From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The Rimbang Baling wildlife reserve is a 136,000 hectare patch of rainforest on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, with the most charismatic being the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia established their Subayang Research Station just outside the border of the reserve in 2010 and have been working actively in area ever since, trying to preserve the forest and in particular the elusive Sumatran tiger. It is estimated that thirteen tigers currently live in the reserve.

Overall, the Sumatran tiger population has dwindled and currently only around three hundred remain in the wild. The dramatic drop in tiger numbers is a direct result of habitat loss and illegal poaching of tigers and their prey species. For the past three years, Biosphere Expeditions has been working closely with WWF Indonesia, supporting their monitoring and community outreach efforts in the region. This August, groups of citizen scientists from seven nations around the world helped the WWF tiger scientist Febri Anggriawan Widodo to survey the rainforest. “This year we focused on the buffer zone, which is a very important area as this is the region most vulnerable to encroachment by illegal logging. This is also where we have a gap in our data and help is most needed”, explains Febri.

Two groups of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists placed eleven camera traps in the forest along the northern buffer zone and carried out surveys of any evidence of tigers or their prey species, as well as recording any illegal logging and poaching activity they encountered. “There much illegal logging in the buffer zone. Every day we come across cut logs and boats towing those logs down the river” says Claire Howells, an expedition team member from England.

Ever since the Dutch colonised Indonesia, local communities have also relied heavily on rubber plantations for their livelihoods. Rubber trees can grow in amongst the native forest and as such have relatively little impact on the environment. However, with the invention of synthetic rubber, the prices for natural rubber have dropped and now the plantations are not enough to sustain the local population. With limited opportunities in the area, people are turning to illegal logging and palm oil plantations.

“Perhaps the most important work that we do is community outreach” explains Febri. “We need to educate local communities about the importance of preserving the rainforest, and we need to provide alternative income sources.” The Biosphere Expeditions teams have been supporting WWF in their outreach work, both by visiting local schools to tell children about the importance of the forest and its wildlife, and by carrying out village interviews to help understand the perception of tigers and the reserve in the local communities. While most of the people interviewed believe that tigers are important to Indonesia and should be protected, the team did encounter a man who wanted the entire reserve cut down and made into palm oil plantations.

Hopefully the work carried out by WWF and Biosphere Expeditions can protect the Sumatran tiger from the same fate as the Javanese tiger, which is now extinct.  The Javanese tiger decline started in the 1900s when much of the island’s forest were converted to teak plantations. This meant that tiger habitat shrank drastically, along with their food supply. The last sighting of a Javanese tiger was in 1976, when much of the Javanese tiger’s food supply and habitat had already disappeared. The WWF office in Central Sumatra are currently working on a 10 year management plan for the Rimbang Baling reserve, which has been identified as an important tiger habitat. As part of the management plan, they are lobbying the government to upgrade the status of the reserve to National Park, as this would increase the amount of resources spent on protecting the reserve.

“This expedition has really opened my eyes to the problems facing the forests of Sumatra. I hope it isn’t too late for the tigers and I am proud to have played my part in its fight for survival”, says Matthew Kaller, an expedition team member from the USA.

A selection of pictures, many of which were kindly provided by Malte Clavin, is below. Biosphere Expeditions would also like to thank the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for its support.

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

Five years on from the initial pledge from twelve nations at the “Snow Leopard Conservation and the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme” forum, Biosphere Expeditions continues to contribute to snow leopard protection in Kyrgyzstan. Their snow leopard conservation expedition to the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range, in close cooperation with NABU Kyrgyzstan, gives local people and international citizen scientists the chance to come and play an active and hands-on part in the conservation of this iconic species.

2017 saw the twelve countries reconvene in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to update the status of their pledges of five years ago. Controversially, and not supported by Biosphere Expeditions, some experts called for the IUCN status of the snow leopard to be changed from Endangered to Vulnerable, even though only 2% of the snow leopard’s range has been studied scientifically.

Biosphere Expeditions’ study has yielded important results in a region that has not been studied properly since the 1980s. A report to the Kyrgyz government is being prepared by the expedition scientist Dr. Volodymyr Tytar for 2018. This report will recommend that Kyrgyz Ala Too be protected as a wildlife sanctuary, specifically to benefit the snow leopard.

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, local people and international citizen scientists, 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 set out do with our research expedition here in Kyrgyzstan, which I am very proud of”, Dr. Tytar adds.

“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. Tytar. “Our project ticks all those boxes beautifully in an expedition that does it all. 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 elswhere”, Dr. Tytar concludes.

Over the past four years, Dr. Tytar has been able to produce GIS models that transform collected data into visual representations that suggest locations within the study site that are suitable habitat for snow leopards. “Using these models we have been able to find sings of both snow leopard prey species and the snow leopard itself,” says Dr. Tytar. “With each new year’s data we are refining the model and gaining a better understanding of the snow leopard population within the Kyrgyz Ala Too Range.”

A new initiative to gather more data for more of the year was started this summer also. Community members from the surrounding area were trained in camera trapping techniques in order to extend the study season another six months. Essentially, these community members will continue to monitor camera traps within the Kyrgyz Ala Too before and after future expeditions. “This new incentive will be a great opportunity for local communities to learn more about their natural habitat and become more interested in many aspects of conservation,” suggested Jana Schweizer, a citizen scientist from the USA.

Key points of future Biosphere Expeditions snow leopard expedition to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan are:

1. Continue to evaluate and map the current status of snow leopard populations in the Kyrgyz Ala too range.

2. The fifth expedition will take place between June and August 2018 and will continue to work in close co-operation with the Bishkek office of German conservation organisation NABU (Naturschutzbund = nature conservation alliance) and its “Gruppa Bars”, an anti-poaching and snow leopard ranger group, as well as the newly created community monitoring group.

3. Local people, community monitors as well as student placements, as well as international citizen science volunteers from around the world will continue to join in the effort and, through their collective effort and funding, make it possible. Anyone can take part and details about the expedition and how to join are at www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan.

A picture selection from the expedition is below

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

Maldives: Bleaching devastates vulnerable inner, sheltered reefs, whilst the more resilient outer reefs with stronger currents, bounce back

Two Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check survey teams have been laying underwater transects over a two-week period from 15 – 28 July 2017 in order to get a clearer idea of the impact of the April/May 2016 bleaching event. Biosphere Expeditions has been collecting these types of data from Ari atoll since 2011, visiting the same sites repeatedly in order to create a reliable dataset.

It was soon apparent that many inner reef sites had not recovered from the bleaching and that hard coral had reduced dramatically to an average of only 8% . Over time, many of these corals will be broken down into rubble, so it is essential that grazers – parrotfish and surgeonfish continue to do the job of cleaning the dead coral of algae, in order to allow new coral ‘recruits’ to settle on the old dead coral.

However, fish stocks are depleted too. Important fish, such as parrotfish (for grazing the reef of algae that colonise corals after death) and grouper (an important food fish), were recorded, but not in any great numbers, which is another cause for concern. Grouper numbers, for example, were woefully low, with densities averaging only about 1 individual per 100 sqm of reef. Parrotfish, on the other hand, were abundant, sometimes reaching densities of 14 individuals per 100 sqm – densities at which the fish should be able to graze away the emerging algae.

Hope for inner reef remains in some isolated spots, such as Holiday thilla, to the south of Ari atoll, where many coral recruits were recorded. Overall, though, the picture was one of coral death, destruction and decline.

The picture was more encouraging for outer reefs that are more heavily dominated by Porites colonies. Here, much of the reef appeared to have totally recovered from the heating in 2016, with hard coral cover at an average of 38%.

The second half of the expedition visited sites further afield in Vaavu Atoll, attempting to glean information from historic survey sites first surveyed in the late 1990s.

Here too there was a mix of good and largely bad news, with healthy sites generally located in more exposed and southerly locations on atolls.

The expedition was joined by Maldivians and an international team of fee-paying citizen scientists. Maldivians ranged from members of the new NGO Reef Check Maldives , created as a result of Biosphere Expeditions’ placement and capacity-building programme for local people, to consultant marine ecologists, government staff, and Maldivians working for the tourist industry.

We are encouraged by the keen participation of our Maldivian colleagues and look forward to seeing go Reef Check Maldives from strength to strength. Because this is what is needed in the absence of any sensible government strategy that balances economic development against protecting the reef foundation on which the country itself, as well as its economy, identity and culture is built on: Civil society stepping up where the government is failing its people to protect the nation’s reefs and with it the nation’s wellbeing.

The expedition is kindly supported by the Marine Conservation Society and The Rufford Foundation.

A selection of pictures from the expedition is below.

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Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

The last egg

Each night during the leatherback turtle nesting season on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, a race takes place. A race for the precious turtle eggs between poachers, who demand a high price for the eggs on the black market, and conservationists who try to protect the Critically Endangered leatherback turtle population. By the end of each night, not a single egg is left on the beach.

“The eggs fetch one dollar each on the black market, and with an average clutch size of 80 eggs that is a lot of money”, explains Fabian Carrasco from Mexico, the onsite expedition scientist for Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST).

Fabio Carrasco

So citizen scientists/egg protectors patrol the beach each night, hoping to get to a turtle laying its nest before a poacher does. “We reached the turtle only five minutes before a poacher walked by. It is such a good feeling when you manage to save a clutch of eggs”, says Candice Cox, a research assistant from the USA.

Collecting eggs

When a nesting turtle is encountered, the volunteers carefully collect all the eggs, as well as measure and tag the animal. The eggs are then brought back to a fenced and guarded hatchery, where they are protected from poachers and other non-human predators until they hatch.

Guarding the hatchery

Biosphere Expeditions work closely on all this with LAST, and for the second year in a row a group of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists have been onsite, actively patrolling the beach and helping out with the important work.

Lindsay Hickman, an expedition participant from the UK considers “guarding the hatchery a big responsibility.  And it feels very good to know you are really helping.” At the time of writing, the hatchery held 4190 eggs, which amounts to over $4000 on the black market. “Without all the patrolling and safekeeping, 100% of the eggs would end up in bars and shops around the country, producing zero offspring, as has happened in the years before we took action”, explains Carrasco. “Turtle eggs are highly revered in Costa Rica, as they are believed to be an aphrodisiac. When turtles mate the male holds on to the female for several hours and the local legend is that by eating the eggs, this sexual stamina will be acquired. However, the actual mating only takes a couple of minutes and the eggs are in fact very high in cholesterol, and as such the effect is rather the opposite.”

To add insult to injury, each weekend poachers from surrounding areas also visit the beach, multiplying the number of poachers roaming the beach. “It is a known fact that on this beach there are few repercussions from poaching. However, the coastguard has started to visit the beach more often and I believe this is because we are around to put pressure on”, says Carrasco. “For example, last night was incredible. The coast guard arrested three poachers and rescued two clutches of eggs.” This is good news on all levels, not only did two nests get saved, but it also sends a message to other poachers that it is no longer safe to poach on this beach.

Biosphere Expeditions have also been testing out a new thermal camera to aid conservationists in detecting the turtles before poachers do. “I was impressed at how far away the thermal imaging system could detect a turtle” says Valeria, a local Costa Rican, funded by Biosphere Expeditions as part of its placement programme. “The nesting turtle could be spotted as a red blob on the screen from about 30 meters away, which gives us an edge over the poachers”.

Poacher & dog

Turtle on the beach

All in all the Biosphere Expeditions project saved eighteen nests, totalling 1397 eggs. “There is simply no substitute for ‘foot soldiers’ patrolling the beach at night. The volunteers by buying drinking coconuts, coconut oil and locally made jewellery also provide an income not based on poaching for the local community”, explains Carrasco. “And in this poor community without many options, this is vital”.

A selection of pictures of the expedition is below:

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia

Great number of brown bear confirmed in Veľká Fatra National Park, Slovakia

From 1 – 18 February 2017 the Biosphere Expeditions conservation project on large carnivores (lynx, wolf and bear) ran for its fifth year in the Veľká Fatra National Park in Slovakia. 17 citizen scientists from all over the world were trained up and led by Slovak scientist Tomas Hulik and an expedition leader from Biosphere Expeditions.

During ten survey days the team walked 344.27 km of transects, recording tracks, sightings and markings (urine, scat, hair) and collecting scat and urine samples of wolf, lynx and bear for DNA analysis. The team also set up 21 camera traps.

This year’s findings include 98 recordings of bear, 66 of wolf and 20 of lynx. This is the highest number of bear recordings since the project started in 2013. “A lot of food is available in the forest this year, first and foremost the nuts of beech trees”, Tomas Hulik explains, “so there is no strong reason for the bears to hibernate. We have confirmed bear presence throughout our study site and our results now allow a much more realistic estimation of brown bear numbers within the National Park”.

Wolf signs recorded this year confirm the presence of three packs occupying different territories within the national park and beyond. Lynx are also present in the park “and there may have been some non-resident individuals around too this year, since the expedition took place during the lynx mating season”, explains Hulik. A beautiful camera trap picture taken by the expedition, showing distinctive coat markings, means that one of the lynxes can now be re-identified during future expeditions. Eight recordings of wildcat tracks confirm their presence in the study area. “A great amount of data have been collected again this year. All information will be evaluated in detail in the expedition report”, Hulik adds.

Other findings during the surveys include tracks of red and roe deer, fox, otter, wild boar, pine marten, hare, hazel grouse, squirrel and other species. Golden eagles were also sighted three times.

The expedition will run again in February 2018. More information is available at www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia. The expedition report with full details, conclusions and recommendations will be published before the next expedition on www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports.

A selection of pictures is below.

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