Our far-flung cameras offered logistical challenges for their retrieval. To minimise the effort we split the team. While my part of the team were happily retracing our steps, elsewhere nefarious forces were at work. Whilst recovering his quota, Khometti discovered that a pair had gone missing. He returned to Mariang Community with those he had (we were meanwhile a couple of days away at our second camp) and was (so I gather) marched by our driver, Shifu, to the community policeman to report the theft. Khometti was reluctant to do anything premature, but Shifu's outrage was forceful.
As luck would have it, to Shifu's delight and Khometti's groaning despair, on that day the Director of Taxkurgan County was visiting Mariang. Upon hearing of the heinous crimes carried out against such an important (and international) research project he, without waiver, unleashed the full force of the law in Taxkurgan and vowed to "crush the criminal network" responsible. [The story was retold a number of times when we all later reassembled, amidst a fair amount of drinking. I quote a recounted phrase from these recollections that lodged in my head.]
The full force of the law in Taxkurgan took the form of four police officers from Taxkurgan town. No one was above suspicion, not even themselves it seemed. Efforts to tackle corruption in China are taken seriously and so the first step in any enquiry is that the police officers question each other about their whereabouts, motives and alibis. Once they were satisfied that they had in fact all been together at the time of the alleged incident and that none of them had actually been to Marriang before, the investigation moved up a gear. And up a mountain. They promptly proceeded to the crime scene. A little too promptly as it happened, because they all returned some hours later complaining of headaches and nausea. With altitude sickness the best remedy is to descend to a lower elevation, so they all went back to Taxkurgan.
Before they left they made the local bobby in Mariang Officer In Charge of the investigation. He is a shrewd man, who learnt English for three months (the phrases he remembers, related in later drinking and story-telling, include "Thank you" - politeness among police officers is always appreciated when conducting enquiries; "I larve you" - not so sure about this one, but all great detectives have their own distinctive methods; and "Good health" - no comment [hic!]). His approach was simple and effective. He called on local families in the area and explained the problem and requested that the cameras be placed back in their original position by the next day. Or else!
The effect of all this on the community in Mariang was quite striking. The presence of the incident team from Taxkurgan is akin to those scenes in movies where scores of men in dark suits and dark glasses pour from unplated black 4x4s and the SWAT teams slide down ropes from helicopters. Mariang had not seen anything like this (neither the SWATy dark-glasses nor the four blokes from Taxkurgan) and it certainly put the wind up them.
The next day the cameras were found by Khometti and the local policeman in their original position.
The leader of the community, Rojabek Arkim (Roger Beck?) was beside himself when we finally turned up and were bought up to speed on the whole thing. Having reassured him that there was no harm done, we ate drank smoked [cough!] our way into the night and celebrated our snow leopard pictures. We're all good friends.
The policeman was rightly pleased with himself. He reassured us that after these events we would have no further problems with missing traps in Mariang ever again. I larve you.
The failures of tiger conservation
6 years ago