From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Yesterday, (Monday) the team agreed that the “cold” season has finally begun, as  jumpers were worn in the morning for the very first time (please note that “cold” means that temperatures have dropped below 22 degrees C ;)). Except for one single morning, it has been sunny and dry, allowing us great surveys in the forest.

We spent five hours with the elephants on Sunday, so including today’s final forest excursion, we’ve managed to complete two full-day surveys of each elephant between 8:00 and 16:00. While each of us followed one elephant to record its behaviour, scientist Talia collected foraging data and collected five new plant samples the elephants fed on that have yet to be identified.

Maria & Kerri went to three of the village homestays in the morning to conduct interviews. Interviews is another activity of the expedition, but since we’ve been so busy with the elephant surveys thus far, we haven’t had the chance yet to include this activity into our schedule. It was good, though, to get the project started of writing up a profile of each homestay family. It’ll provide some basic socio-economic background information. Tawamoh, Jadee and LuJet, the three interviewees, each answered that their biggest concern was that visitors don’t like being at their house or getting sick. Little surprise, then, that we have been spoilt by such great hospitality and friendliness.

Marion and I walked the second biodiversity trail starting from base in the morning, completing our week’s to-do list. We’ve recorded twelve different species (mainly butterflies and dragonflies), took ID pictures, marked survey points in the GPS and logged the track before getting back to base for lunch and then heading off into the forest again.

This expedition’s last encounter with the elephants was quite special. After we found them bathing & drinking at a waterhole, they started wandering off uphill to where we came from leading us straight back to the main path to base. Together with the mahouts we enjoyed another half hour with them close-by but finally had to say good-bye.

As I write this, this year’s expedition is already over. The team left Ban Naklang this morning while Kerri, Thalia and have gone through our de-brief procedure, packed up the equipment and cleaned up our base. The three of us will go into Chiang Mai tomorrow morning.

I would like to say thank you to everyone involved in getting this project off the ground. Thanks to all team members for their contribution and hard work. Your input & help is much appreciated and we from Biosphere Expeditions and KSES will continue our work for the elephant’s welfare and future in Thailand. A big thank you also goes also to the mahouts who kept us safe and the Karen hilltribe village people who made their home ours. It’s been a very special experience and we look forward to returning next year.

Safe travels everyone and I hope we meet again.

All the best,

Malika
Expedition leader

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

That’s all folks. Once again we must call time on our expedition in South Africa. Our citizen scientists have departed, the kit is packed and now I must make my travels north, back to Scotland. But what a month in the fynbos it has been – expeditions never fail to surprise me – they offer difference, diversity, discovery, data and sometimes adversity.

Before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our participants, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goals of better understanding the ecology and conservation issues of the fynbos. Thank you for your contribution towards advancing knowledge, and making this expedition a success.

Before that, we owe a big thank you to Melda, Gurli and Barbara, for the continual provision of culinary delights, and their botanical wisdom! A big thanks also to John and Lizzie, for sharing their time, knowledge and enthusiasm for the Cape rockjumper work and all things avian. We would also like to thank the extended Lee family (Anja, Elli, Charlie, Chris & Elaine), for not just hosting the expedition, but their un-ending hospitality. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Alan, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to share in your world and work with such a dedicated scientist and committed conservationist.

So what of the success I mentioned? Well, success is a strange metric to measure when it comes to expeditions. It is influenced by the people you meet, the experiences you have, the challenges you overcome…to mention a few. Ultimately, it is perhaps most dependent on your expectations.

The expedition’s expectations focussed on a few key field research activities. Of course much data still need to be crunched from the various field surveys and just think of all those camera traps still clicking and collecting data….long beyond our departure. But what have we achieved in the past month?

In case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:

  • Several new camera trap monitoring stations have been established to monitor leopard, caracal and other mammal activity and movement patterns;
  • We completed as much small mammal trapping as we did in the first two years of this expedition, recording three new species at Blue Hill in 2017;
  • Several hundred camera images from Blue Hill have be analysed, identified and catalogued, revealing activity of leopards and African wildcat across a number of locations;
  • Over 12 km of nocturnal transects surveys have been completed across the Blue Hill area;
  • We have assisted with multiple bird and biodiversity surveys across six sites in the Karoo (covering around 3000 km);
  • Assisted bird biologists (John & Lizzie) with ongoing doctoral research on Cape Rockjumper’s at Blue Hill (a bird species endemic to the fynbos);
  • Established nearly 300 permanent monitoring plots for endemic honeybush plants used to make tea;
  • Completed the first diurnal and nocturnal mammal maps for Blue Hill;
  • Undertook further bat monitoring and entered/analysed two years worth of sonogram data;
  • Collected multiple leopard scats for DNA analysis, and kept searching for leopards.

In isolation, these may just seem like bits of data, as field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions. To paraphrase one of our participants, we are simply uncovering and fitting together small pieces of the fynbos puzzle. And as we slowly put them together, we will reveal a bigger picture of how this fire-driven ecosystem works and sustains the larger predators such as Cape leopards. Arguably, only with this knowledge can we adequately conserve them.

So to my mind, with this bounty of new information, we have been more than successful. I refer you to one of the earlier blogs at the start of the expedition, when we set out Alan’s aims and expectations. We have achieved all of these, and more. No matter whether you are a citizen scientist, scientist or expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. If your expectations are realistic, then with a bit of graft, success is often forthcoming.

Thank you for all your efforts and I, for one, look forward to returning next year.

Best wishes to you all

Craig Turner
Expedition leader

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

On Friday our task was to collect data on the biodiversity trail. Maria, Marion, Talia & I enjoyed a beautiful walk along the river, past the village temple and through rice fields that will be harvested soon. The usually small & shallow stream we had to cross on our way was almost knee high with a strong current from heavy rainfall during the early morning hours. When we reached the start point of the transect ,we stopped, set up our GPSs, scanned the surrounding area for wildlife and did so every 50 m at marked points on the 500 m long transect. Findings were photographed and recorded in the datasheet. We arrived back at base in the early afternoon, where Maria enjoyed identifying butterly species from photographs and Marion went of to support the local community by having had a weaving lesson with Mae, on of our friends here in the hill tribe village.

Today (Saturday) it was back to elephant data collection.  We left base at 07:00 and Maria & Kerri had a comparatively easy day with their study objects who did not wander through the forest much. Marion and I, on the other hand, had to follow “our” elephants down to the river, then up into and through very dense vegetation. As if this wasn’t enough of a workout, the elephants foraged almost “on the run”, so we were kept very busy for the entire four survey hours.

While I am writing this Maria & Talia are busy with data entry, while Marion is supporting the community some more by getting a Thai massage from a blind man in the village.

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

We’ve had a few battles here on the inaugural Thailand elephant expedition – with the weather (unseasonal rain), terrain (try walking up a steep hillside after a foraging elephant, especially when it’s slippery from rain), the local language (Karen, which sounds very alien to Indo-European language speakers), guts (some people down with gastro problems; we’re not sure where this came from, but it’s here with a vengeance). So the team has shrunk, but those who could go out enjoyed up-close-and-personal encounters with our study elephants.

It’s Thursday and we’ve just finished our second elephant survey. We observed the elephants for four hours recording data every five minutes. The weather too has been kinder, with temperatures ranging between 24 and 29 degrees C and partly cloudy sky. Keep your fingers crossed that it stays that way!

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

The devil is the detail, when it comes to expeditions. This is true of the planning, organisation and execution of most of the fieldwork. The latter also requires a combination of hard work, flexibility, patience and luck. Particularly when you are trying to get data on Cape leopard and caracals.
We are all realistic that only the ‘lucky’ will encounter them face-to-face. However, we have technology on our side, in the form of camera traps. The ‘detail’ is picking where to locate them, so you have to think like a cat and site them where they will hopefully pass. These camera traps give us ‘eyes’ in the field in multiple locations, over a huge area and every hour of the day or night.

We also have the eyes of our team in the field every day, also looking for signs of these predators, which can range from tracks to scratched trees to scat. We have all been issued with ‘scat bags’, so potential leopard scat can be collected, verified by DNA analysis, and in turn help build a DNA database, to track movements of leopards – dead or alive. A powerful conservation tool from such small evidence.

Detail in scientific or conservation terms often equates to data. Whether this comes from our mammal mapping, small mammal trapping or camera trapping, it all helps to inform our understanding of how leopards, caracals and other species (often the prey base) use the fynbos environment. However, we shouldn’t become fixated on the predators, as we are also here to understand the wider biodiversity of this environment, which includes the ongoing work on the bird and vegetation. After all, we are not on safari, where we are spoon-fed the big five from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.

The weekend did give us a new understanding and a chance to get some historical perspective on the landscape. A morning walking to some rock art sites and viewing some stone artifacts (e.g. stone hand axes) from the wider area gave us alternative appreciation of how people and wildlife once used and survived in this landscape.

Our modern day ‘survival’ in terms of fieldwork at least, is often vehicle dependent. It’s a long walk over tough terrain to most of our field sites, so vehicles are vital, but things go wrong. And an afternoon fixing the rear shock absorbers on one of our field vehicles (thanks Steve) was another detail that needed addressing but means our fieldwork can continue into its last week.

So as we enter the home straight of this year’s expedition, we already know the team’s hard work and patience in the field has delivered some great data. The checks on the camera traps will now begin and fingers crossed we’ve got the detail of the set-up right. We just need a bit of luck on our side to reveal more data on our target species.

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From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Everyone has arrived safely at base. Our expedition team consists of Margot & Greg from Canada, Amy and Bridgette from the U.S., Maria from Russia and Maria and Marion from Germany. We started the expedition training today after lunch, with introductions & safety briefings and then went for an orientation walk around the village together. After everyone had moved into their rooms, Kerri gave a presentation about the background of both the elephant & community project she has set up together with her partner Sombat whose family is related to people from the village of Ban Naklang. She told us about the history of the elephants we are going to study, how the homestays help the  community, and how it all fits together.

Before dinner the village elders, a man and a woman dressed in traditional clothes came over to welcome the new guests with a Geeju ceremony, designed to keep bad spirits away. Everyone has white bands around their wrists now. Freshly cooked vegetarian Thai food was then delivered by two (out of several) young local women we have employed for the duration of the expedition – a welcome opportunity & source of extra income for them.

It was Talia’s turn after dinner to explain the background of the research, why we are here, what we will be doing and for what reason. And also, very practically, what data we are supposed to be collecting and how they are to be recorded in the datasheets. This was followed by lots of pictures of elephant behaviour and some elephant ID training.

Tomorrow we’ll spend half the day outside on an orientation walk, followed by more training in the afternoon. We’ll then have to pass a test after dinner before we are allowed to collect data. Wish us luck 😉

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

There is much good news to report. Firstly the weather has warmed again, with murmurs of it now being too warm for fieldwork….is that possible?

Despite the climatic yoyo, our fieldwork programme is now in full swing, with at least two more honey bush monitoring sites being established and data recorded. The mammal mapping programme continues to document the distribution of most mammal species across the Blue Hill Reserve. Both surveys benefit from the aid of technology, using bespoke Android Cybertracker apps for data entry. We always hope we have some Android users in the group – thank you Tobias and Elena.

But the mammal mapping doesn’t cover all species. For the bats, technology is again our friend, as high frequency microphones can be plugged into iPhones or iPads (who are we to not share stuff equally between the greedy corporate giants). Combine these with the magic of a Bluetooth GPS and a bat identification app, and we can detect and map that which we can’t even see! Finally, smartphones can live up to their name and be positive force for conservation research.

You still have to walk the walk tough – well, do the 2 km transect at night. But that just offers more opportunities to map nocturnal mammals. And who knows when you may bump into a cat! Despite this ‘incentive’, it is still a tough ask if your day in the field started at 06:30 (or earlier).

However, no amount of technology is substitute when it comes to small mammals, as live traps are still the default preference. Our trapping programme has continued, repeating the survey of 2016. The surprise is our capture rates have almost doubled, and again we are recording species not previously documented. Next week, we will trap completely new site, so have high hopes.

I will let our scientist (Alan) crunch the data to see if the results thus far are a function of the recent fire? There is still much to learn about how the fynbos functions and supports such a diverse fauna.

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

I arrived at base on Thursday and was warmly welcomed by Kerri & Talia of KSES, our local partner on the ground. The small village of Ban Nakleng, where will be working from and living in over the next couple of weeks is about 180 km West of Chiang Mai, but the car journey takes around five hours. Please be prepared that about one third of the drive will be on narrow and windy mountain roads and the very last bit on gravel road is washed out from rain & bumpy.

Today, Friday, we went out together with the mahouts and some other people for a reccee survey walk. The terrain had to cover to get to the elephants was steep & muddy. Some of you might want to consider bringing rubber boots. You can these at very low cost in Chiang Mai if you wish. During this October it has been raining a lot more than usual at this time of the year (we observe these changes in weather patterns away from what people are used to on all our expeditions around the world) therefore the ground is wet and the forest is green – perfect feeding conditions for the elephants, but a bit more slippery and arduous than usual for us humans.

We have put a day-to-day plan together that includes four hours of staying with the elephants for the whole team each day. We can’t wait to get started and see how it all works out in the field. There are also other options of activities, of course, but it’s all very flexible and we’ll talk you through it all in detail on the ground.

Talia will meet & greet you at the meeting point in Chiang Mai, take over your luggage and put you on a minibus to base. She will do some food shopping on her way back, so your luggage will arrive about an hour or two after you at base, with Talia in another truck. Please make sure you pack accordingly.  Once you arrive at base, you won’t need much as we will have lunch and go straight into introductions & briefings, so you will be busy from the minute you arrive. Kerri & I will be waiting for you at base.

Safe travels & see you on Monday!

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

The ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition continues to evolve and expand, and for the first time we can extend a warm welcome our second group of citizen scientists. It’s great to be able to double our time in the field this year.

The team all arrived safely. With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we stretched our legs with a brief orientation around Blue Hill Escape – the team’s new home for the next 12 days.

Alan kicked off the initial scientific training with an overview of the mammal mapping work, where we are trying to build a spatial database of mammal sightings to compliment the results collected by the camera traps. The team were also introduced to a range of equipment that will become their tools of the trade. The day was rounded off with some mammal identification training, and a brief history of the work so far at Blue Hill.

Rested and recuperated from the travel and briefing exertions of the first day, the science training ‘on the job’ began in earnest on day 2 (Monday), with camera trapping deployment and setting up honey bush plots along the south road. This offered a chance for some practical exertions in the form of the off-road 4WD ‘commute to work’, and then a 2 hr hike back to base (for most). Steve was the lucky one, undertaking some 4WD training with the expedition leader, before driving home.

In the afternoon we were introduced to the work of our guest scientist Dr. Margaux Rat, part of the Hot Birds research team. We’ll be helping her project by assisting via video analysis – exploring the effects of temperature on the social networks of sociable weavers. It should give us an insight on how hot and bothered we will all be by climate change!

Tuesday morning brought yet more variety, this time in the form of the weather. Our field visit along the east road was cut to less than hour, by sub-zero temperatures, and the effects of unseasonal wind chill. Highlighting why hypothermia always gets mentioned in the safety briefing. Welcome to South Africa in the Spring!

Margaux was the ultimate beneficiary of the conditions, with all volunteers more than willing to sit in a fire-warmed kitchen, nursing cups of hot coffee whilst undertaking video analysis work on the weavers.

There will be a 20 degrees swing in temperature in the next 24 hr, so will all be out in the field again, and this time hopefully for a little longer…

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Hello everyone and welcome to the expedition diary of our inaugural Thailand elephant expedition.

My name is Malika, I am an Operations Manager at Biosphere Expeditions and will be your expedition leader on our very first Thailand elephant expedition in collaboration with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary & Foundation (KSES).

Malika Fettak

Over the last four weeks Kerri (KSES’s manager & co-founder), Talia (KSES’s project assistant and research coordinator), Matthias (Biosphere Expeditions’ founder & executive director) and I have prepared the ground for this expedition. Now the time has come for me to pack up and get ready for the long journey to Chiang Mai. I will be on site a few days ahead of you setting the scene and getting everything ready in the village for when you arrive.

Packing up

I hope your preparations are going well. Here are some important last minute instructions before I head off:

Please be aware that the first anniversary of the previous King of Thailand’s death, and therefore his funeral following local tradition, will be on 26 October. All of Thailand will be in mourning and the king was truly revered. This means that for the next few weeks, when in Chiang Mai or especially Bangkok, everyone should wear black or dark clothes and dress respectfully. It’s not a huge deal when on site, as the local villagers won’t be offended by the colour of clothes (but of course we still must always dress respectfully regardless, as per the dossier).

One of you asked us recently what present she could bring for the host family, if any. Gifts are not compulsory, but if you would like to bring something, then any kind of toys/games for the kids to enjoy will be appreciated, as will be snacks/chocolates or even souvenirs from your home country (which our local hosts enjoy seeing).

That’s it for now. I’ll be in touch again when I’ve arrived at base with pictures, wheather news, etc.

Safe travels and see you soon

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader