit fearless and just give it a try.
And so the winter adventures of Ms. Ju or Juju 珠珠 (my chinese name) and the team begin. A quest to study/live undetected alongside the snow leopards, blue sheep, and sleeping brown bears. I do not expect to be in contact with my friends and family very often over the next few months (and possibly slip in a shower at a similar frequency).
January 24th, 2013
These mountain slopes have indeed been beaten, over grazed, and partitioned. After hours of hiking across sharp slopes, out of nowhere we are suddenly met with wire fences: a freshly varnished fence that continues its route into the distance, higher along the shoulder ridge. Only some of the highest jagged peaks are said to remain un-trotted.
February 8th, 2013
We felt over prepared, our pick-up vehicle stacked high with boxes of supplies. But we were wrong. On arrival to our new field site (located deeper into the mountains), I glanced at my guide and could see his unsteady eyes quickly scanning the frozen landscape below. The ice was as hard as stone- the usual water hole
January however ends with some news. My field assistant, who has been vital in translating and communicating in mandarin with the rest of the field team- is leaving us here in the field to go back to Beijing in search of new conquests. She is leaving me in these desolate mountains with my two remaining team members:
I could and been telling myself that my mandarin is adept enough to face the challenge of communicating with the team without a translator (with my extensive knowledge of the names of the many different types of noodles) but unfortunately that is only true is my imaginary universe. In the reality of this world I know that the next three months will involve a lot of pointing, sign language and many looks of puzzlement and dismay. My mind and dreams have already started to be inundated by Chinese sayings and sounds. So perhaps there is hope. And so the adventures continue.
We next travel to our third field site: an area that is said to have never been surveyed for carnivores. And the Chinese New Year begins-the year of the snake!
"I remember writing the next entry- 2 weeks after the previous- and moral was low, very low... we had been almost 50 days together and everyone was very tired. We also knew that at there was at least 2 more months to go... but somehow we managed to sing & smile. I only managed to write the following tho."
February 21st, 2013
We are back in the field again.
The tide has turned... some of our beautiful scat samples were peed upon by a housecat, my laptop has sizzled away and died, some of our camera traps have disappeared or been eaten by fish(we suspect taken by a group of blue sheep poachers/hunters) and I hobble around the slopes as I have injured my left knee/hip in an unfortunate fall on the ice.
The watching ghosts of the snow leopards are giggling...
In despair I retreat to my wonderland singing this song that never fails to bring back a smile on my face--
"I love the ground~o ground~o
A ball beneath my feet
The world is round~o round~o
Just like a frigging beet."
While A Cheng sings Tibetan and mandarin songs about the beautiful mountains and returning home.
The only signs of sighting a spotted leopard...is the local house cat squatting near- the suspect who urinated on my samples... but give him some credit he is surviving in this biting winter in the mountains among the snow leopards.
"when we accept small wonders、we qualify ourselves to imagine great wonders"
March 10th, 2013
I am only starting to understand why the snow leopard has been referred to as the “grey ghost”. At first when we began the field season the mountains felt empty of life, with a strange unsetting quiet stillness. But as we looked and listened closer, it was clear that the feeling was very misleading- with the sight of the powerful Himalayan
Griffons & Lammergeyers circling the above ridges, flocks of Chukar partridges startled in nearby shrubs, the dark outlines of a blue sheep on distant ridgelines, a hare leaping in the distance, and red fox eyes peering at us from an above ledge (and those previously mentioned friendly mice).
We however have only been able to indirectly confirm the presence of the snow leopard. At times we have found an immediate area vibrant with snow leopard activity-inundated with signs, making it difficult to count how many different individuals may have been present: one individual walking back and forth within the same day, making a few scrapes here and there? Two individuals walking along each others sides? No wait, there is another set going the opposite direction and another isolated scrape around the corner. How can the species be so dynamic and cluttered but so rarely make an appearance? I have left such a scene in not only a cloud of confusion but with an even greater itch to catch a glimpse of the ghost.
After two months of living among them we have unfortunately not had such the privilege. The odds are very much against our favor given their nocturnal habits, their effective camouflage, thought to be predominantly solitary, their ability to access cliffs/ridges far out of our reach etc. Maybe Nigel Richardson was right when he wrote: « In truth, you are scarcely more likely to spot a snow leopard in the wild than you are to see a unicorn ».
But unicorns exist, right?
We are also running out of time. Spring has arrived. The landscape has radically morphed from snow-covered to dry earthy slopes. On some days we are met with strong winds from the north bringing with them waves of sand from the nearby Gobi desert. A heavy orange/white haze covers the horizon and dust particles envelope our bodies, tickling our noses and stinging our eyes. Mr Wang who likes to be clean is particularly not pleased, chanting as we hike- “ Oh oh oh, dirty dirty dirty” and taking at least an hour every evening scrubbing/rinsing his field gear. At first the sight of the sand storms were nauseating bringing back terrible memories of Beijing’s smothering smog. But now I have surrendered to being permanently soiled and just hope these extra layers of sand/turned mud on my face are acting as an efficient organic sunscreen against those scorching sunrays- perhaps even delaying those wrinkles.
While I do admit that I enjoy these longer/warmer days I am very much aware of the outcomes. Our fresh veggies and fruit supplies at camp are rotting, the hungry brown bears are stirring (they may already be out of hibernation) and the local herdsmen are reclaiming the mountain slopes. But most importantly it is becoming more difficult to find signs of the elusive snow leopard. Instead of the widespread layers of snow we are now relying on periodic patches of sand/mud, straining our eyes to make out the pattern of older pugmarks. It is as if our ghost was slowly evaporating away.
The frozen rivers (our main transport routes) are also melting fast. Which means we may only have a window of a few weeks to finish placing the remaining camera traps and completing the marathon of picking them all up again. My mind is eager but my knees are already aching with the thought.
And OH! Did you know that snow leopards have been recorded to jump a horizontal distance of 15 meters, now isn’t that amazing!
Three months in and exhaustion has now plagued us. But there is no time to rest as the rivers have melted much earlier than expected this year as we desperately try and retrieve our camera traps. By the afternoon the sound of the river rapids can be heard beneath the seemingly stable top ice layer. My fatigued mind finds it hard to remain bold and fearless. On thawing ice I fear falling through and being whisked away in the below rapids, on scree slopes I dread trusting that my worn out feet will not lose their subtle hold. We are also concerned that our cameras have not been taken away by the river or a passing stranger. But instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety we try and stay amused by the Yak dung mounds perched on ice towers scatter across the remaining ice. In this blur of utter exhaustion days mend into one, we only speak in broken mandarin now and one must be careful and keep team moral high (as everyone is on nerve).
But my team tries to keep it together as some new company has joined us: An ungulate specialists who is studying blue sheep populations in the area. The blue sheep team have brought with them a taste of finesse. I am reminded how smelly my socks are, that others actually air & wash their feet in the field, change undergarments more than weekly (I am averaging every 6-8 days) and we are reintroduced to the ways of socializing. Our personal space has also radically reduced as we accommodate the larger field team. At night one can choose to either conform to the decided sleeping bag lineup direction and am met with the warm smell of garlic breath on my face. Or one can choose to rebel and get the sour smell of feet (and have nightmares of being swarmed by smelly damp socks)- I choose the feet.
And we tromp on, getting slightly confused as we combine collecting our carnivore scats and cameras with blue sheep surveys and blue sheep dung clearance plots. But we know that the end of foul feet is near, too near. Sleep and the aroma of Beijing smoggy roses are only a few mended hazy days away. In the mist of our current confusion I am not sure what I’ll prefer.
April 15th 2013
(3+ months since we started)
The feathery clouds descended onto the dry summits, the snowflakes fell, and we awoke to the mountains blanketed with flawless sheets of white. But a few hours later under the powerful sun, the white turned into treacherous mud and so did our garments as me slipped and skidded down greasy slopes. Within another 24 hours we were no longer appreciating the mountains stillness, racing breathlessly up shrubby precipices or sharing a bed with two snoring men (and the blue sheep team)- But instead I found myself on Beijing’s subway sandwiched among peering strangers, dodging the pedestrian masses while biking on a hectic street, and adapting to being bombarded by mysterious smells, startling sounds and of course the urbanites ways of washing (daily showering- which I am now convinced is overrated and largely unnecessary).
And so the adventures of the phd 2013 winter have come to a screeching halt.
I already miss sharing every moment of the day with A Cheng and Mr Wang (despite not being able to have very elaborate conversations given my beginner mandarin skills we had come accustomed to sharing moments of silence and had pushed through so much- sometimes even angry at eachother in our silence)… its strange how in a large city like Beijing you can feel more loneliness then the high mountains of the Tibetan Plateau.
Sven Hedin words from 1909 felt right; “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the unknown, putting one mountain chain after the other behind us. And from every pass a new landscape unfolded its wild. Desolate vistas towards a new and mysterious horizon, a new outline of rounded or pyramidal snow capped peaks. Those who imagine that such a journey is vast solitude and desolation is tedious and trying are mistaken. No spectacle can be more sublime. Every day’s march, every league brings discoveries of unimagined beauty.”- (Quoted in Schaller-Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe, 1998)
July 10, 2013
It is July 2013 and we are off again; off to the QilianShan mountains for a few weeks in search of those beloved snow leopards. It has been 3 months since we returned to Beijing (along with our many 100 scat samples). This time, after many hours of identifying individuals from the winter season pictures, we now can recognize some unique patterns of some of the individuals. SOooo Ill pretend to myself and my field team that if we were to see one watching us from the far ridge, we might be able to say, “oh my that’s Leopold the snow leopard or that the royal Prince of Persia...”
This field trips focus is a little different- we will be working with local herders of the area and document livestock loss events to snow leopards (or perhaps those lynxes that we caught on camera trap using the same travel routes as the snow leopard). We also hope to build a better understanding of how snow leopards are viewed or valued in these areas. Most families have moved out of the QilianShan mountains to the neighboring village centers- but a few remaining herder families continue to live in the high mountains. We also plan to change the batteries of the 30 or so camera traps we left behind (hoping to monitor the wildlife across different seasons). I suspect the mountains will be more active as we are in the peak of summer. I wonder how the landscapes will have transformed after the heavy spring rainfalls? A Cheng has already shared over a phone call that some valleys are out of reach- as the rivers are bigger than ever and the risk of mudslides are at their peak.
As I daydream of what is to come- I remember the many faces and smiles we met while traversing Sichuan’s mountains just two months ago in May 2013... perhaps one day I could live in Sichuan instead of Beijing’s bustling urban jungle.
Off we go.
July 18th, 2013
October 20th, 2013
PART 10: The Lonely Journey
We are back in the QilianShan Mountains of Gansu. These mountains emerge out of the Gobi desert to form the beginning of the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau. The autumn colours- with the yellow and red grass melting into the sand- reminds us that the desert is near.
If you are like us, you are probably leaning back on your chair, eyes wide open, absolutely amazed from what you just read and saw. And suddenly, you realize that it can not just stop there, you want to know more!!! Well GOOD NEWS: Justine keeps on sharing her journey with her 2014 field notes! You can find them on her Instagram account by clicking on the following link:
Once again, thank you to Justine for sharing her absolutely amazing story with us. This is definitely one of a kind!
Happy International Mountain Day!