Snow leopard research turns deadly for grad student
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 03:02
Dangling off the side of a two-story building, hands clutching a makeshift rope of bed sheets, university grad student Shannon Kachel watched from above as tanks charged the streets beneath him as the city of Khorog, Tajikistan erupted with the sounds of gunfire. Kachel had expected an arduous journey to receive his master’s in Wildlife Ecology, but he never expected to risk his life and limb dodging mortar shells in the epicenter of a government attack.
Months before the chaos, in the summer of 2012, Kachel entered the Pamir mountain range for a research project documenting snow leopard populations sponsored by the university and Tom McCarthy of Panthera, an international wildcat conservation organization. Now, Kachel says he plans on continuing his research to investigate other variables regarding the declining snow leopard population, and even though he is moving on with his research, Kachel says he remains touched by his experience in Tajikistan.
His thesis asserts over-poaching of snow leopards’ prey, such as sheep and ibex, as the main factor contributing to the large cat’s diminishing numbers. Tajikistan has a lot of snow leopard habitats, Tom McCarthy says, and the country forms a genetic link between the southern population—which goes all the way across the Himalayas—and the northern population which goes up into western China, southern Siberia and Turkmenistan.
“Nobody was doing any work there so we were the first organization to really go in and set up a program in Tajikistan for snow leopards,” Tom McCarthy says.
Kachel and his Tajik colleagues Munavvar Alidodov, Nuzar Oshurmamadov and Nosirsho Kimatshoev surveyed two regions with disparate methods in monitoring for the leopards’ prey to determine the most productive methods for conservationists.
Traipsing across “The Roof of the World,” a mountainous terrain at an altitude of 15,000 feet, Kachel installed 40 top of the line Reconyx cameras with built in infrared scanners. He and his team set each camera four km apart covering 750 to 1000 square kilometers in each site, he says.
Before surveying their final site, the research crew returned to the city of Khorog along the Afghan border, a location the group often used to restock and rest before entering back into the rugged landscape.
Tajikistan, especially the area bordering Afghanistan, had been recovering from a civil in the ‘90s. Government officials were still battling with civilian rebels over the territories Kachel was researching in during the summer, according to Aljazeer.
The day before a government barrage, Kachel says he recalls a tangible tension within the city, galvanized by the recent murder of senior security guard Abdullo Nazarov by local militia. The man, according to Kachel was a “notorious bully,” and it was clear to him local sympathy rested with the renegade forces.
“In the middle of the night, roughly 3 a.m. I heard some shots starting to be fired and then within a few minutes, it’s not shots in the distance, it’s shots outside my window and windows breaking because bullets are flying and just this really intense fire fight broke out,” Kachel says.
Kachel says he and the three other inhabitants, a couple of Swiss tourists and the owner of the apartment, migrated to the bathroom in the heart of the building, clamoring into the tub to take refuge. Outside gunshots pelted nearby buildings, one embedded itself into the metal door, destroying the locking mechanism and barricading them inside.
With buildings set ablaze around them Kachel says he and his companions planned an escape route, tying together sheets so they could lower themselves to safety. Once on the ground the four maneuvered themselves through Khorog’s streets, darting behind trashcans and hiding in alleyways, he says.
“The scene appeared straight out of a video game, it was so surreal,” Kachel says.
When, after 13 hours, it appeared the government was withdrawing their troops, Kachel says he had made it safely to his partner’s mother’s house. Meanwhile his partner assisted the local fighters by establishing roadblocks.
Kachel says he could see a generational divide in terms of the local people’s sentiments regarding the situation. Many adults were striving for peace no matter what, while the younger crowd was adamant on fighting.
After the attack, he remained in the city for a few days and took in all of the damage such as rubble and trees scattering the streets, a tank-like object smoldering on a bridge and houses burning to the ground. At this point, Kachel realized his research would come to an end.
“I see the wisdom in that now even though I was pretty disappointed at the time and also had to deal with feelings of shame and guilt around leaving these people that are my friends and my partner’s mom was acting like my mom, she was hugging me and crying,” he says.
He was able to get a ride out to the capital city of Dushanbe about six hours away. After that the trip was pretty uneventful, and he was able to make it home safely, he says. However he still had to contend with leaving his research prematurely.
Kachel’s academic advisor Kyle McCarthy says the conflict was a freak occurrence, and Tajikistan is a safe place to study.
“I was glad I had hired such a capable person for this project, I was confident he would act appropriately to remove himself from danger,” Kyle McCarthy stated in an email message.