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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