Adventure travel writer Clive Tully forges off on the trail of wolves, bears and chamois in remotest Slovakia with award-winning volunteering organisation Biosphere Expeditions.
It’s late in the afternoon, and after several hours bush-whacking through dense forest while traversing steep slopes, suddenly an excited shout comes from the front of the group.
Scat is not a term I’ve found myself using previously, although its more common alternative, another four-letter word beginning and ending with the same letters, may have passed my lips in extremis on the odd occasion. For the purposes of a family publication, what we’re talking here is poo, or droppings. Indeed, it takes a certain kind of person to get worked up about what most would cross the street to avoid – even if the item in question is evidence of the recent passing of a beautiful wild animal – and it is with a group of just such people that I am in the company of for the next few days.
I’m in the Nizké Tatry (Low Tatras) National Park high up in the mountains of Slovakia, taking part in a scientific project run by Biosphere Expeditions. Indeed, as is pointed out on my first day, what I’ve joined is no holiday. It’s not even a trip. It’s an expedition, and the purpose is to assist local scientist Dr Slavomír Findó – Slavo, for short – to document the movements of wild animals including not only wolves but also bears, lynx and chamois.
And so it is that we photograph said wolf poo with a compass lying next to it to provide scale, log its location on a data sheet using a GPS receiver, and bag it up to take back to base for Slavo to analyse. It joins several other bags of poo, including bear and a possible lynx. Today is something of a warm-up, getting expedition members used to logging both scats and tracks of wild animals, using two-way radios and GPS receivers, not to mention an enlightening return to traditional navigation techniques using map and compass.
Animals such as wolf, bear and lynx typically can typically be found in areas within the forest-covered mountain slopes. But it is the region just above the tree line that holds what we’re all particularly excited about: the chance to observe the endangered chamois, a type of mountain goat.
Once upon a time, the closest you might get to a chamois would be when drying off your car after it’s been washed, but while in other mountain areas of Europe they’re quite plentiful, here their numbers are declining – a result of human pressure on their habitats, and climate change. But predators have an impact on their numbers as well, and that’s the purpose of the study – to establish the relationship between chamois and other animals, as well as humans in the form of hikers on the trails that run along the main east/west ridge which they inhabit.
Research has illustrated that enthusiastic volunteers are every bit as good as scientists when it comes to making these kind of observations. If anything, they’re better because they’re rather more motivated – but it does all hinge on their being properly trained. The spread of participants in my expedition is certainly pretty wide, both in age and what made them decide to join. In general, the profile tends to be someone in their 30s and older – people who’ve had a chance to live life a little, and decide there’s more to it than just self-gratification. It was having three months available and a wish to do something of a voluntary nature that led business consultant Pierre from Belgium to sign up. By contrast, Lauren, in her early 20s, is studying for an animal science degree, so what we’re doing ties in rather nicely. Others have come to escape their everyday lives, but still with the motivation to do something which will be of real use. The oldest member of the group is John from Israel, whose past hiking experiences include wandering into a minefield while out walking in the Middle East’s Golan Heights.
The hazards of the Tatras mountains aren’t to be underestimated, either, as we discover when expedition leader Melanie Schröder delivers our risk assessment on the first evening. I’m amazed to hear that statistically, going on an expedition is less dangerous than indulging in a spot of home DIY. And while the greatest risk in Slovakia is coming to a sticky end at the hands of lunatic drivers, the wildlife has been a particular problem of late. Here they have the highest density of bears in the world, and some years have seen several attacks on humans by brown bears (seven were recorded in 2007). And what are we advised to do if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a bear? Keep still, apparently: then slowly and gradually back off, avoiding the natural instinct to run like hell.
“Bears can run much faster,” we’re told, “and they can climb trees. If it comes to it, lie face down on the ground, hands over the back of your head and neck, and elbows out to prevent the bear from rolling you over.”
It’s this advice that races through my mind on our first night, spent near the isolated hamlet of Krpáčvo in the southern part of the national park south of the high point of Chopok. I’ve opted to relieve the pressure on bed space in our base house by sleeping in a tent out in the garden. At night, the surrounding forest is replete with strange sounds, occasionally featuring the noise of breaking branches. It matters not one jot that I’ve been reassured no bear has ever come this far down into the valley. Lying in the tent in a semi-stupor, my only thought is to roll over, elbows spread wide as my over-active imagination pictures marauding bears about to slice their claws through my sleeping bag.
And so I survive the night ready for the next day, which involves some basic training. We have our maps and GPS receivers to plot our positions, and we also have compasses – used to provide a bearing for any animal sightings. We have laser rangefinders to give us distance, and radios to communicate with each other. And when things are going less than swimmingly, we have flares to indicate we have a problem, red for life-threatening, and white for non-critical emergencies.
Our first little foray into the forest above Krpáčvo with Slavo reveals a “bear tree”. This is where the bear has ripped the bark off the trunk to get at insects underneath. It could have been damage caused by a passing forestry vehicle, but the evidence of hairs stuck to the oozing sap provides the confirmation.
Getting to and from the study areas isn’t all about slogging up and down hills on foot, although there’s plenty of that anyway. Biosphere Expeditions is one of the few organisations, along with the Royal Geographical Society, to be sponsored by Land Rover under their Fragile Earth Policy, so we have a couple of smart Land Rover Discoveries to get us about. As a non-profit organisation, Biosphere values any help it gets, and of course the less money it has to spend on equipment means more of the income from expedition team members goes into the scientific research.
During the fortnight, expedition members pay two visits up onto the main mountain ridge, the Hrebenovka, staying overnight in mountain huts. And while the hikers sharing the huts with them are still happily snoring away, they’re up at 4am to ready for heading to their observation sites. And this is where your typical hill walker might see the difference. Instead of keeping up a BRISK pace, you have to be prepared to sit still for hours at a time with binoculars or a telescope on a tripod, so a good range of clothing is essential.
During the day, the chamois tend to keep out of the sun on north-facing slopes, but then at sunset they come up onto the ridge. Get up early enough in the morning, and that’s where you see them. The training also includes identification – male and female chamois have different shaped horns, and the males tend to wander around on their own, while females and kids will stay in groups.
Unfortunately, my flying visit of just a few days means that while I do get to climb up onto the ridge and sample its spectacular views, I don’t get to stay there overnight, but some of my fellow team members strike gold the following day. One group led by expedition leader Melanie spots two red deer heading for a stream to drink, followed by a group of eight chamois resting on cliffs. Then just as they are about to pack up and go, they see a female bear and her cub ambling up to the same stream. A shame then that the other team led by Slavo, who hiked several kilometres further to stay at Chopok and the mountain hut there were foiled by windy conditions which made observations difficult.
But while my wildlife spotting is confined to a small snake, a few piles of poo – sorry, scats – and the odd clump of fur, I’ve come away with the firm view that if you want to do something for conservation, doing something like this is far better than simply writing out a cheque for your chosen charity. This way you can provide scientists with the manpower to enable them to make a difference – in this case, the outcome will be a scientific paper – and have an unforgettable experience at the same time.
Biosphere Expeditions (tel 0870-446-0801) promotes sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions, with several projects operating in Slovakia.
Outdoors and travel writer/photographer Clive Tully is former equipment editor of four walking magazines, and consultant/contributor to many more. His mainly outdoors-related travel features have been published in the majority of UK national newspapers. In 2017, he’s also going to be part of the team striving to beat the world record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat.
GETTING THERE: It’s possible to get to any of the places mentioned in this article, but for the experience you will need to sign up for a volunteer expedition with Biosphere Expeditions.
PRICES: Volunteers are asked to contribute towards expeditions around £1300 (for Slovakia expeditions).