Kenya: Shifts, students and rhinos

We finished the 72 h waterhole observation on Tuesday noon. Thank you, team 2, for completing this far from easy task by filling all morning, afternoon and night shifts, coping with rain, driving at night and slippery roads, as well as unrecognisable sounds during night time. Rebekah & I were pleased to have the team together again after three days of teams going in and out in pairs every four hours while others went for the morning & afternoon wildlife survey activities. During the review on Tuesday afternoon we shared our experiences. Some of the team enjoyed sitting quietly in the hide thoroughly, some found it was an enjoyable and a very special experience – especially the night shifts are something to remember.  Others were rewarded with rare leopard sightings, which is what everyone had hoped for, but couldn’t be expected. Others got “lost” on the way and were late for changing shifts or sat out a thunderstorm and heavy rain in the car while continuing the survey count every 15 minutes.

On the Environmental Educational Day on Wednesday, the team welcomed and hosted another group of 19 students from Emarti secondary school. After a tour through the boarding school’s facilities everyone went out in cars for a game drive within Enonkishu Conservancy. Soon a radio call reached the teams that two white rhinos had walked from neighbouring Ol Chorro Conservancy into Enonkishu territory, followed by their guarding rangers. For both the students and expeditioners seeing the rhinos was the highlight during the game drive. The afternoon at Mara Training centre included three “stations” run by team members: Chris flying & explaining a drone outside, Carrie & Rebecca explaining camera traps & showing videos/pictures at the classroom and placement Leonard answering questions from a local point of view in the cow shed. Former teacher Ellen did a great job with dividing the students into smaller groups and initiating the group rotations by imitating hyaena calls. We finished up with taking a drone picture of everyone lying in a circle on the grass to memorise this very special day.

Kenya: Leopard and other encounters

Data collection is in full swing with the teams driving vehicle transects or walking survey patrols together with the rangers starting from Bingham or Chali Chali camp. One team went up Kileleoni hill again. The tracks & scat archive now includes quite a few samples, the species inventory list is getting longer and longer, and the the bird list is growing daily too. We’re also in the process of looking through SD cards, but so far nothing really exciting, yet. Two cars went out for a full moon night drive on Tuesday – a very special experience. We found hippo grazing, buffalo snoozing, elephants foraging, herds of zebra, impala, eland and Thomsons’s gazelle. The number of hyaenas spotted was just overwhelming. Near one of the dens we watched about ten of them and their cubs for a while.

On Monday noon we started our second continuous 72 hour waterhole observation stint. Divided in eighteen shifts of four hours, two of us scan the surroundings every 15 minutes from the hide that was built by the rangers for this project before the expedition started. We’ve created a ‘waterhole box’ that contains the essential equipment, including a few Shukas, the traditional Maasai cloth to help everyone stay warm and comfortable, especially during the very early morning hours. Leonard, a local Maasai placement on this group, showed us some variations of wearing it.

Earlier in the week, Carrie, Chris and Musa had a lucky sighting while sitting out a downpour in the car. Guess what… a leopard! The next brief sighting was only a few hours later, but the best sighting happened during the dead of night shift between midnight and 04:00 when Peter and Ellen watched the animal for about 15 minutes, before he disappeared into the bushes. And suddenly – surprise, surprise – all citizens become very keen scientists to be assigned the erstwhile unpopular dead of night shift 😉

It has been raining quite a bit over the last couple of days and the temperature has dropped significantly. Keep your fingers crossed that the change won’t be long and we see the sun again soon!

Kenya: Elephant encounters

Group 2’s time so far has been spent with moving in, introductions, as well as safety, science, vehicle and equipment training. Then finally on Monday in the late afternoon, everyone went out for the first drive. And what a drive it was. The driver training group (3 cars) found elephants blocking the route. We watched them carefully from the cars for a while and finally backed up to go another way. One of the bigger males clearly indicated that we weren’t welcome to pass the herd, showcasing exactly the kind behaviour described our safety training – as if we had organised a first class safety with wild animals training session.

Tuesday morning we covered all three vehicle transect routes and then three teams exchanged SD cards on the nine remaining camera traps. Looking  through them will take up some time, so watch this space….

Kenya: 4274 animals and learning from each other

Group 1 left on Friday and group 2 is about to arrive in a few hours.

We had a wonderful last evening with group 1 on Thursday, watching the International Space Station (ISS) crossing the night sky – a moving star high above us. Eric took a great picture he promised to share with everyone. Some of us went out for the group’s very last night drive and were rewarded with elephant sightings.

Earlier in the week, our survey days were spent with more foot & vehicle transect work and observations from Kileleoni hill, the highest point in the Mara. The remaining camera traps were ‘serviced’ (batteries and SD cards exchanged).

One highlight during the last few days of grop 1 was the Environmental Educational Day on Wednesday. It was great fun organising, meeting, hosting and training nineteen students from the secondary school of Emarti, a village in the neighbourhood. The programme, developed by the team during a planning session the day before, included a game drive in the morning, lunch at MTC, as well as an introduction to Enonkishu conservancy by Rebekah, head ranger Dapash and ranger Albert. You would guess that everyone within the local community knows what Enonkishu is and what the rangers do, but this is far from true. Expeditioner Julia explained the classroom set-up, our work and equipment before Susanne showed some of the best camera trap pictures and videos. Jan and Maria then introduced the students to their learning task. We were all touched by their interest and enthusiasm and I guess the students will remember our efforts at being teachers for a while to come. All in all it was a very rewarding day and a learning experience for all of us.

During our final review meeting on Thursday afternoon, Rebekah provided a summary of the work and the data that have been collected so far. The numbers are impressive:

  • overall the teams spend 115 hours in the field, or expressed differently, 377 person hours of wildlife surveys
  • 679 observations were recorded in the datasheets and into the computer
  • 4274 animals were recorded during the transect work and observation point counts
  • 10 camera traps – minus the one that was destroyed by hyaenas – produced hundreds of pictures and videos, some of which show more elusive nocturnal wildlife (leopard, hyaena, bat-eared fox, etc.) and provide proof of their presence in the conservancy

A full summary of metrics collated by Rebekah is this:

Thank you goup 1! You did a great job out there in the field. Thanks for being the trailblazers on this inaugural expedition to the beautiful Mara ecosystem. We learnt a lot from your feedback and experience during the last couple of weeks, which will help us prepare & streamline the tasks for the next teams to come. Scientist Rebekah is still in heaven; the amount of data you have  collected her path to cloud 9.  The rangers say a big thank you to all of you for your generous donations of time, equipment and enthusiasm. And last but not least, I would like to thank you again for your commitment, patience and hard work and for rising to the challenge.

Safe travels back home or onwards. I hope we meet again. And welcome group 2. We’re ready and waiting.

Kenya: Animal antics

We have now completed the 72 h waterhole observation in eighteen 4-hour shifts – well done everyone! It’s been a challenge and an adventure, but most importantly the team completed the first-ever 3 day continuous observation within Enonkishu conservancy. We are looking forward to repeating the feat with group 2!

Apart from that, small teams went out for day & night vehicle or foot wildlife surveys, walked up to the Kileoni hill observation point and checked the camera traps. Rare sightings during the surveys were leopard and caracal both during day and night.

It took a few days to look through the results of the camera traps. On one SD card we found 800 10s videos (of mostly grassland, but someone’s got to watch it!). Some non-grassland results are in the video below.

There had been reports of a lioness with cubs and now we have proof. One of the cameras was destroyed by hyaenas, others showed baboons and elephants having a go.


Kenya: Sorry for the silence

It’s six days since the start of the expedition and you have not heard from us. Sorry. Two reasons: firstly, the bush internet is not broadband and secondly, we been dealt quite a handful on this trailblazing group (read on).

We got off well enough from Nairobi on Sunday on Kenyan time and made it to base in good time. With introductions, a tour of the site and risk/safety briefings done, it was already time to sample Joseph’s (the chef’s) skills for dinner and then people drifted off to to their tents and bandas, tired from the long day.

Monday was a full day of training. We met the rangers, learnt about the data collection methods, datasheets, various pieces of equipment and how to use them and were introduced on how to do basic car maintenance, including changing a tyre. We then split into two groups – drivers on a driving course, non-drivers on a game drive. All under a beautifully broody Africa sky with a remarkable full rainbow. The drivers learnt various offroad driving skills, including that there is more car behind your ears, than in front of your ears (or not, Jan).

Tuesday it started falling to pieces. Our suspision is that someone from a very clean country brought in a very dirty gastro bug that over the course of the next four days knocked out half the team. But we hold no grudge and suffered through it bravely. Heroic expedition leader Malika stood firm throughout, man baby executive director Matthias wimpered away in his bed. Others were variously affected and out of action, but we still managed to set the camera traps as planned, conducted vehicle and walking transects, waterhole observations, a hill climb, started the tracks and scats library and collected so much data with half a group that, in between dashing to the toilet, you could see the delight in the eyes of scientists Rebekah who said “she was in heaven”. So not a bad start, even under the challenging circumstances.

Friday, was our day off and most opted to go on a game drive into the neighbouring conservancies, where they added a pride of twelve lions, to an already impressive list of sightings of all kinds of ungulate (including a zebra being born), other carnivores, birds, etc. from Enonkishu Conservancy, our study site.

Today we are back to the grind, hopefully with a full team. They are arriving for breakfast just now…


Arabia: Wrap-up

A great big thank you to all expedition participants from both week 1 and week 2. Biosphere Expeditions and the DDCR are really grateful for the hard work that everyone has put in to collect a lot of good data that will be of long-lasting benefit to the reserve and it wildlife. As well as working hard, I think everyone has really enjoyed their experience here in the Arabian desert.

We had a beautiful misty last morning here in the DDCR, well worth the extra half an hour wait for the tents to dry. Thanks for everyone’s efforts this morning to get the camp packed up.

I have really enjoyed the expedition this year and, as well as the wildlife and the beautiful environment, a big part of that was the great company in both teams. I know that Moayyed and Greg have also really enjoyed having Biosphere Expeditions at the DDCR again this year.

As you know, a lot goes on behind the scenes at the DDCR to keep the place running and all the DDCR staff work very hard. A big thank you to them and we hope you like the T-shirts 😉 I also hope that Greg, Moayyed and Tamer enjoy the diverse selection of slightly sandy tea bags and left-over biscuits I have left for them in the DDCR office kitchen :))

As the group 2 know from this morning’s final de-brief, we were lucky enough to record Gordon’s wildcat on one of our camera traps. This is great news, as the rare feline has not been recorded on the reserve for a couple of years! There are many thousands of camera trap images, which now need to be carefully analysed and Areej, our UAE placement in group 2, has kindly offered to assist Moayyed with this task in the weeks ahead. Areej told me that she has really enjoyed the expedition and it has been a great opportunity for her to get some real field work experience and find out if she enjoys the life of a wildlife conservationist working in the field. I think her expedition journal entry sums up the experience nicely (see below). Thanks also to Elena for her artistic contribution to the expedition journal (also see below) and mammoth effort of desert clean up with Ulrike yesterday.

Thanks again to everyone, you have been amazing! I hope you enjoy the selection of images below from the camera traps and our last days of field work.

Paul Franklin
Expedition leader

Kenya: Sunday start

It’s warm, the sun is shining, the equipment is ready, survey routes are set, datasheets printed, the animals are here, waiting to be counted, etc, etc. All we need now is you citizen scientists. See you at the Margarita on Sunday morning!

Arabia: All squares covered

The second group of the Arabia 2019 expedition is now underway after completion of training on species identification, research methodology and use of equipment and traps.

We have split into three groups each day. The first job for each group is to check the live trap and grid of ten rodent traps in the area of the reserve they are covering that day. On most days each group then goes on to complete circular observation counts of target animal and plant species in two of the reserve’s quadrat squares. By the end of the week, the plan is that a circular observation will have been completed on all 62 of the reserve’s 2 km x 2 km square quadrants, giving us good data on the distribution of oryx, gazelle and the main plant communities. The team have also been collecting plenty of random observations while driving and walking within the reserve. Today we recorded lappet-faced vulture, hen harrier and toad-headed agama among many other species. Our rodent traps were successful this morning with a couple of captures of Cheeseman’s jerbil.

Our placement student Areej is enjoying being out in the desert getting some field experience in conservation research. The experience and talking with Moayyed and Greg also provides some ideas regarding prospects for work in the field of wildlife conservation within the UAE. Areej was rewarded on her birthday with the capture of three Cheesman’s jerbils in the rodent traps.

The camera trap results from the few days between groups 1 and 2 recorded a group of ten lappet-faced vulture, a Bonelli’s eagle and a female pallid harrier. We will collect the SD cards again on Friday and the results will be analysed in full by Moayyed after the expedition. As well as the science, we are managing to do a bit of litter picking in the desert, Elena is showing particular enthusiasm and energy for this.

Tomorrow is our last day of circular observations; the whole reserve will then have been covered by our citizen scientists. We will celebrate with dinner at the Arabian Adventures camp and on Saturday morning we will have a debrief from Greg to summarise what the team has achieved this week.

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