Malawi: Roundup 2019

Vwaza Marsh is a little known wildlife reserve in the north of Malawi with virtually no tourism and very little research and conservation work having been done until, in 2017, the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) set up a research camp inside the reserve.

Biosphere Expeditions joined forces with LWT and CRA in 2018 and has sent teams of citizen scientists to Vwaza for the past two years. “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 in 2019, 10 new elephants were identified and catalogued. This brought the LWT elephant database to over 200 total elephants, a milestone for the project. This is estimated to comprise about 75% of the Vwaza elephant population. By identifying elephants, population dynamics and abundance, long-term management can be improved.

The teams also set camera traps throughout the park. Twenty-four different species were captured on camera, confirming the high species density in the reserve. Eleven species of elusive carnivores were captured, including leopard.

From the 51 bats caught during the nine surveys, three species provided new records for CRA for both Vwaza and Malawi. At the end of the four-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 providing critical information for the management and conservation Vwaza Marsh.”

In summary, the 2019 expedition achieved this:

  • 36 large mammal driving and 3 large mammal walking transects with 95 sightings and 11 species recorded
  • 11 hippo walking transects counting a total of 1,373 hippos
  • 10 new elephants were identified
  • 11 primate surveys were conducted for a total of 38 focal observations
  • 11 orders of insects were identified
  • 51 bats from 11 different species were captured and released, including three species that were new records for the reserve
  • 46 camera traps were deployed during the expedition
  • 24 different species were caught on these cameras, including one big cat species, leopard.

Thank you to all citizen scientists for helping us to achieve this!

Here are some pictures and videos of the expedition:

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Malawi: Final entry 2019

Back in Lilongwe, we spent a wonderful last day at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, located in the heart of the 5 million capital of Malawi.  Our partner LWT not only showed us the public areas, but also the vetinary and quarantine facilities, as well as the pre-release primate enclosures. Having been involved with post-release behavioural studies in the field, this was a great opportunity to get the full picture of LWT’s work.

None of our expeditions would be complete without a summary of the work and the data that we have collected. Here are the preliminary results for group 2:

  • We completed ten driving transects in different areas of the reserve with a total number of 45 animals recorded.
  • On the hippo walking transect, which was completed five times, we counted an average number of 135 individuals.
  • Three successful elephant observations and quite a few hours spent with picture comparison sessions resulted in four new IDs: Henry, Niels, Toto and Chassis. 203 individuals in total are mow registered in the elephant ID database thanks to our citizen scientists.
  • Fifteen elephant dung samples of all age classes (6x adult, 3x subadult, 4x juvenile, 2x calf) were collected and processed. Within these, the team found 112 seeds that still need identification.
  • Primate observations were performed five times. Although the vervet monkeys were difficult to track this time, the survey teams completed 21 focal samplings of 20 min each.
  • Excluding the roost bat survey run on the last night at the office, a total number of 30 bats were caught during eleven harp net and nine mist net hours. The catches include eight different species representing three different families (Vespertilionidae, Pteriopteridae, Rhinolophidae).
  • Team 2 also completed the mammoth task of a vegetation survey at camp including the bush area behind the tents. It took hours to measure 73 trees within 5 squares of 10 x 10 meters along the transect line.
  • Insects were processed in three sessions. We collated 600+ individuals from three live trap samples into eleven different orders before sizing individuals.
  • And last but not least, we set up 23 camera traps in the northern part of Vwaza and collected them after seven days. In a joint team effort, we went through all SD cards including species identification in a six hour morning session. Apart from the “usual” elephant, kudu, bushbuck and other diurnal species, we found very good pictures of caracal, spotted hyena, bushy mongoose and serval.

A month of data collection is over and the time has come to say goodbye. A big thank you goes to the LWT and CRA scientists Mandy and Karen and the research assistants Pili, Dominique and Leigh-Anne who not only trained and supported us, but also inspired us in many ways. Thank you Emmanuel and Felister for keeping us well fed, the camp guards for keeping us and our research equipment safe and maintaining the camp facilities. We also thank all the NWPD rangers for guiding us in the bush and watching our backs in elephant terrain, while we were collecting data.

And last but not least, thank you to all you expeditioners for joining in hands-on conservation in a remote and challenging place in the heart of Africa. Thank you for putting your time, sweat and money into a research project that wouldn’t happen without you. Thanks for coping with heat, dust, insects, elephants at camp during the night and very early breakfast times while all the while keeping up your good spirits. We hope you’ve enjoyed your time at Vwaza as much as we did and take back home unique memories of a truly authentic Africa experience. And to the two of you – you know who you are – get well soon!

Safe travels back home everyone. Stay tuned for the expedition report with final results. And please don’t forget to share your pictures.

All the best, I hope to see you again some time, somewhere on this beautiful, fragile planet of ours.


Malawi: Lots of results and forced day off

We’re busy from sunrise to sunset. During our extended lunch break, when everyone returns from their morning activities for some food, we meet for a daily review of the last 24 hours. Everyone shares their field work experience, exceptional sightings and funny stories: one of us getting stuck in the mud during the hippo walk, a punctured tyre, an elephant observation team unable to spot a single elephant and a bat survey team an hour later in the same area getting stuck between herds of them, unable to reach the study site.

Matthias and Neil B (not to mistake for Neil G), two enthusiastic birders delight the rest of the team with new sightings almost every day, discussions about details of features and sharing their knowledge. More than 40 new species have already been added to the expedition’s bird list, i.e. flamingo. One single individual hangs around the lake – very unusual. Even more unusual are the repeated sighting of a pelican following hanging out with a group of yellow-billed storks. We think he might have a dual personality disorder, or even worse might think he is a stork, too! 😉 The most wanted bird these days, however, is the Ross’s Turaco. Its wanted poster designed by Matthias is pinned on the wall beside the work plan whiteboard 🙂 It was seen twice, but picture proof is needed to make it an official first sighting for Malawi.

Other than that the elephant teams have identified three more individuals (all male), which are now named Nils, Toto and Henry. We have cracked 200 – 202 to be precise. Team one surely remembers Kevin, a radio collared female, who is usually seen away from the herds, together with a young and a subadult. We have had a very close look at her passing camp the other day and are pretty sure that she is pregnant. King Louis, a massive bull that was collared in February this year and had left Vwaza straight after, is back in the area. Apparently he went for a tour around Zambia and Tansania, but has been spotted multiple times at the lake over the last ten days or so.

The primates have been difficult to find recently. Mr. Poop, a radio-collared male, decided to stay away from Dexter, Leilo, Thursday and Ghost. However, Kuti, a full grown male vervet monkey, who had left the troup straight after the release in March, has returned and now hangs out with the troup again. Not so many sightings from the bush driving transects, but a steady number of hippo recordings of around 140 each day. And some very good results from the bat surveys.

Finally, the tsetse flies have become so much of a bother and a risk for sleeping sickness (one staff and one participant testing positive and now being treated – there is no vaccine, but the disease is highly curable when caught early) that we have pulled the team out of the field a day early. As I write, they are preparing to enjoy a day at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, away from those blasted flies!

More details on the end of the expedition and an overview of results soon. Stay tuned.

Malawi: Bats, hippos, elephants et al.

Everyone ist trained up and the camera traps are set in the northern part of the reserve. Well done, folks! It is a long, arduous drive. Let’s hope for some more good results.

We ran the first bat survey on our second training day. Everyone was keen to help setting up the harp and mist nets after another half day of introductions and theoretical training sessions on primates, entomology and bat identification. The traps were opened at sunset and closed after three hours. Enough time for everyone to assist with handling and recording the captured animals. Over ten individuals were caught that night – very exciting.

The hippo transect went well today with lots of sightings of kudu, puku, impala, warthog, vervet monkey, yellow-billed stork and quite a few herds of elephants – apart from our study animals 😉 On the way back the team was held up by several herds of elephants, but made it back to base shortly before lunchtime just when another herd of elephants decided to walk past the platform at a distance of no more than 30 m. Why go out for elephant observations if you can do it from base? 😉 Leigh-Anne and Dominique took many, many ID pictures, which we will process soon.

Malawi: Training, interrupted

Team 2 has arrived safely at base on Sunday. Our team of ten citizen scientists consists of Carol & Neil, Charlotte, Neil and Linda from the UK, Thomas and Matthias from Germany, Lore from Canada and Brianne and Alex from the USA. We saw another stunning sunset during the first introductions and the risk assessment before dinner.

Going through the training lectures and practicing with the expedition equipment was repeatedly and rudely interrupted by wildlife coming into view, incluiding elephants on the other side of the lake around lunchtime. We hope to get a closer view of the herds later in the afternoon when we head out for our first game / training drive.


Malawi: team 2 for 1

Farewell team 1.

Helen, Marion, Kathleen, Ed & Paige, Sandra & Gary, Rob, Steve Marion and Kris left on Friday morning after breakfast. Karen, Mandy and I went to Mzuzu for a food shopping run, sorting out tyres, etc. We made it back to base shortly after sunset, but it was way beyond bedtime when everything was sorted, the kitchen restocked and the remaining supplies stored away safely.

Two weeks have flown by. Thank you so much everyone for being a great team, collecting lots of data and having fun… remember the 3 Ss: safety, science and satisfaction? 😉 I think we had plenty of all! We hope you’ve enjoyed your time out here at Vwaza as much as we did and have taken with you memories that will last forever.

Team 2, see you on Sunday!

Malawi: New bat species for Malawi!

On our last expedition day for group 1, a primate group went out for observations in the morning and the rest of the team collected all camera traps. Back at base everyone helped going through thousands of pictures before lunchtime, using all available laptops, extracted animal pictures in the first step and finally ran them through the ID process. Even more, everyone helped a lot over the last couple of days putting datasheets into the computer so that we have a pretty complete picture of what the first team has achieved. Here is a summary of the results:

Large mammal transects

  • 18 driving transects were completed, the total number of sightings is 44 of nine different species.
  • Seven walking and five hippo transects, the average number of hippos counted along the lake transect was 108
  • Overall most animals were recorded in the southern part of the reserve most likely (because that’s where all the water is)

Elephant observations

This activity was performed 15 times. Every day a team went out to find elephant herds and to take ID pictures. Back at base, the pictures were used to identify individuals by comparing them with ID identification sheets of 94 elephants on the existing database. A great result is that six new elephants could be added: four females and one male. It was the observer’s privilege to name them, the new additions are now Carily, Sabra, JuMaddy, Kylie and Elias.

Elephant dung survey

Elephant dung was picked up from different locations within the reserve for further analysis. 229 seeds were extracted, washed and dried for identification. So far only four of them could be identified.

Primate observations

Six times a team of two to three people followed “our” troup of vervet monkeys for behaviour observations. Focal observations of one individual at a time were performed 29 times for 20 min each. The focal, continuous and proximity observations help to bolster an existing database that was started in April this year when the monkeys were released into Vwaza Wildlife Reserve.

Biodiversity studies & insects

On four occasions light traps were put out. The samples collected included 900+ individual insects that were processed by organising them into family groups, measuring and counting them in three sessions. 11 insect orders were represented within the samples, the largest number that has ever been found.

Camera traps

24 camera traps were out for nine nights each in the southern half of the reserve. We found animals on 1500 pictures, identified 23 different species, including 7 carnivores and one big cat: a leopard. Other species were genet, civet, serval, caracal, proqupine, spotted hyaena, honey badger, water mongoose, ground hornbill, duiker, hippo, elephant, yellow baboon, vervet monkey, bushbuk, guinnea fowl, kudu.

Bat surveys

Over six bat survey nights a total number of 34 bats of eight different species were caught in the mist and harp nets set up 30 min before sunset and closed after three hours. Two species were recorded for the first time in Vwaza: Laphotis botswanae (only recorded once in Lillongwe National Park) and Myotis bocagii. On top of that the team caught and identified a new species for Malawi! A Kerivoula lanosa, also called woolly bat, in one of the harp nets on a study site pretty close to camp. The only record of this species in Malawi is from the 1980s!

Quoting scientist Karen: “the results are insane!”. Thank you very much, team 1. Over to you, team 2!

Malawi: More research and a day at the village

After a week full of activities, the team spent the afternoon of a well-earned day off at the neighbouring village where were warmly welcomed and fed.

We were back to our research tasks on Sunday. We exchanged SD cards of 21 camera traps that were set five days earlier along the West and North road.  We managed to go through the camera trap pictures using multiple laptops. Some of the SD cards had more than 3000 pictures on them – mostly of grass! More about animal pictures when we have finished identifying the species.

As the days went by, teams went out for elephant observations each day, we continued primate observations following a troup of vervet monkeys that were released at Vwaza a few months ago. Bat surveys continued in the evenings. On some of the hippo transect walks along the lake shore, we counted over 140 individuals.

Now team 1 has only two more days to go… time flies! I’ll keep you updated about the results.

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