Malawi: Elephants at camp

The expedition is in full swing. Over the last couple of days we’ve completed a great variety of research activities.

On the large mammals driving transects, a herd of 130 buffalos was recorded, as well as elephant, impala, warthog, bushbock and kudu. We collected a lion scat placed nicely in the middle of the road on transect no. 5 in the northern area of the reserve. We thought it was pretty dry, maybe a few weeks old, but still had a very distinct smell. Local scouts reported a kudu killed by a lion was found on 19 Sep at the lakeshore about 500 m from camp.

The hippo transect group found the remains of the kill, as well as the dried out (and therefore conserved) lion track leading into the lake. 83 hippos were counted on only one of the hippo transects, including many young ones and a newborn baby.

The team set up insect light traps and processed the findings by sorting them into size and family groups. Three also butterfly traps were installed around camp.

The primate observation teams were also lucky with tracking the radio-collared group of vervet monkeys down to do behavioural observations.

We brought back from the field fresh elephant dung samples and have started extracting all seed from them for further analysis. Many elephant ID pictures were also taken during the elephant observations.

We have caught a variety of bats every single night we ran a bat survey, noting down measurements and features of these amazing creatures of the night, took ID and other pictures & videos.

To top it all off, the elephants came by yesterday evening to visit camp. It was a bull, two females and a juvenile foraging on one of the bushes, sniffing about and stealing the banana bait out of the butterfly trap that is set up between the kitchen platform and our tents. Everybody was safe in their tents already taking to heart all the safety instructions that were given during the training sessions. The elephants had moved on when the bat trapping team returned to camp around 22:30, but we could still hear them for a while lingering about in the vicinity.

Enjoy the pictures, say more than words about the expedition team’s life out here in true African wilderness.

Malawi: Blackbeard, the giant elephant

Our expedition started with a late arrival at base, but despite this most of the team got up just after sunrise to take in the new surroundings and absorb the stunning view of a quintessentially African landscape from the platform.

Days 2 & 3 were filled with orientation, lectures and training sessions about safety, the equipment, elephants, primates, insects, big mammals and bats – all species we are going to collect data on. We learned about the history and research methodologies of the various projects we will be involved with over the next month. For the big mammals inventory research, we prepared 21 camera traps by going through a long list of settings. As I write this, a bat capture training session including data collection is taking place in the “backyard” of camp.

In the afternoon of day 2, we went for a game drive taking the road around the lake and found a huge group of elephants. We saw about 60-70 individuals some of which could be identified. Blackbeard, for example, who is a male bull towering over the whole rest of them. When he starts walking everyone gets out of his way. And a fluffy newborn that can’t be older than a few weeks. We were mesmerised by the majestic creatures and their interactions, took hundreds of pictures and left them only shortly before sunset.

After dinner, the bat survey will go on for a couple more hours (two catches already as I type). We’re trained up and prepared for the field work starting tomorrow morning at 06:00.

Malawi: Shopping, cleaning, preparing

Mandy & I arrived at camp a few days ago.  We had a flat tyre on the drive up. Not a big deal only that the car load was too heavy for being jacked up. Local people stopped to help us unloading and changing the tyre – another great experience of the Malawian spirit.

We spent the first day at camp tidying up tents and the platform, unpacking equipment, going through the menu and writing shopping lists. Friday was our shopping day. Karen, Dominique, Mandy and I left base in two cars at 06:00 for Mzuzu, the so-called capital of the North, and hit the one and only big supermarket of the region just when it opened the doors. I lost track of the number of carts we filled with food & drinks. The staff was friendly enough to open a till just for us that was soon surrounded by helpers packing everything into cardboard boxes that were finally loaded into our cars. It wasn’t before early afternoon that we left the supermarket to pick up some lunch before heading back to camp. Unloading and storing food took up another few hours so it was late in the evening when we crawled to bed.

Now, let me introduce you to the staff that is going to be involved with the expedition: Karen (CRA) is responsible for the bat & insects science, Dominique is her research assistant. Mandy (LWT) will be the same for elephants and primates with Leigh-Anne and Pili assisting (see picture). We have a wonderful research team and everyone is looking forward to meeting the team tomorrow. And there is Manuel, our cook (a very important person on the expedition ;)) and his friend & helper Felicia who arrived yesterday.

From left to right: Leigh-Anne, Mandy, Karen, Dominique, Pili.

Writing this I am sitting on the shaded platform with a view to the lake. In the distance I can see a group of kudu, a bunch of hippos and a troup of baboons. It is sunny and warm with a light breeze – perfect conditions for doing some scientific field work.

And so it begins with group 1. See you tomorrow.


Romania: Wolves howling, bears frolocking and wild boars munching

On day 5 the team undertook habitat surveys of the future bison enclosure. With the animals due to arrive in a month and many transects remaining to be done, the clock is ticking.

Starting from the hide at Bunea, we scrambled down the precipitous forested hillsides overlooking Lake Pecineagu, wondering whether the bulky animals would fare any better on this terrain.

Oliviu, a botanist with FCC, picked out the locations of two new transects, which were staked out. With the help of visual keys, we were able to identify almost all the vegetation present, clarifying the remainder with Oliviu’s help, and reference to field guides.

Bison reintroductions are still experimental, so surveys like these are vital to understanding the large herbivores’ impact on their new habitats.

Days 6 and 7 were spent at the hides: Bunea, and the higher Comisu, with groups swapping between the two on the second day.

Both teams were lucky enough to observe bears and boar. Thanks to clear skies and the light of a full moon, we were able to watch late into the night, and record the movements of individual animals. At one point a bear and a boar were seen feeding just 5 metres from each other, at another, two bears fed simultaneously.

That night, the valley echoed with the booming grunts of red deer, with at least three audible from Bunea. The rut is just now beginning and will continue until mid-October.

Up at Comisu, the only artificial light visible, beyond those on Pecineagu Dam and the occasional passing aircraft, was a candle in the window of Bunea hide below. While admiring the night sky, we heard the distant howling of wolves on the other side of the lake.

Over the two days we also caught a rare glimpse of, and heard, a three-toad woodpecker, saw sparrowhawks dive-bombing jays, which were feeding at the hide, heard a ural owl, and found our largest sample of bear hair yet.

This brings our inaugural expedition to ths beautiful part of the world to an end. A big thank you to our citizen scientists for your energy and enthusiasm, and for making a great contribution to the conservation of this beautiful and important area. Thank you also to our partners at FCC. We are glad and proud to be supporting your efforts in conservation, which are second to none in Europe, and be a small cog in your big operation.

We’re already looking forward to next year!

Malawi: Lilongwe, but not for long

I arrived  in Lilongwe early in the afternoon. No delays, no queuing … almost. I was lucky enough to get out of the plane quickly and into the first bus to the arrival terminal. Right at the entrance you have to present your passport and vaccination card before you can proceed to the visa application check desk. Don’t forget to download and fill in the form back at home so that you can proceed straight away while others are busy with completing their forms.

Amanda (Mandy) picked me up from the airport together with Robert, a local LWT employee who you will be meeting you at Mafumu hotel for assembly. He is briefed on the meet & greet procedure and will make sure that everyone gets on the bus to base where Mandy & I will be waiting for you.

Robert & I went for some last minute shopping before he dropped me off at Mafumu Hotel. It’s a lovely place, the weather is pleasantly warm and the Malawian people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming. They say they’re the heart of Africa…

You have my local phone number from a previous e-mail. Reception in Lilongwe is very good; not sure what it is like on the eight hour drive up to base. Mandy and I will leave the capital tomorrow early in the morning – more from me once we have arrived at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

Malawi: Getting ready

Hello everyone and welcome to the 2019 Malawi expedition diary

My name is Malika and I will be your expedition leader on this year‘s biodiversity monitoring project at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

Malika Fettak

Together with our partners Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) we‘ve been organising over the last few weeks logistics, research equipment and camp so that everything will be in place & prepared for your arrival.

I am currently on my way from Europe to Lilongwe and will meet up with Amanda, Head researcher at LWT straight after my arrival.

Amanda Harwood

Our plan is to go for some a last shopping run in town before we drive up to the reserve on Wednesday, where we will meet head CRA researcher Karen Shevlin.

Karen Shevlin

We already have a work plan including a great variety of activities and can‘t wait to train you up for collecting data in the field. Right…this is not a holiday! 😉

We’ve already sent the work plan to the expedition team and you have seen the 2018 expedition report as summary and culmination of what citizen science and hard work can achieve. So come prepared for two busy weeks full of exciting tasks in wonderful landscapes hosting amazing African wildlife.

I will be in touch again before I leave Lilongwe with an update from the ground.

Bye for now, enjoy your preparations and safe travels group 1!


Romania: Bear visits, lynx photos, fire toads and hummingbird moths

On day 3 we split into three teams to set and check camera traps for lynx, in the vicinity of neighbouring villages. FCC aim to install 64 camera trap stations by the beginning of October, so we are here at the perfect time to help them out.

Team 1 followed a long and winding logging road past signs of deer – tracks and stripped saplings, whose bark is rich in the minerals they need to regrow their antlers. After hopping dead trees and scrambling uphill, we were able to see out across the Dragoslovene Valley to and Mount Tamasel and Draxin, with clearings dotted in amongst the forest.

Approaching the target area, we heard the unmistakable noise of chainsaws and falling trees, meaning we had to carry on further to find unmarked trees, not in danger of being felled. On the way back down, we came across fire-bellied toads, in a pond formed of a wheel rut.

Team 2’s long route took them past a spot where deer had recently slept, to a lookout where they stopped to admire the sight of house martins swooping as they fed. Camera traps installed, they passed an area of cleared forest where FCC is replanting, through beautiful, mature beech forest. On the way they found bear scat and hair, including possibly from a bear cub, from a rubbing tree.

Team 3 both installed and checked camera traps, recovering over 60 photos from one. At one point they encountered multiple tracks in the mud, including of a wild cat.

We awoke on day 4 to find that the camp had been visited that night by a bear, who was attracted by the rubbish bins, and left us our freshest sample yet! When the rangers arrived, they showed us photos of a lynx sighting on the previous day’s camera traps.

Setting off, we drove through Stoinești and Cotenești, to sample future beaver habitat in two locations. The team sampling Valea lui Coman found three sites that contained the right mix of vegetation, habitat and lack of human disturbance favourable to beavers. They also came across otter tracks and markings under a bridge, as well as two species of hummingbird moth. They then made a visit to an FCC fir nursery, nestled in a forest clearing at the end of a forest track bounded up a precipitous gorge.

The team sampling Valea Badenilor found a mix of sites, including one highly suitable for beaver, where FCC are planting more willow. On the way back they made a visit to a monastery perched on a clifftop, built on the site of an ancient Dacian temple.


Maldives: Hope for its reefs

Hopeful results from our Reef Check surveys in the Maldives: resilience, recovery and adaptability

Our ninth annual Reef Check survey in the Maldives has come to an end. It has been an insightful, rewarding journey with a great team effort to collect valuable reef data. A first analysis of our survey data reveals there are different responses of the coral reefs to bleaching events. Previous surveys in Ari Atoll revealed that corals on inner reefs suffered severely from the 2016 bleaching, whereas those on outer reefs seemed to be coping better. Reefs didn’t recover in 2017 and 2018. However, this year in South Male’ and Vaavu Atoll we’ve noted baby corals growing well at new sites that we thought would be badly damaged, showing a greater diversity of corals ‘pushing through’ from the dead layer below. Before the bleaching event, a type of coral called Acropora were dominant, and almost ubiquitous. These are always badly affected by warming events. Our concern was that with Acropora-dominated shallow reefs being devoid of coral, the new freed up space may be dominated by algae and sponges – leading to a catastrophic decline in the very structure of islands that are built on hard corals (this is what has happened on the Bahamas already).

However, our surveys have shown resilience (of corals that are resistant to bleaching), adaptability (some reefs have other species coming through), and recovery (baby corals are almost everywhere). Water temperatures are still rather high and another temperature spike could still kill many of the corals we have seen and some of the newly settled small corals from the last year were bleached… So, while we are reasonably optimistic about these findings, further monitoring efforts are needed to follow up on these trends.

During our last two days, we were treated to some of the larger marine wildlife. In Dighura (South Ari atoll), we went looking for whale sharks to support the local NGO, Maldives Research Whale Shark Programme (MRWSP) that surveys them regularly in the area. After more than two hours of searching, Arish caught a glimpse of one just as it was diving under the boat. We circled around the area for a while with all eyes focusing on the water, but unfortunately were not able to relocate it and eventually decided to end the afternoon with a dive. While we were enjoying beautiful reefs in the deep, Jilian, our expert snorkeller on board and guide Suhag did manage to eventually find the 4 m long whale shark close to the surface and take some footage and data.

Meanwhile, on our last dive we saw marble rays, reef sharks, hawksbill turtle and humphead wrasse on top of all the smaller reef life we have all learnt to appreciate and understand a lot better during this week.

And there was more to come: a cruising manta ray was spotted near the boat when taking off our gear. We jumped into the blue again, quickly to realise that only the fastest swimmers could keep up and enjoy some precious moments with this gentle giant.

On our last afternoon our local placements on the expedition, Beybe and Farish, guided us around Villimale’ island to show us the efforts of their NGO ‘Save the Beach Maldives’ on tackling littering, coral restoration, as well as the future marine learning centre, where they will train more locals in Reef Check surveys to upscale monitoring efforts across the islands and engage young Maldivians in the conservation of their marine biodiversity. Over the years more than 100 volunteers have become involved, including local scout groups. Their year-long efforts on marine littering have clearly paid off, which was clear as we were strolling along pretty, clean tree lanes with colourful houses. We look forward to following their future conservation actions. This visit was also a reality check into the daily lives of the locals -far away from the liveaboards and fancy island resorts – and a unique goodbye for all of the citizen scientists, who have put in a lot of work, effort and dedication. Thanks to you all for making this a successful expedition. Shukuriyaa and more to come next year!