Thailand: Roundup, pictures, videos

From 12 – 20 Nov 2018 Biosphere Expeditions & Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) ran their second Asian elephant conservation expedition within a Karen hilltribe community in Mae Chaem region in the mountains of northern Thailand. Eight citizen scientists from Canada, Germany, UK and the US helped gather data and spent a total of 107 hours in the forest following the elephants.

The overall long-term goal of the research is to contribute to welfare initiatives in Thailand by collecting data on elephant behavior in a natural setting. Almost 3,500 elephants are currently kept in captivity working for their survival in tourist camps. The goal of the study is to create an official guideline regulating daily practice and management of captive elephants to ensure the highest degree of welfare standards. Expedition scientist Talia Gale explains that “this year we were thrilled to gather complete datasets on activity budgeting, association and foraging, thanks to the hard working citizen scientists.”

Preliminary results are: 80 hours were spent on recording activity & behaviour, 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness, and 11 hours on foraging preferences. The elephants spent their time on foraging (64%), followed by walking (12%), standing (7%), scratching and dusting (6%). During six survey days they consumed 32 plant species from 18 different families, with the majority of their diet consisting of two species of bamboo (40%). The data gathered by the expedition by and large corroborate previous studies on wild Asian elephants.

KSES is a non-profit foundation founded in 2016 working together with local communities to bring elephants home to the forest. Kerri McCrea, co-founder of KSES: “What makes our program unique is the very close relationship we have with our local community. The whole village works together to run this project, everyone with their own role whether it’s homestays, driving or looking after us and the elephants in the field, it literally takes a village to get it all done. Thank you to Biosphere Expeditions for bringing us motivated citizen scientists to progress our science projects. Working together is the only way to work towards creating a more promising future for the elephants in Thailand.”

Some pictures and videos of the expedition are below.

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Tien Shan: Roundup, pictures, video

After five years of research in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range of the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Biosphere Expeditions has proved the presence of the snow leopard in a location previously thought devoid of the top level predator. Two night-time camera trap images taken on 24 July 2018 show a snow leopard walking across a trail commonly used by local shepherds high in the mountains.

“It may have taken five years, but all our efforts have finally paid off with these two images”, says Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, research scientist of the Tien Shan project. Tytar has been researching the snow leopard for more than 15 years, but this year was special. “When we first arrived here in Kyrgyzstan to begin our work in 2014, we kept being told that we would not find anything in this region. In fact, over the past five years we have recorded quite a number of animals that no one expected, including the snow leopard.”

Dr Tytar (right) with members of the NABU Grupa Bars. Image courtesy of Noel van Bemmel.

The Biosphere Expeditions project originated at the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme, where, in 2013, representatives from all twelve Asian countries where the snow leopard roams made a historic pledge to conserve and protect snow leopards and the high mountain habitats they call their home. The pledge was made in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Biosphere Expeditions was part of this significant event and pledged in turn to carry out annual snow leopard conservation expeditions, involving ordinary people from around the world as citizen scientists, as well as building capacity with local people. NABU Kyrgyzstan, funded by Germany’s largest nature conservation organisation NABU (Natuschutzbund = nature conservation association), is the local project partner, with its local anti-poaching unit ‘Grupa Bars’ (group snow leopard) heavily involved in the annual expeditions.

Cited on the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard, like many species, is threatened by poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. One goal formulated in Bishkek is the 20/20 pledge – to protect 20 snow leopard landscapes that have over 100 breeding adults by 2020, and to promote sustainable development in areas where the species lives.

“This is as big as it gets in terms of top-level conservation news”, says Dr. Tytar, “and it is a privilege to be part of the challenge, together with my colleagues in field science and many others, to preserve this iconic cat. But what we do goes far beyond a single cat species, beautiful as it is in its own right, because successful species conservation is all about creating positive impact well beyond the target species, namely for those people that share their daily lives and landscapes with the snow leopard. As specified in the Conservation Strategy for Snow Leopard in Russia, 2012-2022, much can be achieved in the socio-economic context of snow leopard conservation by ‘…developing collaborations with such internationally known organisations as Biosphere Expeditions…’ (p.81). And this is exactly what we have achieved with our annual citizen science expeditions”.

“Four of the key themes at the Bishkek conference as ways forward in snow leopard conservation were private conservation initiatives, local involvement, capacity-building and ecotourism”, says Dr. Hammer, executive director of Biosphere Expeditions. “Our Tien Shan project ticks all those boxes. Funded by the private donations of our citizen science participants, we involve local people and organisations and bring benefits to herders and other people on the ground. For us, these are the key factors to ensure the future of the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere”.

Some pictures and videos of the expedition are below. Thank you to Ralf Brueglin, Noel van Bemmel, Fraeulein Draussen and others for sharing them.

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Malawi: Roundup, pictures, videos

An eight hour car ride north of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, sits a little know Nature Reserve called Vwaza Marsh. The reserve is managed by The Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and tourism infrastructure is very limited within the reserve and visitors are rare. Instead tourists are more likely to go to the better known National Parks of Liwonde and Majete, both which are managed by Africa Parks.

In 2017 the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) set up a research camp inside the reserve working closely with the DNPW to map and monitor the wildlife inside the reserve. The aim of the research is to better understand the biodiversity and abundance of the animals within the reserve so that management can be improved and wildlife can be better protected from poachers. “Most of the poachers inside the reserve are after smaller bush meat, but we do also occasionally get teams of poachers with big guns going after Elephants or Hippos for their tusks”, explains Amanda Harwood, the research manager for LWT. The ivory trade is a problem all over Africa, and while in other nations the poachers have sophisticated techniques and sometimes even use helicopters, poaching in Malawi is currently on a much smaller scale. This may be why Vwaza Marsh still boasts large populations of both elephants and hippos. “It is interesting to see that a fairly large number of the female elephants in the reserve are born without tusks, or with only one tusk. It appears that here evolution is happening at a fast rate. Those born without tusks are left alone by poachers and are therefore the ones who are still alive to breed, passing on the gene of being tuskless. It is likely we will continue to see more and more of the elephants being born without tusks” says LWT’s research assistant Alex Chalkley.

Biosphere Expeditions joined forces with LWT and CRA in 2018 by sending three separate teams of citizen scientists to Vwaza. “Much of our research requires a lot of manpower and by having teams of citizen scientists, we can collect a lot of data in a short time”, explains Karen Dylan, an entomologist with CRA.

During the six weeks that the Biosphere Expedition teams were in Vwaza, 28 new elephants were identified. This is a very significant number considering it took eight months to identify 117 elephants prior to the citizen scientists coming to help. By identifying elephants, population dynamics and abundance, long-term management can be improved.

The teams also set camera traps throughout the park. Forty-nine species were captured on camera; most notably a number of flagship species that had not been recorded within the reserve before. These were lion, caracal and serval. “When the caracal imaged came up on the screen, we all cheered with joy and I got goosebumps. This elusive cat is so rarely seen, it feels very special to get several images of one” says Ida Vincent, the Biosphere Expeditions project leader.

The team also identified one new order of insects – Embioptera – the only group of insects to spin silk through their forelegs. At the end of the six week expedition, Harwood concludes that “having Biosphere Expeditions here has made it possible for us to gather a lot of data in a short amount of time. Not only this, but we have also been able to survey parts of the reserve that we otherwise find it hard to get to. This has resulted in us discovering quite a few new species in the reserve which is very exciting, as well as providing critical information for the management and conservation Vwaza Marsh.”

In summary, the three  groups combined achieved this:

  • 53 large mammal vehicle and 12 large mammal walking transects with 72 sightings and 23 species  recorded
  • 6 hippo vehicle and 11 hippo walking transects counting a total of 3,359 hippos
  • 28 new elephants were identified
  • 11 primate surveys were conducted
  • 27 orders of insects were identified with one being new for Vwaza Marsh Reserve, the Embioptera
  • 72 new morpho species for Vwaza Marsh were also identified
  • 60 bats from six different species were captured and released
  • 69 camera traps were deployed during the expedition
  • 49 species were caught on these cameras
  • out of those species, three cat species had never before been recorded by conclusive camera trap images in Vwaza Marsh Reserve: lion, caracal and serval.

We leave you with lots of pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Ng Kui Lai, Ida Vincent, Tom Bartel and John Haddon for sharing many of them.

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Maldives: Roundup, pictures, videos

During the 2018 Maldives expedition citizen scientist SCUBA divers used the Reef Check methodology to record coral health, species and life forms from three inner sheltered reefs and three more outer reefs exposed to the open ocean. Results have shown that the outer reef sites are resilient to temperature-induced coral bleaching (from the warming event in April 2016). They also appear to attract the greatest number of recruits (young coral polyps living in the water settling down to start growing) from shallow to deeper waters. Inner reefs, by contrast, have been very badly affected by the bleaching, suffering almost total coral death since the 2016 warming event. Some sites are now dominated completely by macroalgae, others by sponges and turfs. Alarmingly, once reefs have undergone this ‘phase shift’ from coral to algae, sponges or turf, the ‘rainforest of the seas’ with high underwater biodiversity and beauty has gone and is unlikely to return.

Snapper, grouper and other commercial fish species were absent, small, or at low densities on all dives, suggesting that there remains heavy fishing pressure throughout the atolls. Although the prospect for many reefs is poor, particularly around the sheltered house reefs of inner atolls, there remain remarkable wildlife spectacles at some channel reef sites, and well-known dive sites. Sharks (grey reef, black tip and white-tip; manta and whale shark were all seen on the expedition), and some of the diving in more remote areas (away from resorts and inhabited islands) is still excellent. The overall outlook, however, is deeply concerning. The new Maldives government, which has made positive noises in terms of reef conservation, must act now to prevent a collapse of the reef ecosystem, which forms the very bedrock of the Maldivian geography, economy and culture.

Below are some pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Gemma Thompson for sharing many of them.

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Costa Rica: Roundup & pictures/videos

Direct effects of citizen science

On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs each night during the early February to late May nesting season. The Caribbean leatherback turtles is listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list and one of the main threats to its survival is poaching of eggs. In Costa Rica turtle eggs are believed to be an aphrodisiac and sell for about $2 per egg, a significant sum of money. Poachers roam the beaches at night stealing the eggs from female turtles coming ashore to build their nest. Conservation projects have been established along the beaches to combat this problem. Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) run such a project, with Biosphere Expeditions providing citizen scientist volunteers.

At the beginning of the nesting season, a hatchery is constructed and then guarded 24 hours a day, keeping poachers away. Eggs from turtles encountered during the nightly beach patrols are relocated there. “The first year I was here, in 2016, we encountered several teams of poachers each night” says Biosphere Expeditions leader Ida Vincent, “but this year I have seen far fewer”. The data collected by the citizen scientist teams supports this observations: In the previous two years about 50 percent of nests were lost to poachers, but in the 2018 season only 20 percent appear to have been poached, with 80 percent safely developing in the hatchery. “There are a few reasons why the number of poachers has dropped” explains Fabian Carrasco, the onsite scientist from LAST, “last year four poachers were arrested by the Coast Guard, which has scared other poachers from returning this season. We have also been sending out a lot of patrols each night, which is deterring poachers. With more citizen scientists on the beach each night than poachers, the numbers are simply against them and we are more likely to encounter a turtle before they are.”

There has also been an increase in employment in the village and as such the need to poach for income has decreased. LAST is part of this effort through their guide programme, which trains former poachers to be patrol guides and therefore protect, rather than poach eggs. “Their knowledge of spotting turtles and collecting eggs makes them expert turtle finders and with a steady income, the incentive to poach is much reduced”, explains Carrasco. LAST have also set up a weekly market day when people from the community come to the research station selling their goods (fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed souvenirs) to the visiting citizen scientists. One of them is Talar Attarian from the USA, who says that “it’s wonderful to support the locals, providing an alternative income to poaching”.

Below are some pictures (thanks to Georg Berg and Nicole Stinn for many of them) and videos of the expedition:

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Germany: Round-up & pictures

The 2018 Lower Saxony wolf expedition in Germany covered over 730 km on foot and bike over ten survey days. Over 200 scat samples for DNA and diet analyses were collected.

Peter Schütte, the expedition scientist and a wolf commissioner in Lower Saxony calls this “another great result after the 2017 expedition“ and is “delighted with the quality and quantity of the data collected”, which he presented at an important conference in September.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, adds: “This is another remarkable result. I hope our work will help to convince those in Germany who are against the wolf’s return, because being a wolf country not only brings challenges, but also opportunities.  The debate about the wolf’s return is often clouded by emotions, polemics or even populist arguments. Problems are overemphasised and opportunities are hardly ever discussed. Why not, for example, a little bit of the Masai Mara – with livestock, predators and tourism – in the famously picturesque Lüneburg Heath? I hope our work will open people’s eyes for opportunities.“

Some pictures and videos of the expedition are shown below:

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15 years of Azores expeditions: the power of long-term datasets

Whale watching can be undertaken in a morning, but watching whales to better understand their movements and ecology takes time – fifteen years (and counting) to be precise. Biosphere Expeditions has just completed its 15th year of expeditions in the Azores, monitoring the cetacean movements, covering over 15 different species.

Many research questions focused on the natural world cannot be addressed (with any certainty) in a month or a single year. Data collection may take a decade or longer, to reveal meaningful patterns and this is the case with the cetaceans of the Azores.

Rewards can be faster. Images of sperm whales and blue whales taken this year, have already been matched to other locations in the Azores, Norway and Ireland. But many more whales have still yet to be matched, revealing the range of their movements and the importance of different parts of the oceans.

This year’s project still has a lot of data to process, from 122 cetacean encounters over 22 days at sea, sighting over 1000 individuals. But some species are absent from this year’s research findings and dolphins have been found in lower numbers.

With the expedition fieldwork now commencing in March, “it has also been great to get out on the water earlier in the year”, says expedition scientist Lisa Steiner, “and collect data on a range of species, across a broader time span. The value of this work is very significant, as we would not have documented the 18 blue whales recorded, or the many other species, since there are very few other boats out at this time of year”.

Understanding spatial and temporal patterns of so many cetaceans is key to their long-term protection and conservation. And undertaking field research, especially when others are not around, reveals new information such as species being absent or present in lower or higher numbers compared to other years. But the true conservation context can only be gained after many years of work.

“The ability to collect such data is greatly enhanced by the annual contribution of citizen scientists”, says expedition leader Craig Turner, “and underlines the value of long-term datasets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for many cetacean species”. Steiner adds that “not only are we able to match individuals to catalogues in the Azores with these data, but often from elsewhere in the Atlantic too, sometimes even beyond, elevating the power and value of the data”.

In the end it will all be about appropriate conservation management based on scientific facts to ensure these much-loved whale and dolphin species continue to thrive not just in Azorean waters, but elsewhere in the wider Atlantic Ocean.

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Thailand: Two full datasets, done

The team completed the last survey day on Monday. After the final data input and a refreshing shower in the afternoon, we sat around the dinner table for a final review. Absorbing everyone’s reports, I noticed that it all sounded as if we were talking about good old friends, commenting on their mood and behaviour amongst other things. The elephants have become much more than study objects and we all felt a bit sad when we had to say good-bye. On the very bright side, the team met this year’s goal of two full day datadsets for each individual and set the basis for further data collection – well done everyone!

Preliminary results after 107 survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00 on six survey days are:

  • 80 hours were spent on recording activity & behaviour
  • 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness were recorded
  • 11 hours were spent on looking at their foraging preferences.
  • The majority of the elephant’s time was spent foraging (64%) followed by walking (12%), standing (7%), scratching and dusting (6%).
  • During the six survey days, they consumed 32 species from 18 different families with the majority of their diet being two species of bamboo (40%).
  • These preliminary data corroborate and resemble previous studies on wild Asian elephants.

More on all this will follow in the full expedition report, which we will tell you when it’s out (in a few months).

It was well before bedtime (around 20:00) when most of the team dinner to do some packing up or going straight to bed. It has been a tiring, but satisfying week. Thank you, everyone on the team, for your time, hard work, sweat for science and the enthusiasm you have put into the project. I very much enjoyed the time with you out in the forest and also watching you making yourselves at home within the local community. Your help and input is much appreciated and without you the project would simply not happen. Thanks to KSES, Kerri & Sombat, for organising everything on the ground, together with the local people and mahouts. Thanks, Talia, for sharing your knowledge and never getting tired of answering questions on the science or elephant anatomy 😉

Best wishes, I hope to see some of you again some day and I leave you with a collection of pictures from your time here.


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Thailand: Elephants all over the study site

The weather is hot during the day now. We like the sun, but we are sweating for science also. In the early mornings we walk by the local families huddled around their fireplaces. For most of us a long sleeve shirt is plenty.

We spent Friday & Saturday surveying in the afternoon, when all elephants have been very active. The two females and the toddler stuck together most of the time as usual and were followed by quite a few of us watching their every movement and recording activities and social behaviour every five minutes. Every elephant has their personal data logger and two more citizen scientists record association data of the herd. Until Saturday the males stayed away, roaming on their own but still followed by us citizen scientists.

We’ve been walking a lot up and down hills, along the main path, to the river, back into dense undergrowth, etc., etc.. With elephant toddler Gen Thong around it never gets boring, anyway. He likes testing the boundaries and is always up for game.

On Saturday & Sunday we found Boon Rott and Dodo together for the first time since we started our surveys. It was great to see them getting along well, Dodo following Boon Rott. He is the newest member of the herd and in the process of slowly settling in. It will take some more time for him to get his bearings and there is a lot to learn from his mate about his new environment. We saw them mud-bathing together and displaying social behaviour – they must like each other.

Apart from surveying elephants, some of the team took the chance to participate in community activities in the afternoon of our early survey days on Thursday and Sunday. Kunsang learnt some traditional weaving skills and her scarf should be finished by the time we leave. Others went for a Thai massage to the lower village to experience a blind man’s magic hands. He is said to be unique in what he is doing – I can certainly attest to this.

We have one survey day left tomorrow (Monday). Keep your fingers crossed that all five elephants will decide to spend some time in one group. That’s our hope at least, but they have their own minds 😉

Thailand: Collecting data

The team has completed the second elephant survey day. Introductions, presentations and lectures on the science, the history of the elephants to be surveyed, the equipment, safety and living with the local people were followed by a half day of practical training in the field on Tuesday. Data collection started on Wednesday and will continue until Monday, working towards the goal of completing two full sets of survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00. That means that the schedule will change from day to day, some days starting at 06:00 others at 08:00.

We left base at 08:00 on Wednesday for the 4.5 km hike to find the elephants. Too-Meh, the herd’s grandmother (57 years), her daughter Mae-Doom (23 years) and Gentong, Too-Meh’s grandson (6 years) were  together near the river. They foraged most of the time and took a bath in the river later on. Right at lunchtime, one of the male elephants, Boon-Rott (13 years) joined them, so that almost the whole team was reunited for lunch. The third male elephant, Dodo (Gentong’s brother, 13 years) decided to roam around solitary. A team of two citizen scientists followed him up and down steep hills and even further away from where the rest of the herd enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very good first survey day – easy for some, more challenging for others, though.

Today (Thursday) we went for the first out of two early shifts. Leaving base before sunrise, we very much enjoyed the 90 min walk along the river watching the sun come up and slowly dissolving the mist. For the first time during this week the sky was clear blue and the sun pushed the temperature up and over thirty degrees. Keep your fingers crossed that we won’t get any more rain!

We celebrated Neil’s birthday on Wednesday evening. Talia prepared a delicious homemade cake, which was presented after dinner. Thank you, Talia, for doing so, and thank you, Neil, for sharing it with us!