November 01, 2016

Counting Sheep



I am laboring beneath a very heavy backpack.

We have been underway for three hours already. The only thing I can afford to think about, however, are the huge, sharp rocks underfoot. They are unstable and treacherous. A person could slip and fall at any moment.

My fellow traveler, the biologist Mikhail Bondar, seems not the least bit tired. He is carrying two backpacks tied together with a strong rope. Together they weigh in at more than 40 kilos [88 pounds]. Aside from his personal effects, the gas stove and pot, he is carrying a tripod and 70x spotting scope. I wonder at his endurance and do all I can not to show that I am on my last legs.

“We’ll go another half-kilometer and then pitch camp,” Mikhail says with a hearty voice as he checks his GPS device.

I begin counting my steps: 500, 499, 498…

This is probably the first scientific expedition in my life requiring not only knowledge of the natural world, but also a level of strength that is near the bounds of human endurance.

The helicopter put us down on the Putorana plateau – like seeds in the middle of a giant garden bed – four teams, each separated from the other by several dozen kilometers. We have a week to complete our task, during which each team must search their patch of the plateau and count the number of snow sheep in their territory. This is the fundamental goal of the expedition and of the project as a whole.

Mikhail and I are one of the four teams. We have been given a stretch about 40 kilometers long to cover, and we absolutely must cover it before the helicopter returns again. The only question is, what will the week hold? Will we be lucky enough to meet the animals we have come all this way to see?

 

Mikhail Bondar is not only a specialist in ungulates, but also a senior scientist at Wild Preserves of Taymyr, a state-funded conservation organization. Much of the responsibility for this project’s success rests on his shoulders.

The last large-scale census of Putorana snow sheep was carried out more than 30 years ago. And much has changed in the technology of conservation science over the past three decades, from more agile helicopters, to satellite technology and handheld GPS units. Yet technology is still merely a tool to supplement the contribution made by the most important element in the process: the people.

“It seems that, in order to study the Putorana snow sheep, we ourselves need to become a bit like them,” I say to Mikhail, attempting to hold my pace and not get out of breath, “to become just as hardy as they are.”

“We do! But is that a bad thing?” he answers, smiling. “There may not be any paved roads here, but just look at the nature surrounding us!”

The surroundings are truly beautiful. We are walking along the very edge of the plateau. Below us spreads the Dyolochi River valley – in the Tungus language, Dyolochi means “abundance of sheep.” The sheer cliffs of the valley are like the performance hall in an ancient theater, only instead of rows of seats, there are ledges of basalt cliffs…

 

“…5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” I count under my breath, and stop at the large stone that will serve as our dinner table. “That’s it! Time for dinner.”

Mikhail again pulls out his GPS unit and also stops.

It takes considerable effort to shed the backpack from my numbed shoulders, and for a time it feels like the pack is still hanging off my back.

While I pull some food from the pack and collect a bit of water from a nearby stream, Mikhail lights the gas camp stove. We put a pot on the fire, but the wind blows the flame about. The water heats only very slowly. What is to be done? Mikhail pulls out his sleeping mat, roles it into a tube, creating a windbreak for our delicate stove. Now the flame burns evenly.

“Make sure the water does not boil over, eh?” Mikhail says.

“Of course!”

“I’m going to go looking for our ‘friends.’” And he quickly disappears somewhere nearby.

A scope, a tripod and a folding chair – sometimes that’s all a person needs to feel truly happy. The main thing is to be in the right place at the right time. Mikhail has taken his equipment and headed cautiously toward the precipice.

Basically, the way you search for the snow sheep is to use a spotting scope to scan the cliffs on the opposite side of the valley, meter by meter. Somewhere in the distance, a kilometer and a half away, an animal may be hiding among the cliffs…

Mikhail adjusts his scope and sits all but motionless for a long time, peering into the distance. The scope magnifies normal eyesight by a factor of 70. I of course cannot see what he is seeing.

The water is boiling, and I let Mikhail know, but he does not react and continues to concentrate on his work. I decide not to bother him further; if need be, we can boil another pot.

Not too long ago, Mikhail told me about how long he had dreamed of leaving office work behind and laboring in the great outdoors. Dinner is clearly not his first priority right now.

While Mikhail is busy making his observations, I decide to reconnoiter our stopping point. It turns out to be something of an oasis among the lifeless stone fields atop the plateau.

Two meters away there is water trickling through the stones. The stream has its source in the snowpack about 100 meters away and flows to the edge of the plateau, where it drops below as a small waterfall. Huge, lush carex grasses have grown up along the banks of the stream. Cotton white sedge blossoms blow back and forth in the wind. This seems like just the sort of place that ought to be popular among snow sheep. Carex and sedge are good food for them. But there is no one here, and there are no sheep tracks to be seen. I turn back toward Mikhail. Perhaps he has been luckier than I and seen something?

Mikhail is rapidly writing something down in his field notebook, looking in the scope and then at his watch. And then writing again. Biologists are only seen doing this during an observation. That means something interesting is happening on the other side of the valley.

“What’s there?” I ask, moving closer to Mikhail.

“Take a look for yourself!”

Mikhail steps away from the scope. I peer into the eyepiece and feel as if I am present at the moment of an important scientific discovery. A female snow sheep and its lamb are in fright and trying to run away. But there is nowhere to run. The precipice where they are standing is too severe, even for a bighorn. What are they so afraid of? It takes just an instant for the answer to arrive. The wings of a massive bird flap before the indefensible animals.

“It’s a white-tailed eagle,” Mikhail says excitedly. “He’s hunting for a young lamb. The ewe is trying to protect him.”

“This is a really rare sighting!”

“Yes, no one has ever seen something like this on the Putorana Plateau. At least, I have never read about it in either the scientific or popular literature…”

“I’ll run and get my camera! Perhaps I can get a picture if I affix the camera to your sight!”

It took less than a minute to get my camera from my pack, and about the same to return to the sight. But in wild nature, things happen according to their own speed. By the time everything was ready, the white-tailed eagle was already high in the heavens. I looked through the sight…

On the cliffs on the opposite side of the valley I could only see the ewe…

“Where is the lamb?”

“Hidden. It will emerge from the stones in a minute and you’ll see it,” Mikhail answered.

This time, the lamb was saved, and the eagle was the unlucky one. For him there will be no dinner.

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to hunt for our meal. We boiled up some tea, hydrated some fast-cooking ramen, and made up open-faced sandwiches. After our long hike, it seemed like the tastiest food on Earth.

 

High above us, thunderclouds crowd out the last bits of blue sky. Clearly the weather was readying for a downturn. I try not to think about what it will be like if it starts raining.

Within a few hours, we must skirt a canyon that adjoins the Dyolochi River valley and come out at the point where we witnessed the white-tailed eagle and its unrealized victim. According to Mikhail’s calculations, it is another eight kilometers.

Why did Nature see fit to create such a majestic place that is so unsuitable for human existence? Why are people always trying to go places where there is no road? What will the Putorana Plateau be like in 1000 years?...

The flood of questions coursing through my head ends suddenly. I realize too late that I have stepped on an unstable stone. I cannot stop my fall.

I make several clumsy steps forward, trying to regain my balance. Mikhail yells out something in my direction, but cannot get to me in time to help. All of this lasts just a few seconds, and, what is more, Mikhail himself is standing on a very unstable rock.

All I can do in my situation is wrap my arms around my head, hoping to protect it when I fall. The heavy backpack falls on top of me. It appears that we won’t complete today’s planned eight kilometers...

Luckily, nothing is broken. I am just a bit dizzy (my head did, after all, hit a stone), and my left arm hurts. I am ready to go further, but Mikhail decides we will stop for the evening.

We walk a bit farther until we come to a flat spot, then dump our backpacks on the ground.

Thunderclouds have now filled the sky. The wind has strengthened. It’s likely it will rain overnight. But we don’t lose heart. There is an upside even to weather like this. For one, the wind has blown all the mosquitoes away...

Once we have set up camp, it is quite pleasant to lie in our tent with a cup of hot tea and discuss everything that happened that day. At 8 pm, Mikhail turns on the radio so as to include the other teams in our discussion.

Stanislav Stryuchkov and Larisa Stryuchkova are first on the line.

“How are things? Everything fine?” Mikhail asks, pressing down on the radio’s button.

“Everything is fine,” Stanislav answers. “We covered about 16 kilometers today. Didn’t see any snow sheep, but we saw reindeer. They walked along the crest of the plateau alongside us. Over.”

“You healthy?”

“All good. How about you?”

“All good here too. We’re moving along the scheduled path.”

A crackling on the radio disrupts the airwaves. Andrei Podkorytov is on the line. He informs us that he was fortunate enough to see snow sheep and watch their activity. He noted all the data about their location in his field notebook.

“Got it, Andrei,” Mikhail answers happily. “But where is the final team? Why are they not tuning in? All teams, call in! Can anyone hear Taras?”

“No”

“We can’t hear him either. He’s not near us. Most likely his team is too far away and the weather is bad. Are you having rain?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, you will soon. Just wait!”

“We’ll connect with Taras tomorrow morning. I hope everything is okay with them too. Happy dreams, you all,” Mikhail says to close the radio session. “Over and out.”

No sooner do we turn the radio off than the tent awning begins to be pelted with raindrops.

 

It is very hot in the tent in the morning. The rain has stopped, and outside the sun is extremely bright. It’s hard to believe that the bad weather was just yesterday evening. At nine, Taras Sipko comes on the radio to say that he has not seen any snow sheep.

After discussing it, Mikhail and I decide to leave most of our things in our little camp, and take with us only the bare essentials, then head off to investigate the surrounding area. We don’t even take a snack, so that we won’t pause along our route. We’ll need to return before dinner, gather up our tent, and continue on our path.

A small river runs through the base of the canyon above which we are walking. This river, and its canyon for that matter, are unnamed. We confer and decide to name it Ozyorny (“Lakeland”), because it begins in a fantastically beautiful, oval-shaped lake with water as brilliantly blue as the sky. We’d love to descend and look at the river close up... but that would take half a day. The canyon is too deep, and its cliffs are too sheer for a safe descent.

Nonetheless, we must descend a bit down the cliffs, in order to get onto one of the wide terraces that are about 100 meters below us. There, bordered with sharp stones, are lush, green meadows of grass. And it was here that Mikhail yesterday spotted the snow sheep and the white-tailed eagle.

As we descend, we cannot prevent the rocks underfoot from falling down the cliffs. The buzz of their descent echoes throughout the canyon and may well spook the animals. Our only hope is that the snow sheep are so distracted by their eating that they won’t hear us approaching...

We traverse another kilometer or so along a steep, skree-covered slope, and come out onto a flat terrace of sorts. It is far easier and more pleasant to walk here. Flowers are blooming all around us; butterflies are flitting about; there is a pleasant trickling of water. It’s like an entirely different world, a different piece of nature.

Suddenly, Mikhail stops and falls to the ground.

I do the same.

Straight ahead, very near to us, stands a group of three snow sheep – two ewes and one lamb. They are watching us as attentively as we are watching them.

“They saw us!” Mikhail says in a loud whisper, not turning around. “Don’t say a word, and don’t raise your head! It might frighten them.”

Apparently the snow sheep made the same decision. Both of the ewes and the lamb froze in place. It appears they are as afraid as they are curious...

One of the ewes is larger and older. Her winter coat has already molted, and the short, summer coat that has grown out to replace it glistens on her sides, like the shimmering of an exquisite gown. In my mind, I immediately christen her Baroness. A nickname for the second ewe also comes quickly. Despite the fact that she is younger, she has already succeeded in damaging her left horn. So let her be Onehorn.

The lamb stands between its two protectors and calmly looks in our direction, while Mikhail begins to extract his tripod and affix the scope to it. As he does this, I rise up a bit, in order to get a photograph. Our movements frighten the sheep, and they skitter away.

We don’t try to pursue them, that would be pointless. Even a few days after its birth, a bighorn sheep has surer footing on these rocks than does a grown man. Mikhail calmly finishes attaching his scope to the tripod, and I sit back down on my haunches and begin observing...

The sheep run from us as if their lives depended on it. The Baroness leads the way, as she is clearly the group leader. Onehorn and the lamb unquestioningly submit to her leadership. The Baroness guides her wards about 300-400 meters away from us and then stops. Watching in our direction for several minutes, she apparently decides that the danger has passed and then returns to her normal business – nibbling on grasses and twitching and swatting to fend off mosquitoes. The lamb and Onehorn soon join her.

“The main thing,” Mikhail says once the sheep seem to have forgotten about us, “is not to scare the animals, especially rare ones like the Putorana snow sheep. They are in a protected reserve and even scientists have no right to cause them harm... We are gathering important scientific information; that is the only thing that justifies our close contact with the bighorns.”

We sit under cover for about an hour, watching. Mikhail dictates notes into his voice recorder about everything he sees. I make notes in my field notebook...

“What do you think, can I try to get a bit closer to the bighorns and take a few photos?”

After thinking for a few moments, Mikhail answers, “Getting a photographic record of the sighting is also important. Give it a try. We might need them later. Just be careful not to scare them. If you feel that the sheep are afraid of you, then immediately pull back...”

 

A good photo requires getting as close as possible. I accept the challenge with great enthusiasm. Not many photographers have been lucky enough to get a picture of snow sheep inside the Putorana Preserve.

I move forward carefully, yet the society of sheep is constructed in a manner such that, while one is going about its business, the others are protecting it. The Baroness has noticed me. All that I can do is wait until she becomes accustomed to me and accepts me as one of them...

It is quite possible that I am the first person these sheep have encountered in their lifetimes. It is important to show tact, show that you are not a threat. “See, I don’t have a gun. I am only taking a few photos and will leave right after that,” I say quietly. I start to feel as if the Baroness understands me.

But the impression is deceptive. As soon as I take a step forward, she steps back from the edge, as if realizing her superiority. In the same way, Onehorn and the lamb follow after her. If I were to make any sudden movement, all three of them would bolt. If they decide to descend down the slope, I could never overtake them.

I lie down on the ground and begin to crawl toward my skittish photo-shoot models. I wonder if Mikhail can still see me? He would be pleased. The snow sheep are not afraid of me. The only thing that they may need to fear is abdominal cramps from laughing at me. What sort of strange animal is that? First he moves on two rear paws, now he is crawling along on this stomach?

It is a long way to crawl to the cliffs where the Baroness, Onehorn and the lamb have concealed themselves. I do it as slowly as I am able. I had to leave my tripod behind, since it hindered my forward motion. Yet even without it, I am getting all scratched up. And, on top of that, I seem to have lost my pencil. I’ll return for it later. Now is not a time to worry about pencils...

As I crawl closer, Onehorn and the lamb hide behind the cliff. And the Baroness stands atop a large rock, keenly following my every movement.

“So you are protecting them, eh? Well, protect them... but it would be better if you ate some grass!” I think, looking the Baroness directly in the eye.

I crawl another several meters and stop, in order to catch my breath. I turn around to look back where Mikhail was, but he is not there. Apparently, he took advantage of the snow sheep being distracted by me to change his hideout. Now he too is rather close.

It’s getting crowded on the cliff. The full trio is now on the peak and watching what I will do next. It’s been about an hour since they first saw me. Perhaps they have become accustomed to me?

I look at Mikhail. He nods his head: give it a shot!

I stand up and carefully step toward the cliff...

The Baroness remains motionless. I did not think that I could “win her heart”! Onehorn and the little one look at their leader. They too do not run off. There has been no order to do so. There are fewer than 10 meters separating us.

The sound of my camera’s shutter is like a woodpecker in the forest – swift and loud clicks break the quiet that had fallen.

My models do not hurry off. Onehorn shows me the “hat” of winter fur still atop her head. The Baroness stretches and walks from side to side, casting coquettish glances in my direction.

It is likely that this photo session could go on for a long time. But all things have a limit, in this case it is the storage capacity on my flash card. All 32 gigabytes have been used up, and in my haste I left my spare memory card in my camera bag, which is back with Mikhail. I turn to my colleague and shrug. He gives me the thumbs up and gestures, indicating it is time to leave. For a first contact, this is more than enough.

It all happens like in a dream. I turn back to the snow sheep, wave goodbye, and unhurriedly return to our first hideout. And the representative of one of the rarest subspecies on the planet seems to nod her head at me, as if saying goodbye.

 

We feel like we have gotten the autograph of a famous movie star. Even the sudden appearance of rain does not spoil our good mood.

Mikhail and I have, however, seriously strayed from the schedule of our forced march. Now, in order to cover the required distance, we will have to set out in the rain and continue walking until late in the evening.

The surface of the plateau has become far less dangerous. Large stones have been replaced by something closer to gravel. The walking is almost as easy as along a flat road. If not for the water that is hurling down upon us without cease, it would be simply excellent... But then this is the Putorana Plateau, not some resort. The weather here plays by its own rules.

We pitch our tent in the upper part of the next valley over from the Dyolochi River. A short sleep and then back on the trail.

“So sad that we only have a week!” Mikhail says after we have broken camp and are heading out again along our designated path.

We have just two days left. The helicopter is coming at the appointed hour, whether we have succeeded in seeing anything or not. It will land and extract us from a point whose coordinates were given to the pilot long ago...

The other expedition members tell us about their successes each morning and night. There are not many sheep within our search areas, but there are some. It is strange, but the number of ewes is far greater than that of bucks.

“Why is that?” I ask Mikhail.

Mikhail shrugs. “I don’t know, Ivan. Maybe they are just not very active this time of year. Or they hide better than the ewes. Or they are, in reality, far fewer. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see them close up yet.”

But one day passes, and then another. And still no bucks. True enough, we see plenty of sheep scat on cliff ledges. According to its characteristics, Mikhail concludes that it is primarily bucks that have been through here. Lots of scat, in fact, but the animals themselves are nowhere to be seen...

On the last night of the expedition, we pitch our tent not far from the point where the helicopter will be landing. Mikhail, as usual, takes out his scope and heads off to stare at the cliffs on the opposite side of the valley.

The sky is absolutely clear. The sun is slowly sliding down toward the horizon. But in the North summer means the Polar Day. There will not be complete darkness, and dusk will not arrive until well after midnight. We decide to spend the last hours of the expedition working... Mikhail scans the cliffs opposite – they are about a kilometer and a half away – meter by meter... I stand alongside him. We talk quietly about something or other.

Suddenly, I hear the sound of clicking hooves extremely close by. I turn toward the sound and see a young, very beautiful bighorn walking between where we are standing and where we pitched our tent. A buck!

“Where is your camera?!”

“I left it in the tent!”

“And my battery is dead! We absolutely have to get a photo of this beauty!”

As we are discussing how best to proceed, the Putorana snow sheep that we have dreamed of seeing strides right past us, and impressively so. Such insolence! Who would think that he would so boldly walk right by a human?

I grab my camera from the tent and rush to catch up with Mikhail, who is carefully following our evening guest.

“It seems like this is his trail,” Mikhail says, when I catch up to him, “and we happened to pitch our tent right in the middle of it...”

With the ease and grace that only a Putorana snow sheep can manage, the bighorn descends the slope and disappears with the last rays of sunlight. We do, however, succeed in getting off a few photos of him.

 

The MI-8 helicopter, if you see it in the city, seems rather large. But flying over the Dyolochi River valley it looks like a toy. Without even slowing the rotors, the pilot sets it right down practically on top of Mikhail and me. The wind blows us off our feet. Tossing our things into the cabin, we climb in with some difficulty. The pilot’s helper closes the door after us and we are up and off to pick up the next team.

The people now on board the helicopter look outwardly very much the same as those who a week ago were dropped onto the Putorana Plateau like seeds... Their skin is a bit reddened from exposure to sun and wind, and the men’s beards have grown out a bit. Everyone’s boots are a bit scuffed, too. But the main difference here cannot be seen with the eyes. It is in their memories, in their field notebooks, in the maps covered with pencil marks.

As I look through the notes and images that Mikhail and I succeeded in gathering in the Dylochi River valley, I thank the place for its hospitality. What we have witnessed over the course of a week can be considered a huge success. We feel as if the Putorana plateau was so generous in showing us its beauty, in order that we might better protect it – and the Putorana snow sheep who live there – for future generations. RL


“Let’s save the bighorn sheep together” is a project initiated by the state-funded organization Wild Preserves of Taymyr that got underway in April of this year. Over the course of several months, biologists and geographers, making use of modern research equipment, will study the Putorana snow sheep, or, as it is often called, the Putorana bighorn sheep. It is listed in Russia’s Red Book of endangered species, and is not found anywhere else in the world. Its numbers are very few, yet also not exactly known. Various estimates by scientists have ranged from 800 to 6500 individuals.


The Putorana Nature Preserve is located in Krasnoyarsk Krai – in the central part of the massive Putorana Plateau. It was founded in 1988 and encompasses nearly 19,000 square kilometers. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and its remoteness and lack of roads means that it is an extremely pristine natural environment, with very little human intervention.

The region was formed 250 million years ago by plume volcanism: a huge mass of magma rose to the surface of the Earth from nearly 3000 km underground. Then glaciers expanded the canyons and formed river gorges and deep, narrow lakes, as well as the unique plateaus. The fjord-like lakes are long, narrow and very deep – they are the largest in Siberia after Lakes Baikal and Teletskoye. The area also features numerous waterfalls.

The region is extremely diverse in flora and fauna and hosts the migration route of one of the largest reindeer populations in Russia.

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