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

Fire, fynbos and felines

A team from Biosphere Expeditions has spent the past month trying to understand how fire affects a range of species from flowers to felines, in the fynbos area of South Africa. The study site (Blue Hill Nature Reserve) was impacted by a wildfire in early 2017, and whilst many may view this as destructive, it offers a unique research opportunity to assess how fire impacts this ecosystem.

The Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) of South Africa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and as such a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is dominated by a fire-driven ecosystem – the fynbos biome with unsurpassed botanical richness: 7,000 of 9,000 plant species that are found here are endemic. In theory fire should be a positive force.

It is in the flower-filled Cape Fold Mountains that the Cape mountain leopard is also found – a leopard half the size of the savannah leopards of Africa, but with home ranges twice the size. As project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee says “despite the importance of fire in driving ecological patterns in the fynbos, the role of fire on determining population sizes or land use patterns of many mammal species (including leopard) is poorly understood”.

Leopards are iconic and awe-inspiring creatures. They are the last remaining apex predator in the fynbos, where once lions roamed. As well as surveying leopard distribution (via a camera trap networks), the team have also been conducting vegetation surveys, small mammal trapping, bird and bat surveys – to better understand the affects of fire on the habitat, prey base for leopards and other ecosystem components.

“Understanding the impact of fire on feline predators is really important” says Dr. Lee, “there is mounting evidence to show that smaller predators, e.g. black-backed jackal and mongoose species, are more common when leopards are rare or absent. Black-backed jackals are notorious stock predators, resulting in significant numbers of small stock loss per year: especially in the Karoo area adjacent to the fynbos – an area where leopards are largely absent”.

“Better understanding the pieces of the fynbos puzzle is vital” says expedition leader Dr. Craig Turner. “It is  a slow process, but critical process, if we are to better protect Cape leopards”.

The team still has much data to process, but highlights of the past month of field research include:

  • 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.

A selection of pictures (c) Craig Turner from the expedition is below:

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

First scientific study completed on free-roaming Asian elephants in northern Thailand

In October 2017, Biosphere Expeditions & Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) ran their very first Asian elephant conservation expedition in collaboration with a Karen hill tribe community in Mae Chaem region in the mountains of northern Thailand. Seven citizen scientists from Canada, Germany, Russia and the US helped gather data, spending a total of 76 hours in the forest with elephants. The goal of the research is to contribute to welfare initiatives in Thailand by collecting data on elephant behaviour in the wild. Almost 3,500 elephants are currently kept in captivity in Thailand, working for their upkeep in tourist camps. “With so many captive elephants in the country, mostly living in inadequate conditions, more research is urgently needed on natural elephant behaviour to provide guidelines to improve their lives”, says Talia Gale, head scientists of KSES. “We were thrilled to be working with Biosphere Expeditions who provided us with the citizen scientists and equipment to study natural elephant behaviours and social relationships. There is much research to be done in order to understand the lives and needs of the Asian elephant better”, Gale continues.

Preliminary results show that the elephants spent over 55% of their time foraging. Between 08:00 to 09:00 and 13:00 to 15:00 their activities varied more, including bathing, drinking and socialising. 98 different plant species were recorded to have been eaten, 70 of which remain to be identified down to genus level. Related elephants spent most of their time together, whereas the unrelated male’s socialising behaviour appears to change seasonally. All results will be published in the expedition report, which is due in April 2018.

KSES is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2016, which works together with local communities to bring elephants home to the forest. Kerri McCrea, co-founder of KSES says that “working together with other organisations is something that, unfortunately in this industry in Thailand, is greatly lacking. We at KSES are always searching for partners to help us with our goals of improving elephant welfare both in Thailand and abroad, and Biosphere Expeditions has been doing just that. Being such a small, new and remote NGO, we lacked the number of helpers needed to progress our research aims, but by having Biosphere Expeditions running an expedition with us, this is the first time that we have been able us to carry out all our surveys”.

A picture selection of the 2017 expedition is below: