Kenya: Ready, set…

Preparations for your arrival are now in full swing. Lots of whiteboard lists to cross off, shopping to be done, staff arriving & getting ready, base being prepared, equipment made ready, datasheets copied, etc. Anyone still thinking they are coming on a touristy, cushy, relaxing safari?  😉

No more rain so far, with temperatures in the very comfortable 20s and a slight chill in the morning. Frogs singing us to sleep, green grass, African skies and wildlife, beautiful sunsets. Anything else?

We’re counting down the days, as we are sure you are. One week to go. We’ll be ready. Rebekah is panicking ;))

Arabia: Group 1 summary

Time has flown by and team 1 is done. It’s been a great week. We collected a lot of data and I am confident in saying that the team all really enjoyed their experience here in the Arabian desert.

Yesterday we collected in the small mammal traps and the memory cards from the camera traps that were set at the beginning of the week. Team 2 will deploy the small mammal traps in three new locations. The camera traps have been left in place and we will retrieve the second set of memory cards at the end of next week.

The camera traps recorded over 6,000 (!) images this week (not including the 11,700 images of tree branches blowing in the wind caught on a single camera trap, which we will re-position next week). Species recorde included Arabian red fox, oryx, both gazelle species, sand grouse, pallid harrier and brown-necked raven. There was also a great shot of a southern grey shrike catching an insect. Greg and Moayyed will undertake a detailed analysis of the camera trap results over the next few weeks.

The large mammal traps did not catch anything, so will try with a different type of bait next week.

The small mammal traps were more successful with captures of Egyptian spiny mouse on the rocky outcrop in the north of the reserve and Cheesman’s gerbil in the south of the reserve. The team also made observations of jerboa and jird during daylight, which is unusual. At the southern trap grid location, we also recorded cat tracks.

Fox den surveys went well with 49 dens checked for activity, including the discovery of 14 new fox den locations. There were also several sightings of Arabian red fox during the week.

The team managed to undertake circular observations in 35 of the reserve’s 64 2×2 kmquadrants. This leaves 27 quadrants for the team 2 to survey next week. Circular observations recorded 285 oryx, 112 Arabian gazelle and 114 sand gazelle.

The team’s random observation data yielded 470 records, including 1,829 oryx, 566 Arabian gazelle and 90 sand gazelle. Also 4 MacQueen’s bustard, 10 lappet-faced vulture, 4 desert eagle owl and 2 Bonelli’s eagle.

Last night we were treated to dinner at the Arabian Adventures camp, where some of the team had a go at sand boarding, camel riding and henna painting.

I would like to thank the team 1 for all their hard work this week and also for being such great company. I know that Greg and Moayyed are really appreciative of everyone’s hard work and the data will be of significant long-term benefit to the DDCR, enabling comparisons with other expedition years where data has been collected in the same way. A special thanks also to Mohamed, a UAE national, who was part of the team 1 and enriched the experience by sharing his knowledge and experience of living in Dubai, as well as his great enthusiasm for the wildlife and habitats of his country.

We wish all of this week’s team a safe journey and are looking forward to meeting next week’s team.

Safe travels everyone.

Kenya: Opener

Dear Kenya expeditioners

Welcome to the first diary entry of our inaugural Kenya expedition. Our expedition scientist Rebekah Karimi and her team of rangers are eager to meet you all and get going, as are we, your expedition leader Malika Fettak and our executive director Dr. Matthias Hammer.

Dr. Matthias Hammer (left) and Malika Fettak (right).

It’s taken us around two years of preparation to get to this juncture and it’s always great to see a project come together. Most of the documents are written (we hope you have downloaded and printed your manual & field guide), procedures set, equipment bought, etc. And soon we will be heading out to Kenya to put the finishing touches to the expedition, a week or so ahead of group 1. We will be in touch again from the ground with final details (weather, last minute adjustments, pictures, emergency number, etc.).

For now suffice it to say that the weather has been very atypical, as almost everywhere else we work on the planet. Rebekah tells us that “there has been some unseasonable rain recently, which makes driving conditions challenging, but also fun. There are rain showers most afternoons or evenings. The sunsets have been amazing with rainbows, green grass, and wildlife galore”.

With this in mind, we hope you are as excited as we are, and proud to be trailblazers. By now we are sure you have realised that you are not about to embark on a cushy safari holiday, but on a serious citizen science project. Everything will be new for everyone. Bear with us through the teething problems and help us build an expedition to protect the biodiversity of the beautiful Maasai Mara, one of the crown jewels of our beleaguered natural world, for many years to come.

Arabia: Training & working hard

We (Moayyed, Paul and Greg) met the team on Saturday at the Premier Inn in Dubai and we arrived at the DDCR at 10:00. We got started straight away with Greg’s introductory presentation about the history, fauna, flora and conservation objectives of the DDCR, as well as the importance and reasons for the data collection the team will be doing over the next week. We then did round the table introductions for everyone to learn names and something about why people had come. It is always interesting to hear of the diverse backgrounds, which make up our citizen science teams. We have four nationalities in this team including the UK, Germany, France and Mohamed who is from Dubai and was telling me on the drive back to DDCR how much he loves being out in the desert with wildlife and how if he goes out on trips into the desert with his friends, they will all be sitting around the fire checking their phones while he is off searching for interesting creatures. I have also since discovered that his other passion is for English football, so when he is not out in the desert, he is checking his phone for the footie scores.

Following my expedition introduction we ran through the risk assessment before getting started on the survey training. We managed an introduction to the most essential equipment and data sheets before lunch. Seven of the team were keen to drive the vehicles on the expedition, so went for a 4×4 training session in the Arabian Adventures Landcruisers.

Finally we headed off to the campsite to put up tents and get settled in. Greg joined us later in the afternoon and took the drivers for practical sand driving training on one of the trickier sections of tracks in the reserve. All the drivers picked it up really well and managed to get up a track going over quite a steep dune. It’s really good having quite a few drivers, as it gives us more flexibility during the expedition.

On Sunday we continued the science training, starting with use of the GPS. This is an essential piece of kit on this desert expedition. We use GPS to locate all our survey points, live traps and the fox dens we are recording. They are mounted in the vehicles when we are driving to navigate along the various tracks in the reserve to reach the required survey quadrant. Then we use the GPS to mark the vehicle as a waypoint before setting off on foot, so that it can easily be relocated even though not visible across the dunes. Then it’s a navigation tool while walking on foot through the desert and gives us the latitude and longitude co-ordinates to record observations on the data sheets. As part of the expedition preparation Greg had already loaded all the essential survey waypoints onto the GPS such as fox dens, trap locations and circular observation points, as well as the base mapping for the track network.

Training continued on Sunday morning with the team’s first foray into the desert. We went as one group with Greg and Moayyed to learn how to find and record fox dens, how to make the circular observations and how to identify the main large tree and shrub species on the reserve. Then came the last main part of the training on how to set the live traps, rodent raps and camera traps.

Sunday afternoon the team were let loose. Dividing into three groups of four, we went out to set traps, one team heading into the north section, one team central and one team south. After a long day, all the groups managed to navigate safely back to the campsite where we met Greg for our debrief of the day’s activities.

Monday was the first full day of data collection. Again we split into three groups (north, central and south) and each team headed out , following a briefing with Greg. The first job was checking live traps and rodent traps, then each team had three circular observation points to cover and three or four fox dens to check, as well as the random recordings, which are observations of all the key species sighted while driving or walking during the day. The last field task of the day was to reset the rodent traps before returning to the campsite for data entry and debrief.

During the debrief we all sit around the campfire (although the fire is not actually alight at that time of day) and each team recounts its experiences of the day. This includes recounting what the team did, interesting wildlife observations as well as some often amusing stories.  We had one successful rodent capture of a spiny mouse in the rocky northern sections, good observations of Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle, sand gazelle and lappet faced vulture. Also various good reptile and bird sightings. As well as filling out the data sheets, we keep a record of all the species we see during the week. I was pleased to learn that one of the team is a keen bird watcher, so that should help us get a good bird list. The hoopoe lark was heard today, which is one of my favourites because of its amazing call and flight display that it does from the top of dunes.

In the debrief, I now include a confessions section and a most interesting thing learnt section. In the confessions section we learned one group had forgotten to take spare GPS batteries (tut tut! Mary, Marilyn and Juliane) and another group got their vehicle a bit stuck and had to be rescued by Greg. Good lessons learned included smoothing the sand around the rodent traps so fresh tracks can be easily seen the next day and how to take compass bearings so that if you forget your spare GPS batteries you can still navigate!
I get the feeling that the whole team are really enjoying this experience in the desert, it truly is a very special place. As Deborah said “the desert is my happy place”.

Arabia: Almost ready

I arrived in Dubai yesterday evening and was picked up at the airport by Moayyed. The hour-long drive to the DDCR gave us an opportunity to get acquainted and to start discussing some of the logistics and science objectives of this year’s expedition. As well as our annual expedition count of the ungulate species (Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle), we will be doing some small mammal live trapping to determine population densities of the prey species that sustain the red fox, sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat.
Today (Thursday) was an early start. Following a quick catch-up with Greg, we drove into the city to collect the expedition vehicles (Toyota Landcruisers) from the office of Arabian Adventures.
Left to right: Jorg Schaffler, Operations Manager, Arabian Adventures; Paul Franklin, Expedition Leader, Biosphere Expeditions; Moayyed Sher Shah, Conservation Officer, DDCR; Suhaib Vayyakkarth, Reserve Attendant, DDCR; Greg Simkins, Conservation Manager, DDCR
Then it was off to take my chances on the Dubai road system to buy essential supplies (tents, tea, coffee, biscuits, toilet rolls, etc) for base camp. Thanks to my sat nav, I got back to the DDCR early afternoon, which left some daylight to start getting everything organised out at basecamp. Before leaving the DDCR office, I let some air out of the vehicles tyres to aid traction in the soft sand, we normally run the tyres at about half the normal tarmac driving pressure when driving on the reserve’s sand tracks. The camp is about a 15 minute drive from the DDCR office in a very pleasant spot among Ghaf trees, one of the tree species you will learn to recognise for our vegetation surveys.
Ghaf trees (*Prosopis cineraria*) near base
Tomorrow Moayyed and I will finish preparing base camp, organising the scientific equipment and make sure we have plenty of copies of the data sheets on which the science of our citizen scientists will be recorded.
We are looking forward to meeting the team on Saturday morning (09:00 in the lobby of the Premier Inn). The weather forecast is for sunny skies and day temperatures in the 20s C.
Once at the DDCR, there will be introductions (to each other and the research), teaching of survey skills and methodologies and some training in off-road driving and an opportunity to practice. Safe travels to Dubai and we’ll see you all soon!

Arabia: Opener for 2019 expedition

Dear Arabia 2019 expedition team

This is the first diary entry for this year’s Arabia expedition and an opportunity for some introductions and to let you know what has been going on behind the scenes to prepare for the expedition.

I am Paul Franklin and will be your expedition leader this year. I led my first expedition with Biosphere Expeditions back in 2005 and this is my second year on the Arabia expedition. I am a professional ecologist and have also been lucky enough to travel to many of the world’s different environments.

Paul Franklin

It always fascinates me how fauna and flora has managed to adapt so well to different environments and in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) we will witness many examples of superb adaptation, to what seems to us, harsh conditions. One of my favourite wildlife sightings from last year was the toad-headed agama, which is definitely a creature built for desert life.

Toad-headed agama

At the DDCR preparation for the expedition has been happening for the last few weeks. Greg Simkins is the DDCR Manager and knows the reserve like the back of his hand. Greg has defined the scientific objectives for this year’s expedition and will focus on planning and allocation of daily work.

Moayyed Sher Shah is the Conservation Officer at DDCR and will be out in the field with the expedition survey teams most days. Moayyed and Greg will jointly lead the scientific part of the expedition.

Moayyed Sher Shah

Moayyed has recently joined the team at DDCR. He was born in Saudi Arabia and started his conservation career with Saudi Wildlife Authority at the age of 18. He has a BSc in Zoology and is currently finishing his Masters in Environmental Sciences from the University of South Africa (UNISA).
His first project was on the re-introduction and monitoring of Asian houbara in Saudi protected areas and he has worked on the sand cat project studying population status, home range, den use and morphology. Moayyed has worked on several re-introduction projects including Arabian gazelles and Arabian hares. Before joining the team at DDCR he was part of Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area management team managing ungulate populations, including Arabian oryx, ostrich, Arabian and sand gazelle.  Moayyed is a member of the re-introduction specialist group (RSG) and the IUCN Commission of Ecosystem management (CEM). His primary role at DDCR is to plan, control, develop and regularly monitor the conservation practices and environmental work within the 225 square km reserve.

Greg and his team at the DDCR have been busy preparing the base camp and checking the scientific equipment, including GPS units and camera traps. We will use four wheel drive vehicles to access the study areas on the reserve. One of our project supporters, Arabian Adventures, has kindly provided us with three vehicles to use on the expedition this year.

Expedition vehicle, courtesy of Arabian Adventures

Arabian Adventures provide desert experiences for visitors to the local Al Maha resort, also a project supporter, and will also host us for an evening of local food and star gazing.

We encourage expedition members to drive the vehicles and will provide some training on desert driving. Of course the vehicles can only get us so far and there is plenty of opportunity for trekking through the desert to the survey vantage points, often located on higher dunes that enable us to complete 360 degrees counts of the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle; and to map vegetation communities.

I will travel to the desert very soon and continue to set up things ahead of you. When I get to Dubai, I will also share weather and other news, as well as my local number for emergency purposes. Watch this space for updates

The team and I look forward to meeting group 1 on 19 January at 9:00 in the Premier Inn and wish you all a safe journey.

I leave you with some impressions of the expedition you are about to join. Do swot up on the recently published expedition reports too. The more you know before you arrive, the easier you will find the training.

Best wishes


20 years of Biosphere Expeditions 1999 – 2019

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard was right in many ways, as by looking back over the last twenty years we can see what Biosphere Expeditions is all about. Having started in a small way with only two expeditions, we have – through our participants, staff and partners – contributed hundreds of thousands of days to conservation all over the world, supporting many NGOs and scientists to acquire the data and funding they need to make an impact. You can read in the anniversary issue of our annual magazine about the difference that this work has made to many places and people.

And what about the planet, the living biosphere, what difference have we made to that? We have spent the last twenty years helping to build the data that improves the chances for wildlife. And we will continue to do this essential work, as without the science underpinning our understanding of the world, we cannot make rational choices in support of its future. But we need to do more, especially these days, when it is difficult sometimes to be positive about the global environment. So for the next twenty years we are also going to be doing more campaigning – talking about limits to growth and new economic/environmental models that might work better for the long-term health of our planet. We will be talking about vegetarianism and making your flights matter – travelling with a purpose, in fact, living more thoughtfully. And this talking will make a difference as the answers are in our hands and through discussion and collaboration, we can effect positive change. Everything that we do now, in this anthropocene, this time of humans, matters. The latest science shows that things need to change now, and Biosphere Expeditions will play its part.

Watch this space/blog for further developments as our anniversary year progresses.

Dr. Matthias Hammer | Kathy Gill
Executive Director | Strategy Adviser


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