From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

One of the questions on a Reef Check site description form is ‘Is this the best reef in the area?’ Distressed by our recurrent findings of unhealthy degraded reefs, we decided to go in search of just that, so on 26 July, after consulting the knowledgeable crew of our research vessel, we surveyed Litholu Kandu, an outer reef on the far eastern tip of Vaavu Atoll. We were not disappointed. This may not have been a pristine reef, but in comparison to what we had been seeing, it was a sight for sore eyes. As we headed north we found that the reefs once again were suffering, and these weren’t just the inner reefs, but the outer reefs as well.

On 27 July we performed our whale shark transect, but were not as fortunate as last week, and no whale sharks were sighted. But a large pod of around 50 spinner dolphins put on a great show of leaping and spinning, really playing up to their name.

For our final day the weather turned and our last transect, on a particularly silted reef, we battled with the wind, rain and poor visibility. The site we were surveying in Embudhu, South Male’, previously had 30% hard coral cover (in 2012), but now foreign investors in conjunction with the ministry of tourism here in the Maldives are reclaiming 7 km of land to build tourist islands akin to those in Dubai. As if the reefs aren’t having to cope with enough already! It was a sad way to end our week, but another example of why these surveys are really important, and why the world, and the Maldives, really need to wake up to what is going on just below the surface!

And what is going on is that inner reefs are devastated. Outer reefs aren’t in the places we’ve been to. If you look at IUCN ratings, over 30% cover is OK, so there may be opportunities for some recovery, but the problem is that impacts just keep increasing – sedimentation, pollution, ocean warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, you name it, it’s all here in the Maldives, which is why the inner reefs are indeed knackered and may not recover…..and this is of course where most of the resorts are….

We’ve been coming here since 2011 and even in this short time things have become much worse. Unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what they are doing to their reefs, which are after all the basis for everything in the country, including the very country itself, then greed, ignorance, apathy and short-sightedness will win the day and kill the reefs – and with it much of the country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. There’s no nice way to put this. What we are documenting is the rapid decline of a country in more ways than one.

Thank you to a fantastic team who have worked really hard in the face of an ecological crisis. This was the first time that Biosphere Expeditions has run an expedition for those already trained in Reef Check protocols and methodology, and it has been a great success. To be able to get to work quickly after a brief refresher, and to travel to distant locations has been a real bonus. It has also been great for participants of previous expeditions to meet up with old friends, and to make new ones. Everyone hopes that other diving destinations will follow suit and if they do, I hope to see you all in another location continuing the good work!

We would also like to thank the fantastic crew of our research vessel. The food has been amazing, and the knowledge and skill of the dive guides has really helped the whole operation run smoothly. A special thank you to Inthi, for being flexible and accommodating at all times.

So until next year… we wish the Maldivian reefs a year of recovery. `They need all the luck and help they can get.

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The past couple of days we have been busy preparing the Subayang Research Station for your arrival, and it is ready! We managed to get all 12 boxes of equipment to site and get it orgainsed, the research plan is finalised and the station is spick and spam. The station also has a brand new freshwater laboratory and education center, and next Saturday we will host a school group from Tanjung Bilet (a nearby village) at the education centre teaching them about the importance of tigers and the habitat they live in. I will finish up the preparations tomorrow and I really look forward to your arrival on Sunday. See you soon!

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Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany

A few days ago our first Germany expedition came to an end. Peter and I packed up the research equipment, maps, tents and paperwork after the fourth team had left. Writing this, I am back at my desk. Before I say goodbye, I would like to share some results with you: During the fourth expedition week 234 km of forestry trails were surveyed, 48 km by bike. 25 potential wolf scats were collected. In total 49 Germany expeditioners covered 1,133 km of public forestry trails and paths! Peter will forward 78 approved and alleged wolf scats, 33 of them in ethanol, to the Wolfsbuero lab for further dietary and DNA analysis.

Twenty-five 10 x 10 km monitoring grid cells were surveyed, yielding 31 wolf tracks, 32 unclear scats, 5 carcasses and one livestock kill, as well as one possible wolf picture from one of the camera traps set up near base.

These numbers alone tell their own tale. We hope that these results will silence the critics and those from yesteryear still mistrusting citizen science projects.

It will take some more time until the final lab results will be available for writing up the final expedition report, envisaged to be out in early 2018, and we will of course keep everyone in the loop.

A big, big thank you goes first and foremost to all team members for their contribution and hard work. The project simply would not be possible without you!

We would also like to thank Theo, Baerbel, Kenny, Holger, Felix and Valeska for their time, support and sharing their knowledge. And last but not least, big thank-yous go to Jana and Jenny from the Wolfsbuero for supporting us on the ground and coping with buerocracy behind the scenes.

I think that we all have already achieved a lot together. “Keep up the good work” is a feedback comment I came across quite often during the wrap up. Thank you and I simply pass it on. I hope you’ll stay in touch and I look forward to meeting many of you again some time in the future.

All the best

Malika

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

I have arrived in Pekanbaru and been working with Febri and Gia at the WWF office over the last couple of days preparing for the expedition. Tomorrow we will travel to the Subayang Research Station to prepare for your arrival. I will stay at the station finishing up the preparations while Febri will travel back to meet group 1 at the Red Planet on Sunday at 08.00. From here you have a three hour bus journey followed by a 30 min boat trip up the river. The sun has been shining since I arrived in Pekanbaru and it is the dry season, but a heavy downpour can happen at any time in the tropics so you may want to keep your rain poncho handy for the boat journey. I look forward to meeting you in a few days!

Febri working
Gia and Ida at WWF
Organising expedition equipment

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

To continue in the general trend, Vaavu Atoll has, so far, heralded a mixture of good and bad news for the reef. Fotteyo, the first site we surveyed on 24 July was a welcome example of a healthy reef, even though it was an inner reef. Could this be because it was uninhabited, we wondered?

Our second site caused some consternation as the latitude and longitude of the historic data we were using, didn’t match up to the name of the reef we were supposed to be surveying. We stuck with the lat/longs but were disappointed when we found most of the coral dead. The following morning, just to corroborate our findings and to make sure that we had covered all our bases, we also surveyed the actual Maaduvaree reef (across the channel from the lat/longs we had), in the hope that we may find a completely different story, but it was only marginally healthier. The upside was that there was a resident pod of spinner dolphins in the area and a couple of the team, Lori and Farah actually saw them underwater during the dive. For those who missed them, a stunning double rainbow, caused by a sudden downpour lifted the spirits of everyone else.

On the way to our next site, Vattaru, we dropped in to witness a school of reef sharks, some of them visibly pregnant, and then continued on to survey another completely uninhabited island reef. We had high hopes, due to our experience at Fotteyo, but here, the sub-aquatic picture was completely different. This reef was made up of individual coral outcrops, some of which were healthy with some evidence of new recruits, but the majority of the rest of the site was dominated by rock, rubble and sand. There was also some indication of recent bleaching and bleaching in progress, which was unsurprising as the water temperature was 31 degrees Celsius – too hot for coral to tolerate.

Tomorrow, 26 July, we will continue to survey the reefs of Vaavu Atoll, and do our best to document what is going on in this underwater ecosystem. We are trying to remain positive, but what we have seen so far of the Maldivian reefs, reveals a story of very significant degradation.

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Interim science report (groups 1 and 2) from our expedition scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar.

Dr. Volodya Tytar

To date all sectors (A, B, C, D and E) of the planned study area have been visited. Maps of these areas are available at https://app.box.com/s/aars70mqox56bd6dmzbwa9wn2yhxb2wk).

In total 72 cells have been surveyed by both teams (groups 1 and 2) and in 34 cells (47%) snow leopard prey (Siberian ibex, marmots, Himalayan snowcock) was recorded once or more times. The most frequent records are of marmot, particularly at lower altitudes. Together there have been 12 observations of live ibex on ridges, alongside with numerous records of tracks and droppings in places reached on foot.

Two or perhaps three signs of snow leopard presence were found. One scat sample (cell T17), one doubtful track (AF20) and one fairly distinct pugmark in mud (recorded in cell AF21).

For the first time live observations of ibex in Kyrgyzstan were accomplished (thanks to Sven Pelka from slot 2, Germany) using a drone.

Ground surveys (particularly in slot 2 when snow fields encountered in slot 1 were melting away) revealed ibex presence in areas of predicted good habitat (from surveys in previous years and the models developed from there, see expedition reports in www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports) suitability for the animals. These, in particular, are upper reaches of valleys (together with the adjacent ridges) of Chon-Chikan (cells AC15 and AD16), Kara-Tor (AH14, AI15) and Dunguruma (AL14). These results will significantly help to improve the model used for guiding and planning our research in the area.

In all places where ibex activity was recorded, camera traps were set. To date there are 14 such traps in the field. It will be the task of groups 3 and 4 to check and retrieve them by the end of the expedition.

To date the expedition has also recorded 42 bird species (or two-thirds of the list of 2016). Amongst them are such Red Data Book species as the bearded vulture, golden eagle, black stork, which are protected in Kyrgyzstan.

Team members also continue to interview locals for the purpose of ascertaining attitudes towards snow leopards and snow leopard conservation. Nine such interviews have been accomplished so far. In general, they confirm positive attitudes and understanding of the need to protect snow leopards.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Team 2 arrived on Saturday, and already, in only one day, we have completed so much. This is the first ever Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check expedition to take previously trained Reef Check EcoDivers only and dedicate the whole expedition to gathering data. With the training process removed, it has allowed us to plan a new itinerary that will re-visit historic Reef Check sites that have not been surveyed in many years due to their distance from Male’ and also for the fact that in one week, to collect repetitive data sets, there just isn’t the time!

Some of the sites we will be surveying have had no data collected since 1997, prior to the last big bleaching event. Most of this week’s team trained with Biosphere Expeditions in other locations such as Musandam (Oman) or in Malaysia during the last couple of years, although Graham and Janet, from New Zealand, have had a seven year break! Adam from the USA gained his Reef Check qualification in the Phillipines and is new to Biosphere Expeditions.

So after a quick refresher in methodology and an intensive reminder of indicator species, we set off to Bandos to perform our first ‘mock’ Reef Check survey. It went well and everyone was comforted by their ability to ‘slip back into it’. The fish survey was given a great opportunity to tell the difference between snapper and emperor fish when a huge mixed shoal swam through both transects.

Happy with the lessons learnt, we re-surveyed the site ‘for real’ and are looking forward to our first survey tomorrow on Vaavu Atoll – our first uninhabited reef!

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

First off, I’d like to say a big thank you to all the members of group 2: Yryskeldi, Andy, Carol, Brian Martin, Franzesca, Christof, Christina, Christore, Amy (from the UK), Amy (from the US), Maria and Sven. You made the last two weeks very enjoyable and successful by working well as a team!

Our first day of training held perfect weather, but just like in group 1, our first day out in the field had stormy skies in store. But unlike group 1, the weather would continue to be wet for another few days. On Thursday we decided to try and dig the snow off the high mountain pass between the East and West Karakol river valleys and make an attempt to reach Dong Alysh, the first village along the road. An hour of snow digging later (and a few blisters here and there) and we had opened the road! In Dong Alysh we met with some local partners who will be continuing our camera trapping efforts throughout the rest of the year (thank you to the Nando Peretti Foundation for supporting this). We also got the chance to visit the natural history museum in the local school. In the end, the bad weather allowed us a great opportunity to open the pass, meet our local partners and visit the museum.

Now that the pass was open, it was time to get busy on the other side…as long as the weather held out. Fortunately, the rain had passed and we were left with clear beautiful skies. Splitting into three groups each day, we were able to make up for lost time at the beginning and saw more than 30 ibex, an army of marmots, and lots of wonderful birds, butterflies, and petroglyphs. The snow leopard kept away, but we are hopeful that the camera traps we’ve been setting will catch one! More on this during later groups.

On the last day of the expedition, we decided to take a trip to the NABU rehabilitation centre, where injured snow leopards and other wildlife are nursed back to health. Seeing the work NABU is doing to take care of wild animals rescued from poachers was inspiring for all of us and made us realise that we are part of something bigger in snow leopard and wildlife conservation.

Group 2 was full of amazing people, experiences and memories. Thank you again. Looking forward to group 3 starting 31 July!

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

Welcome to the Sumatra 2017 expedition diary! My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my second year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Subayang field station and working together with WWF Indonesia.

Ida Vincent

The field station is located in the Rimbang Baling nature reserve right on the Subayang River. We will work closely with Febri Anggriawan, the WWF Tiger Scientist who will train us in all field methodologies. Do swot up on them here and watch the videos before you arrive though – it will make your learning curve far less steep and easier!

Febri Anggriawan

We both look forward to meeting group 1 on 30 July. I will already be at Subayang preparing the field station for you arrival, but Febri will be meeting you at 08.00 in the lobby of Red Planet Hotel in Pekanbaru. Make sure to be on time as we will start training on the first day.  Also have another look through your dossier and check your packing list.

See you in a little over a week!

Ida Vincent
Expedition leader

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