PhD FIELD NOTES FROM CHINA

by Dr. Justine Shanti


Foreword

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

2013

The year A Cheng, Mr. Wang and I spent almost 4 months in Gansu’s Qilianshan mountains


January 3rd, 2013

PART 1

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

PART 2: The Beaten Path


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.

To reach these high settings we must sometimes conquer precarious slopes. There have been days (usually after a restless night, a night my sleeping bag is visited by a local rummaging mouse) when my face suddenly heats up, my aching body becoming stiff and a tingling feeling descending across my shoulders and down my spine. I stop, breath and try to stop the fear sweep over me, this irrational fear of dropping off the face of the earth. My guide glances down at me from a ledge above with a puzzled look. He then signs, chuckles and says something along these lines: “oh it must be those long legs- enabling you to take those fast steps up the mountain, but they become unstable and wobbly on these vertical slopes; you think this is frightening, wait until we have to come down… chuckle… chuckle”- as he skips up the slope. And somehow by muttering to myself that my mind is indeed insane and that I will survive, I grab onto the next seemingly sturdy rock/thorn shrub in my proximity and haul myself up another meter.

And then there was a day we found ourselves at above 4000 meters, mind and body exhausted, looking eagerly for the perfect site to set up our camera trap. But there are times when that ideal place you imagined just isn’t there and when ones mind is so fatigued that deciding amongst the many not so ideal options becoming overwhelming. Then someone mentions that perhaps we should continue, up higher, over the next crest, so we hike on. But alas there are no new signs (tracks, scats, scapes etc.) to be found and we remain indecisive, breathlessly leaning against a rocky outcrop. The pressure begins to drop and a cold biting wind starts to build up. We all know a decision needs to be made soon so that we have enough time to get down the mountain
safely...


The others start loosing hope and look to me in distress. They rather not be consulted, but I ask them anyway; “Where do you guys think we should put it? What about here?”. My guide may grunt or be completely honest uttering, “I don't know”. After a few hand waves, broken Mandarin/English/sign language a decision is finally made.

We both quickly scatter from the site as the camera trap is turned on and we quickly skid down the mountain. I leave with a tight jaw, a feeling of doubt and too many questions flood my mind; was it really the best site? Did we have to set up a camera trap today? Was it angled correctly? Did we even turn it on? But then I quickly shrug them off, sigh and instead start daydreaming about the night’s hot supper- oh those delicious noodle soups.

This week we ran out of coal, needed to boil our river drinking water and our daily breakfast/dinner noodle soups. But luckily when strolling by an abandoned home, we found a pile of coal remains and were able to hurl it back to camp, mixed it with lots of yak dung and continued to work for a few more days (we also ran out of cough medicine and resorted to eating enormous amounts of raw garlic). Instead we have returned to town to pick up the famous satellite phone that we have been waiting for all month. Luckily it has finally arrived. The phone that has been haunting this field season, delaying our departure and endlessly worrying family about our
safety. Now we can finally let myself be subdued by some high altitude insanity to find a snow leopard and leap seamlessly across precipitous hills, knowing that help is only a short phone call away. All within reason of course as safety is a priority.

But now that we do have the satellite phone we are now leaving to venture deeper into the mountains- to a site located at the junction of two large frozen rivers, place we do not want to be running out of supplies.

Also to note: Unlike imagined I am not getting up at absurd hours in the morning to do yoga in the snow at our camp site- yoga which is a very important part of my daily routine back in Beijing. Instead we must depend on yoga visualizations.But we do pop handstands..



February 8th, 2013

PART 3: The Complete Immersion

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

could not be cracked open to access our fresh glacial water supplies. We were instructed to disperse, slip and sliding across the frozen table, looking desperately for another site where the ice demonstrated signs of weakness, thinner and crumpling. Luckily a site was found further downriver, a few hundred meters from camp. Far enough away, though, that water (despite its unique cloudy milky colour once boiled, and not to mention its peculiar sweet taste- probably a healthy mix of sediment) became our most precious commodity. The daily
use of those few 100mm to wash my face was suddenly shunned on by the others and under jeopardy.

Ironically however, further upstream the ice cracks too promptly beneath our crampons. With every step the ice sheets screech. Not only do we fear the trembling iced rivers, but also the rocks falling from overhead. With the slightest whisper, vibrations travel up the vertical barren slopes disturbing and startling the unstable boulders
above and also at times the quietly grazing blue sheep. Rocks start tumbling down the cliff face in our direction at high speeds, picking up momentum and company on the way. (It was as if you were disturbing

a resting older brother, he grumbles, slowly stirs, and if awakened furiously frisbees cushions in your direction and at your other nearby snoozing sibling to summon reinforcements.) Our ears and eyes must stay alert, as we learn to trust and read the menacing ice floor and sky above.


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:

  1. A Cheng our local guide; A wonderful character who particularly enjoys his cigarettes, 100 yaks, eating Oreos, and snoozing on sunny grassy slopes. A descendant from of lineage of herders, he has a sharp eye and a quickstep on ambiguous slopes. He also is a wizard in the kitchen- with the fire blazing and only a wok in hand, a steaming feast is magically prepared and served. And if he is in a particular good mood he may prepare some fresh vegetarian dumplings made from scratch (yes we even have a 10kg bag of flour at camp).
  2. Mr Wang- our local field assistant from the local nature reserve: He particularly enjoys his goat meat, his bright red hiking outfit and especially staying spotlessly clean. He looks at my scruffy looks; plum coloured baked face, deadlocked hair mass, bruised and blistered knuckles, ripped/taped up trousers and the thick layer of dust that envelopes me; with a bit of disgust- but then grins widely pointing at himself and says his favourite English words “Clean!”.


    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!


    PART 4 : The Beets

    "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."

    Justine

    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."
    -Tom Robbins

    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

    PART 5: Ghosts and Springtime

    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!



    April 1st 2013 

    PART 6: The Delightful Smells

    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)

    PART 7: To Conclude


    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

    PART 8: A Summer Expedition

    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

    Part 9: the green mountains

    The mountains have transformed once again; from the dry brown yellow rocks to a filter of green and yellow flowers. The green colors would almost stop us in our footsteps with its beauty. But as the rain fell onto the earth- the ground turned into mud. The mud left behind our footsteps and footsteps of many others before us… from mining to an increase in local tourism… Qilianshan was no longer the quiet hostile mountain we had known the previous winter. We encountered mining exploration parties scouting for new sites for the extraction of precious stones and minerals or the roads they left behind. Large roads were cut out of the mountainsides- newly constructed meandering road terraces that would go for kms opening up far away mountain valleys. Piles of plastic or tin waste were sometime found at over 4000m in a little gully. We came across 2 dead blue sheep bodies- tangled in the metal wiring of the fences- used to stop trespassers or outline grazing or local administrative areas. The lammergeiers could be seen flying overhead finishing off the blue sheep’s remains. 

    Our discussions with the local herders however gave us hope for snow leopards in the area. Families reported more tolerant attitudes towards the snow leopard than towards other carnivores & few livestock were reported to have been lost to snow leopards. They however told dark stories of lynx lurking around their mountain homes. “Lynx stay close and watch our goats and sheep in the night- sometimes I see their eye shine on the ridges looking down at me. They sometimes come too close and we wake up to see the damage”. Our camera-trap survey covering over 400 km2 are also giving us the sense that the snow leopards were still prowling close by- with snow leopard captures across most of the rugged mountains (and lynx in the lower valleys). Snow leopards were also captured with the backdrop of the summer’s greener pastures. These images and conversations with the remaining herders of the area gave us hope.

    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. 


    This time I have travelled alone. None of my Beijing friends or colleagues wanted to join us on yet another trip to these high mountains (Perhaps our team has a reputation for climbing too many kms). A-Cheng, my guide, is also busy with some business in the nearby village. But luckily we stumble across Mr. He and his wife and they invite me to live and herd their goat/sheep with them. And so A Cheng leaves me - and over the days one adapts to the new household routine- from eating boiled goat meat for breakfast to hiking across large pastures with Mr. He and his wife. They tell me stories of the Lynx lurking around their homes and how the beast have ambushed their sheep in the narrow valleys. I show them pictures of the lynxes and snow leopards caught on the retrieved camera traps. As the days go by it is unclear when A-Cheng will return… and so we wait. 


    A-Cheng has finally returned from the village. We decide to set off to reach areas found deeper into the mountains. Many of the roads were destroyed with the summer rains and rockfalls and we resort to travelling by motorbike. We head down the steep mountain roads- with sleeping bag and a few quick noodles preciously packed away. Over the next few days we squat in abandoned herder huts- while accessing the high ridgelines and camera trap locations by foot. Luckily we can use the yak dung to warm the huts as the temperatures quickly drop in the nights darkness. The mustard grass is longer than ever and the pastures cover the mountain slopes. On route we see hundreds of blue sheep and those Himalayan vultures waiting for a young blue sheep or yak to injure themselves or get stuck in a wire fence. We also know that the snow leopard is near and perhaps watching us from above. Our cameras confirm a female snow leopard walking the ridgelines with her two teenage cubs… We are not so alone.



    The End for 2013

    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:

     Justine's 2014 Field Notes


    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!


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