The virus is both a chance and a challenge

As the coronavirus pandemic has a stranglehold on the planet, travel plans have had to be cancelled everywhere. Even those where people help nature conservationists during their holiday time as citizen scientists. Peter Laufmann spoke to Executive Director Dr. Matthias Hammer.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions

Laufmann: The corona pandemic seems to be giving nature some breathing space. That must please you as a nature conservationists, right?
Dr Hammer: Of course! I am very happy about nature being given a chance to recover for a change, instead of the continuous assault of the last decades. There is also the hope that humanity as a whole will stop to ponder for a while. That we realize it is possible to work from home, to fly around less, etc.

What’s the situation like in nature conservation?
Well, for us, for our citizen science / wildlife conservation expeditions, the effect is of course that we won’t be able to carry out any projects in 2020. But that is the lesser of two evils. The bigger evil is the situation of our local partners.

How come?
It is much worse for our local partner organisations. In the developed world, we can apply for state aid. Besides, we are a very lean organization. We don’t have large offices which we have to pay rent for and the like. Our running costs are very low. State aid, as limited as it may be, helps us a lot. But our local partners are in a difficult situation. There, there are by and large no such programs. And much of their income has disappeared. For example in Enonkishu, a conservancy in Kenya, their main income is the fees that tourists pay when they come into the reserve. This has dropped to zero practically overnight, so they now have a reall challenge on their hands to keep paying their rangers and other staff. And if no rangers are being paid, how do they fight poaching? Not only that: the increasing poverty through the crisis also increases the pressure from poaching as cash-strapped people go in search for bushmeat, for example.

So what does this mean?
There are two sides to it: It’s both a chance and a challenge. On the one hand, it’s a chance for nature to recover, because there are no visitors. In the Red Sea, for example, the water is clear and the reefs are recovering, as the ecosystem remains largely on its own, because of course there are no divers or tourists causing disturbance. On the other hand, the lack of money is a real problem, as I explained earlier. Conservation costs money.

How can we counteract this? Both on a large scale and you with Biosphere Expeditions?
We are a relatively small organisation. Our influence is correspondingly small. At best we can do something on the ground with our partners and bring money and, of course, manpower to advance their conservation projects. But since this has now ground to a halt, we have also started a fundraising campaign. Our project partners have written a few lines about what they currently need money for; where their need is greatest. And I have been surprised by how generous people are despite, and perhaps because of the crisis. For our partners this really is a godsend in their hour of need.

How does Biosphere Expeditions deal with the fact that there are now those calling for a fundamental change in the way we travel?
Air travel in itself is of course bad for the environment. There is no question about that. If there are no contrails in the sky, everyone has a basic understanding that this must be good for the planet.

How does Biosphere Expeditions deal with this dilemma?
We have several approaches. First, it is a fundamental concern of ours to eliminate ourselves in the long run. In other words, we want to advance projects to a point where we are no longer needed. Take the Maldives, for example: via expeditions there for eight years, we have established a non-profit organisation (www.reefcheckmaldives.org), which is now entirely run by locals. The reef research that we have done with volunteers is now under their leadership. Point two is that we encourage our participants to offset their carbon footprint. I am aware that this is also under criticism, but as part of the mix, I believe it is a positive thing. We as an organisation naturally compensate for the CO2 our activities produce as well. Thirdly, we must not forget that the alternative to tourism is often the chainsaw or total overfishing. In other words, nature conservation takes place because there’s an economic benefit for local people to intact wildlife and wild places. This is what we conservationists call the ‘what pays, stays’ principle, whether it is via safari tourists or through citizen science projects. It’s too shortsighted to reduce everything down to CO2 exclusively, although we must keep an eye on this. The world is more complicated than just CO2 budgets.

How will the pandemic influence your citizen scientist projects?
That’s a difficult question to answer. The crisis will be with us for a long time; years rather than months. We have contingency plans in case expeditions are still impossible right through to 2022. How people’s behaviour will change… I wouldn’t want to predict this as this is not my area of expertise. But I do believe that the desire to do something useful in your holiday time will keep increasing in people. This was already evident before the pandemic and will hopefully get a further boost now.

Is this the end of tourism?
I am afraid not. As soon as lockdown restrictions are relaxed, people will by and large fall back into old habits. Still, it would be nice if humankind could become significantly more mindful through this crisis.

What should politicians do to support nature conservation and environmental protection in times like these?
On no account lower environmental standards! Under no circumstances save the big polluters. The money that is saved by not bailing out destructive corporations should be put to good use elsewhere in combating climate, the other and more dangerous challenge humanity faces, and preventing destruction of wildlife and wild places. We need the planet as the basis of all life and economic activity. For on a run-down planet, there will be no life worth living and no economy to speak of.

How does someone use their time during lockdown?
There are lots of ways to help from home as well. Citizen science also works during lockdown. You could for example analyze photos of animals or galaxies, or provide computing power for virus research. The possibilities are endless.

Azores: sperm whale day

Sperm whales to the south, sperm whales to the north. Not a lot in between yesterday (Friday).

I joined the University of the Azores again to look for baleen whales. The lookouts had only seen sperm whales to the south of Faial when we left the harbour. Since there was no lookout in the north, we went to search the area which wasn’t covered by a lookout. We spotted the first turtle of the day about 3 miles offshore and then found a mixed group of common and striped dolphin. They were not interested in the boat, so we kept going. Shortly afterwards, we spotted our second turtle of the day. This was a fairly large turtle and Rui decided to launch the drone to get some overhead photos. There is a project planned to have an unmanned aerial drone surveying the waters around the island for wildlife. But before that can happen, they need to write some algorithms to decipher the footage they will get. The photo of the turtle was only taken from 15 m height and it is tiny!

Unfortunately, during the flight one of the engines malfunctioned, so the drone couldn’t be used again during the trip. We kept heading to the NW of the islands, until the lookout on the north called to say he was on duty and and  had spotted sperm whales closer to the coast and couldn’t see anything else, despite good visibility. So we headed in to get some photo-ID of the sperm whales on our way to the south coast. The vigia directed us to a group of three and then spotted a big blow about two miles further out. It turned out to be a male sperm whale and it didn’t wait for us to get in position to get a fluke photo. So we turned towards the south once again, but ran into sperm whales once more! A group of two, then a juvenile and another single all within a mile. So after another three flukes, we finally made it to the south coast, only to find that the wind had slightly changed and increased, making it impossible to do any work. So we had to call it a day. On the way home, we came across another tw loggerhead turtles. Still smiles for me, because although we weren’t actually looking for sperm whales, we found them once again and managed to get five ID photos.

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Azores: first humpback and more

Wednesday started out very grey and overcast. It was not looking very promising to go to sea, but still we headed out towards a small bank to the south of Faial and just as we arrived and deployed the hydrophone, the first blow was spotted! As we got closer, it was apparent that it was a baleen whale, since the blow was going straight up in the air. The next time the whale surfaced, the white flippers were seen through the water. “Humpback”, I shouted! The first humpback I have seen in 2020.

At this time of year, they should be on their way back north to the feeding grounds. This whale may have been coming from the Cape Verde islands or the Caribbean, likely on its way to Norway or Iceland. I notified the Azores university of the sighting, since they had been waiting for something to be seen before they left the harbour and we continued to track the whale. Unfortunately, it did not show its fluke, but I did manage to get dorsal fin photos and just have to hope that it is distinctive enough to find a match. When the university boat arrived, we left and headed to the West of Faial.

Before we had left in the morning, I was planning to head to the west if the lookouts hadn’t seen anything. I know that the “Winter Whales” usually hang around for a couple of weeks. The unknown factor, was if they had already been hanging around for a while when we saw them the other day or had just arrived. We will never know the answer to that question, but as we approached the Condor Bank, we picked up some sperm whale clicks on the hydrophone. About an hour later we spotted the first blow. As the whale fluked, my hunch proved correct. We had found the “Winter Whales” again! The first two whales we saw were the same two we had seen the other day, but we did manage to get a third fluke that was different. Given the hazy spotting conditions, we were lucky to see each whale twice. The juvenile that we saw a few days ago with one of the females was not seen on this occasion, indicating that it is getting to an age when it starts to forage for itself, only occasionally returning to suckle from its mother.

As it turned out, one of the Winter Whales was 2448, first seen in 2003. The one with the two small nicks on the left end (see photos) is 3483, first seen in 2007.

3483

And the one with the small scallop on the right near the notch is 2808, first seen in 2004.

2808

About five minutes after we started to head for home, I spotted some dolphin splashes . This turned into the first sighting of bottlenose dolphin, one of our resident species. Unfortunately, they were not going to escort us towards Horta, but were on their way to the west, so after about five minutes, we both continued on our separate ways.

Hopefully I can get out again soon, because towards the weekend it looks like a bit of wind before a couple more sea days next week.

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All 2020 citizen science now deferred to 2021

The world remains in the grip of the coronavirus. Many countries that we operate in continue to keep their borders shut and some are still expecting their first peak, let alone a second wave. In fact, in many countries that we operate in, things are predicted to get worse before they get better. And a vaccine will take time, or it there may never be one.

Because of all this, we have decided to defer the citizen science elements of all our 2020 expeditions to 2021. These are:

Expeditions that happend early in 2020 and are now scheduled to repeat in 2021 as normal are

An overview over all expeditions is on our website as a list and a map.

Please note that project work has not been cancelled. It is only the citizen science element that has been deferred to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Project work with local staff only will continue and you can see on our appeal page what is planned in terms of community expeditions and project work. If you can, please support our efforts to raise funds for this!

You can also read about community expedition efforts already under way in the Azores and Tien Shan.

We continue to feel very strongly about the need for continued conservation efforts and supporting our local partners and staff despite, or indeed because of, the unprecedented and very difficult circumstances. We hope you agree. If you do, please give to our coronavirus appeal to enable our local partners & staff to do just this.

Azores: oh my!

Friday was one of those days you won’t forget for some time!

The morning started off quite drizzly and wet, so we delayed the departure. I was invited by Rui and Monica from the University of the Azores, IMAR, to join them aboard the boat I had been going out in.

The lookouts hadn’t seen anything and the south of Faial lookout had actually re-located to the north of the island. We headed out to the south-west. Monica and Rui wanted to find a fin whale to attach a short-term tag to, which records any vocalisations and also data during a dive, such as orientation and acceleration.

We had been going for about an hour when a back of a whale was spotted in the swell. We stopped and waited and waited a bit more. Blow! It turned out to be a sperm whale. Not what we were looking for, but we went to get the ID. As it fluked, I was pretty sure that I recognised it. We didn’t wait for any more, instead heading now to the south of Pico where the weather was clearing. We found a small group of common dolphin that came over to the boat and some a little further out appeared to be feeding.

We decided to head a bit further to the southeast, but by 13:30, we hadn’t found anything and started to head back to the harbour.

As we approached Faial, the lookout spotted the sperm whales again, so we headed over to have a look. Another project the university has, is to use a drone to collect samples of the blows, the famous “Snot Bot”! Although in Portugal (and therefore the Azores), drones are not allowed to be used by the general public, the use of this one (as wel as it biopsy darts and application of a tag) is approved under a research license. As Rui and Monica prepared the drone, we followed a whale along the surface. As it dived, I gave an excited shout! This group was the “Winter Whales”, so named, because we have seen them once in December, 2007. Once this encounter was over, we went back to Faial and everyone went their separate ways, but about 30 minutes later, the lookout Anteiro called to say he had seen a mother and baby blue whale! So we all raced back to the boat and off we went again!

The whales were off the South of Faial heading to the west. Monica & Rui prepared the tag and the biopsy dart (to collect a sample of the skin/blubber for analysis). Unfortunately, the mother was not very cooperative and every time we got almost close enough to deploy the tag, she turned away. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, it was decided to leave the pair to continue on their way. We did get the photo ID shots from both sides for both individuals and they have been sent off for matching.

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The calf did some absolutely incredible lunges/breaches while we were watching that made for some unbelievable sights. I don’t think I will forget that for a very long time!

We will be out again next week.

Tien Shan: exciting community camera trapping results

We’ve gone through all the community camera trapping team pictures now and we have some very interesting results:

Fox (1 record)
Ibex (many records)
Snowcock (4 records)
Pika (2 records)

As well as young ibex playfighting

And most interestingly and excitingly of all, a young ibex being stalked/hunted by a snow leopard

Once again, well done community camera trappers!

Tien Shan: community expedition in coronavirus times

The coronavirus has forced us to make major changes to our efforts here with the Tien Shan snow leopard expedition. All citizen science elements of the expedition have been deferred to 2021, but we are still able to push ahead with a community expedition this summer, thanks to the generosity of those who have contributed to the Biosphere Expeditions appeal. We are lucky in getting our community expedition funded through this. There are other projects out there that are not fully funded yet, so please, if you can, consider supporting those too. Anyway, thank you to all donors who have funded us!

Right now we are in the planning phase of how to pull all the different partners together here in Kyrgyzstan. As always, we have our inaugural partner NABU on board with their Grupa Bars (anti-poaching patrol) staff.  Also joinung us this year will be  Askat Mukabaev, who is a full-time conservation biologist at ILBIRS, another local conservation NGO here in Kyrgyzstan. Beyond that we have our community camera trap monitoring group that will be joining us as well. The expedition leader this year will be me, Amadeus DeKastle, as I’m already here in Kyrgyzstan, having lived here for a good while!

Community camera trapping group at work
Some Grupa Bars members
Amadeus DeKastle

This year will be very different from previous expeditions, but at the same time, I know we are all looking forward to continuing this project and collecting another valuable data set this summer. Our community camera trap monitoring group has already collected some of the camera traps that are accessible and which have been out in the field since the end of the 2019 expedition. And we have a new image of a snow leopard in a new valley! It’s at night and blurry, but it’s definitely a snow leopard. Well done community camera trappers!

Original camera trap photo
Zoomed in and processed

So the excitement is there to check the camera traps that are still in the field, and also to use our community expedition really to develop the community-based conservation element of our work.

We are looking forward to the expedition (and will keep you updated via this blog). For next summer, I hope that things will be back to full capacity so that we are able to experience an expedition together again.

Azores: practically perfect

Apologies for the delay. We’ve had some computer issues, which is why this is late.

Satuday was an amazing day! We had a plan to go to the south and west of Faial, because the lookout hadn’t seen anything to the south of Pico when we were leaving. But just as we were about to turn the “corner” to go south of Faial, he called to say that he had seen a baleen whale in front of the vigia. So off we went to the South of Pico.

About 45 minutes later we were watching the first baleen whale of 2020, a fin whale. We stayed long enough to get the ID photos and then we were off to the south of Faial again. But we hadn’t gone very far before the lookout shouted “BLOW”! He had spotted another baleen whale closer to the coast. So we changed our course and headed that way. Just as we were approaching the area he had directed us to, a huge fluke rose out of the sea, as if the whale was saying “Hey, I’m over here”! And by looking at the fluke, we all shouted BLUE WHALE!! And it was indeed, quite a large blue whale. A bit on the thin side, but that is pretty normal at this time of year, when the whales are heading back to the feeding grounds after not eating for a few months on the breeding grounds. It was a fairly co-operative whale, because we were able to get the photo ID shots from both sides. Unfortunately, it didn’t show us the tail again.

Once again, we headed for the south of Faial. This time we actually made it to the area we had originally set out for! And what did we find? A group of sperm whales! We got fluke photos from four individuals and a large calf. Along the way, we passed a group of common dolphin with a lot of calves. And on our way back to port, we came across a mixed group of common and striped dolphin.

All in all, a practically perfect day [and Lisa’s birthday – Happy birthday!, ed.]. And to cap it all off, there have been some matches too. Three whales matched to 2009, one to 2018 and two to last year!

It looks like there is going to be a bit of wind and rain this week, but hopefully we will get out towards the end of the week or the weekend to see what is waiting for us.

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Azores: sperm whales in the north

A second successful day at sea with 42 miles covered yesterday (Friday). There was a lot of fog and rain showers to the south today, so we headed north.
There was no lookout, but we had high hopes to find sperm whales with the hydrophone.
And success we had! We found a group of five females and a calf. Three of the individuals have been seen since 2009, always together. One of the others was seen in 2018 and a new one this year. We saw one of them three times and a couple of others twice.

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When it appeared that we had all the individuals of the group identified, we headed back to the harbour. There were no dolphins seen today, although there were some Cory’s shearwaters feeding and a possible tuna also seen.
Once we were on the north coast, the lookout on the south of Pico called to say that two fin whales had appeared out of the fog. It was decided to stick with our plan, rather than risk a long trip back to the south. It turned out to be the right decision.
The weather looks like it should be good on Sunday, so hopefully will get out again. Thanks to Biosphere Expeditions, once again. We were the only boat on the water.