Sleep In The Dirt

Adventures In Kyrgyzstan: Saving the Snow Leopard

Essays From the Field

About a year ago I decided to move from California to Kyrgyzstan. I moved there in my thirst to learn and to explore wild places – full of unknown people, unknown faces, unknown language, unknown culture, and unknown nature. I’ve always had a passion for exploration, the outdoors, and scientific discoveries, so I decided to carve a career for myself at this intersection of nature conservation, adventure, and scientific research.

Thus I arrived in Kyrgyzstan with no expectations, no knowledge of the local language, and only a single backpack of personal belongings to pursue a research fellowship in snow leopard conservation throughout Asia’s high mountain landscapes. As a research fellow with the Snow Leopard Trust, I engage in research and conservation efforts to save the snow leopard. The snow leopard – the most elusive and majestic of the big cats – is the steward of Asia’s high-altitude mountain landscapes. However, growing environmental pressures such as climate change, illegal hunting, and unsustainable development are threatening the existence of the snow leopard and of the very fragile and delicate mountain ecosystems it reigns in.

Our work, therefore, aims to mitigate these environmental threats, monitor snow leopard populations and movements, educate the public about their importance, protect the cultures and livelihoods of the local people who share their landscapes, and engage with governments and policymakers to create changes in snow leopard conservation on a global scale.

So what does my work actually look like? During field season, I spend most of my time running around the mountains of Central Asia. We install remote cameras, conduct ecological surveys, and engage with traditional nomadic herder communities who share these remote mountain landscapes with the snow leopards and other charismatic wildlife species. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to go on wild expeditions for weeks at a time with researchers, colleagues, and photographers from National Geographic, BBC Planet Earth, the United Nations, and various local and international NGOs, exploring and documenting the most pristine mountain landscapes I have ever seen. For more details and photographs about my work, please check out this article about my most recent fieldwork in the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the most beautifully untouched hidden gems left on our planet. It is 96% mountainous, boasting a myriad of unexplored peaks, valleys, rivers, canyons, and glacial lakes. This makes it the most stunning place to live and work, with endless opportunities to explore the great outdoors.

Therefore, the single most important item I brought with me when I made my big move was my Big Agnes Fairview 2 SMU tent. That tent, which I named Hobie, had been my best friend and partner in crime in my various expeditions all around the world, from California to New Zealand. Having Hobie gave me the most profound sense of autonomy and liberation – I knew that with her I could just get up and go, any time, any place.

So, as soon as I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I eagerly grabbed Hobie and went out to go exploring. After a few hours of trekking in the dark in the Ala Too National Park, way out in the middle of the mountains, well beyond cellphone coverage, I finally found a flat place to camp for the night. To my dismay I found the tent poles to be broken – one metal segment completely cracked in half. Even after about an hour of MacGyvering, I was unable to find a solution to set up the tent. I battled through one of the coldest nights of my life that night, with the sub-zero winds ripping in through the half-collapsed tent. The next morning it was clear that I had to cut my trip short and turn back – I couldn’t continue deeper into the mountains like this — not with a broken tent.

I was devastated – not only were my personal explorations now brought to a halt, but my first big work expedition, an 11-day expedition into the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve with Snow Leopard Trust and National Geographic, was on the line. I was counting on that tent to serve as my home. What now?

Upon arrival back in Bishkek, I immediately contacted Kathleen Lynch, who was working in the Big Agnes Customer Service department at the time. I explained my situation. It became clear that sending my tent in for repairs was not an option – sending and receiving post in Kyrgyzstan can take over two months, and my expedition was in two weeks. Kathleen and her colleagues tried everything they could think of to remotely come up with a pole solution for me. In the end, the Big Agnes team expedited their top of the line Shield 2 winter tent to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but what happened was that Tercel Fayad, the head of the Repairs team, became so frustrated that he couldn’t remotely come up with a solution for me that he sent me his own personal tent.

Throughout the entire process, I was shocked and amazed at the level of support the entire Big Agnes team expressed in helping me solve my tent crisis. From the complete opposite end of the world, they were able to come up with a solution. The constant responsiveness of Kathleen, and the unbelievable generosity of Tercel, shows their dedication to their products and to feeding worldwide adventure.

Tercel’s Shield 2 is now my favorite adventure buddy. It’s the best tent for the kinds of winter expeditions I am involved with. It protects me from the harsh mountain elements every night I spend in it, both during fieldwork expeditions and during my adventures with my local Kyrgyz alpinism team. Together, my Shield 2 and I have gone ice climbing up frozen waterfalls in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve summited massive peaks in Kazakhstan. We’ve explored some of the most remote valleys of the Indo-Tibetan Himalayas. Every time I’m out experiencing the raw nature of beauty, I think about the incredible circumstances and the wonderful people at Big Agnes who make it all possible.

My time here in Kyrgyzstan continues to be one wild adventure. My work protecting the people, animals, places, livelihoods, cultures, and ecosystems of this amazing country are more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. And my lifestyle is truly indescribable: I write this article from a “business trip:” laying in an alpine meadow in our field site in Kyrgyzstan, on a lunch break between drone survey expeditions of the Shamshy Valley. Throughout my time here in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve realized that with enough courage, a little gumption, a lot of risk, an open attitude, the right timing, and a little luck, you can create the life you’ve always wanted for yourself.

I’ll end with a quote by Bill McKibben that continues to drive my conservation work and my personal adventures in nature:

“What nature provides is scale and context, ways to figure out who and how big we are and what we want. It provides silence, solitude, darkness: the rarest commodities we know.”

Interested in learning more about Kyrgyzstan, snow leopard conservation, or about my experiences in general? Feel free to contact me at SuraiyaLuecke@gmail.com.

Comments (4)

4 responses to “Adventures In Kyrgyzstan: Saving the Snow Leopard

  1. Amazing work you do. Loved reading the blog. Good luck. Thanks for everything you do to save the elusive and charismatic snow leopard.

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