Kenya: Filling the gaps

A month of data collection at Enonkishu Conservancy has ended. Good-bye team 2 and good-bye Enonkishu, rangers and staff for 2020!

We have used the last few days to fill gaps in our surveys. We completed another two sets of waterhole observations by performing two evening shifts from 18:00 – 22:00, despite heavy rain on Wednesday and a challenging drive back to camp. We performed a few more vehicle transects in order to get more comparativ wildlife detection data. A new end-to-end transect route compensating for the former T3 has finally been tracked on GPS and will be used for the ranger’s monthly surveys until the forest area in block 8 will be drivable again.

Whilst we were doing all this, some of us had some very exciting wildlife encounters. The mammal mapping walking group accidentally ran into an elephant in dense shrub and made a quick escape into the bushes. The Kileleoni team encountered another leopard right beside the road. It was gone in a flash when the vehicle approached. Both female lions with their four subadult cubs were spotted again in block 8. The vehicle almost drove over one of them invisibly resting in high grass. Jet, all on his own in the back of the vehicle, took a quick-witted picture before he getting in the cab for safety. A hyaena trudged along the waterhole edge, came right in front of the hide where the animal stopped suddenly, lifted its head, sniffed and ran!

Alan’s results presentation and the Big Tusker Award Ceremony were once again a highlight on our last evening. An overview map created out of 2,000 recordings including wildlife, livestock and vegetation logs illustrates impressively what 24 citizen scientists can achieve in partnership with local rangers over a month of intensive data collection. Much more information will be derived from the recordings for the expedition report, so please stay tuned.

For me it’s also time now to say good-bye to Enonkishu and Kenya. Before I go I would like to thank everyone who helped to make this expedition a success. First of all a big thank you goes to our citizen scientists for supporting the project in many ways – for your enthusiasm,, determination, studiousness and good company. Thanks to Rebekah for managing things on the ground and the Enonkishu rangers for guiding us on and off the tracks through rough terrain and keeping us safe. Thank you Alan for inspiring us with your dedication to science, nature, birds and all the other living things out there. And last but not least we all thank the MTC staff for making us feel welcome no matter what we threw at you in the name of science.

Safe travels back home, everyone, or enjoy your onward travels. I look forward to meeting you again one day.

Best wishes,

Malika

Tien Shan: Round-up, pictures and videos 2019

After six years of citizen science research in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Biosphere Expeditions has definitively proved the presence of the snow leopard in a location previously thought to be devoid of the top level predator. Two night time camera-trap images taken in 2018 were a good indication, but in 2019 a series of camera trap images were taken of the elusive cat that clearly show the coat pattern, thus making it possible to even identify the individual and compare it to data recorded by other organisations to find out where else this cat has been.

“When I was going through the camera trap photos in our field office one evening, I almost fell out of my chair when these amazing shots of the snow leopard came up. I ran out and called to everyone to come and take a look. It was such an excellent moment for our research team,” says Amadeus DeKastle, expedition leader for Biosphere Expeditions.

“These excellent photographs of the snow leopard make all the effort we’ve put in to our research worth every second,” says Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, the expedition scientis. Dr. Tytar has been working in snow leopard research for more than 15 years, but 2019 was a special year. “When we first arrived here in Kyrgyzstan to begin our work in 2014, we kept being told that we wouldn’t find anything in this region. In fact, over the past six years we have recorded quite a number of animals that nobody expected, including the snow leopard.” In addition to the snow leopard, 2019 saw the addition of definitive Manul tracks at high elevation, the first direct sighting of two argali sheep in the region for four years, the first ever record of a Turkestan red pika in the valley, and records of 73 different bird species.

Biosphere Expeditions’ project in the Tien Shan stems from the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, where, in 2013, representatives from all 12 Asian countries where the snow leopard roams made a historic pledge in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek to protect and conserve snow leopards and the high mountain habitats they call their home. Biosphere
Expeditions was part of this highly significant occasion and continues to run an annual snow leopard conservation expedition to Kyrgyzstan, which gives ordinary people the chance to come and play an active and hands-on part in the conservation of this iconic species.

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 set out do and are achieving with our  research expedition”, Dr. Tytar adds “This latest success just goes to show how important our work is here and I would like to thank everyone who has been involved over the years”, Dr. Tytar concludes.

Below are some video and pictures impressions of the 2019 expedition:

 

 

Kenya: Learning from each other

This Sunday’s school visit programme created by team 2 in a four-hour session on Saturday afternoon included a lot of interaction and working in small groups. After a tour around Emarti Secondary School we took the students on a game drive and involved them in data collection using compass, rangefinder and smartphone. We were lucky enough to see the biggest herd of elephants spotted at Enonkishu this year.  We also saw the cheetah family feeding on a freshly killed impala. The groups also picked up (mainly plastic) rubbish along the main roads.

Back at the MTC, we continued by chatting around the lunch table in groups of eight (four expeditioners and four students each). It was then for our citizen scientists to deliver a short presentation about their home countries and the animals and landscapes that are protected there and at Enonkishu Conservancy. We learnt that it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to dissolve, that an elephant can suck up to 16 litres of water in its trunk in one go and that the cheetah is the fastest land animal. Musa talked about grassland management as the basis for both wildlife and cattle that are happily sharing space in Enonkishu. We finished with a brainstorming about possible careers and job opportunities in conservation.

Thanks to everyone for making it an unforgettable day.

 

Kenya: Beyond the Big Five

The team is doing a fantastic job with spotting elusive and rare species of Enonkishu Conservancy. We have gone far beyond the Big Five – buffalo, elephant, hippo, leopard, lion – encountering rhino on the plane in block 13 (they walked in from the sancturary in Ol Chorro conservancy) and mapping colobus monkeys during the hikes around Kileleoni hill. A leopard encounter during Thursday afternoon’s survey in block 8 resulted in hundreds of great pictures and videos. To the bird list we have added sightings of Southern great hornbill, blue quail and saddle-billed stork. Quite a few obervations of turtoise, plants, insects and flowers have been added to the Enonkishu project on iNaturalist. We came across lion quite frequently and a big elephant herd of  25+ individuals came into Enonkishu a couple of days ago. On the night drives we have recorded hyaena, African spring hare and banded mangoose, as well as a greater bushbaby at MTC. Enjoy the pictures!

Kenya: Camera traps and new arrivals

Team 1’s opportunistic camera trap survey was quite successful in terms of capturing more elusive and/or nocturnal species that haven’t been mapped during the day surveys. Amongst them is also a very good leopard picture captured during daylight.

Team 2 arrived safely at base on Sunday afternoon. Heike, Christiane and Matthias (Germany), Kunsang and Brian (Canada), Ariane, Kathy and Jet (USA), Celine (France), Sipra (Finland), Fiona (UK) and Paul (Netherlands) completed the two-day training sessions. Today (Wednesday) a full day of morning, afternoon and night surveys is scheduled. During the driver training on Monday, two teams were lucky enough to spot six lions on the plane west from Memusi dam well hidden under a bush in high grass.

We redeployed seven camera traps on Tuesday for another two-week opportunistic survey. This time we set them up much more specifically for rarely seen or nocturnal species and smaller mammals such as colobus monkey, mangoose, civet, etc. Four cameras were placed around Nubian camp in the forested area at the bottom of Kileleoni hill. They will now survey for us a “leopard tree” located at the campsite itself, a waterfall, as well bunches of ripe fruit on a massive fig tree up a steep narrow valley east of Nubian camp. Two more cameras were placed at the salt lick beside Memusi dam to find out more about the variety of species using the place.

 

Kenya: Thank you team 1!

Saturday afternoon was all quiet at Mara Training Centre. Alan and I dropped team 1 at Narok at mid-day. It feels like this group has came to a sudden end, but actually that’s not true. I guess we’ve been immersed in our tasks, busy in the field from early morning until late afternoon. During the daily briefing sessions before dinner Alan kept us up to date with the data collected by producing a map to identify blank spots within the reserve we haven’t surveyed yet. Keen to fill the gaps with data, we explored new routes both from the vehicles or on foot and climbed Kileleoni hill from every possible side. The weather has been pleasant throughout lately, with the odd rain shower during the late afternoon or night.

We collected eight hotspot camera traps on Thursday for first results before the vehicles got a proper wash and check. The team worked their way through solid layers of mud using machetes, brushes and brooms until the vehicles’ true colours came shining through. Well done, everyone!

The ‘Big Tusker Reward Ceremony’ on our last evening was not only about summing up data and scientific results, but also a reflection of every single citizen scientist’s special skills and  contribution to the tasks at hand, the field work and team-building activities. Alan and I totally agreed that everyone deserves their very own Big Tusker! It was great fun decorating ‘Wingman’, ‘Miss Congeniality’, ‘King & Queen of Kileleoni’, ‘Wreck it Ralph & fix it Felix’ or ‘Best dressed in Chebunyo’, only to mention a few. The day ended with a hilarous evening at the cowshed, a farewell chocolate cake presented by the kitchen staff, singing and dancing – Hakuna Matata, life goes on and everything will be alright!

Thank you, team 1, for coping with many last minute change of plans, bad weather an unexpected events. But also for your enthusiasm, support and hard work. I hope you’ve got as much out of our two weeks together as you have put in.

Now over to team 2!

 

Kenya: Connecting with the local community

Wildlife almost always exists in a human context. We can do all the monitoring we want – without having the local community on board, it would mean nothing. This is why this expedition includes an ‘educational day’. This Sunday we hosted twelve students (age 14-17) from the local boarding school in Emarti, the village just outside Enonkishu, for a day. In a planning session on Saturday afternoon, the team created an activities schedule to make the day a learning experience for everyone. After an eye-opening tour around the school providing first-hand insight, the team went out for a game drive in all three cars. Most of the students had never seen the wildlife that lives on their doorstep – not even an impala or Thomson’s gazelle. Not only did they see plenty of those, but also the cheetah family, as well as two female lions with two cubs. For the expedition, this was also the first encounter with them.

Lunch at the expedition base was then followed by a walk around our classroom by Monika and a short presentation created by Michael and Peter T. to introduce our international team of citizen scientists in order to create awareness that people from all over the world come to Enonkishu to support wildlife conservation efforts. Emmanuel, Albert and Musa from Enonkishu then talked about their roles/jobs/tasks in conservation before the students were briefed by Gabi and Nannette on a learning group activity they were asked to present to the group. Peter G. presented pictures of a remotely set up camera trap in the classroom before Brigitte and Sylvie handed over a present to each student. These were mostly notebooks and pens, brought in specifically for this event. Then it was time to go, but not before taking a group picture!

Kenya: Mud, stones & mammals

No rain for 36 hours! The sky was clear last night and the temperatures dropped significantly but it won’t take long until the warming sun will make us sweat again. The last few days have been adventurous, challenging and rewarding all the same – call it a true expedition!

Three days ago, on our first research day, we got stuck twice during the morning activity. There are a few muddy spots along the main roads that have been messed up by heavy trucks, some of them stuck for a couple of days before being pulled out by even bigger tractors. The video below will say more than a thousand word about the state of the road. Still, we managed both situations with great team work and spirit!

But none of this could hold us back from collecting data. The areas we could reach safely by car were surveyed on foot using the mammal mapping app. A few shifts surveying the waterhole have been completed and grid cameras have been serviced. We’ve also started exploring the areas just outside the Enonkishu boundaries by driving and mapping birds and mammals on the way. It’ll be interesting to see what’s going on in these areas in terms of human-wildlife conflict. About 500 recordings have already been logged in the mammal mapping app. Sightings include elephant, buffalo and cheetah apart from the “usual” gazelles, giraffe, baboon, topi, etc. Kisaru, the cheetah mum that is raising six cubs at Enonkishu, has been seen frequently. As have a herd of nine elephants including at least two juveniles.

While a team of four including Alan went for a bird & mammal mapping drive into Mara North conservancy on the day off on Friday, Peter G., Michael, Ralf and Monika spent their day with road repairing together with rangers Albert & Dapash. Car loads of stones were collected and dropped into the most treacherous deep mud holes at a key spot all cars have to pass to get out on their activity. Great job, guys and a big thank you from all of us!

Kenya: First steps

Team 1 has arrived safely at the Mara Training Centre at Enonkishu Conservancy, our expedition base for the next month. Getting to Nairobi and back as an adventure in itself as the rain had made many roads impassable, but we managed!

Our trailblazer team 1 this year comprises Gabi & Michael and Ralf (Germany), Brigitte, Silvie and Peter T. (Canada), Monika (Austria), Nanette (Australia), Jaein (USA), Margret, Christina and Peter G. (UK) as well as Emmanuel, a local placement from Kenya. The research team is supplemented by six Enonkishu rangers: Dapash, Albert and Mike as well as Meshek, Naman and Salamí.

We have now gone the usual couple of training days starting with a risk assessment on Sunday, followed by an introduction presentation about Enonkishu Conservancy held by Rebekah Karimi, the Conservancy Manager. It was sunny throughout Monday morning when everyone received training on data collection and smartphone apps, datasheets and the equipment, such as compass, rangefinders and GPS. After lunch we spent some time with pimping the three 4×4 rental cars by adding special recovery and safety equipment such as solid tow ropes, jumper cables, tyre repair kits and machetes, only to mention a few. We did some practice on changing a tyre before the drivers went through a theoretical 4×4 training session. For some practical driver training two cars left base a short while after. The game & practicing data collection drive of the non-drivers was literally rained off while the drivers all received some proper practice in mud driving. 😉

We prepared and set up seven camera traps first thing in the morning on Tuesday. Equipped with cameras, protective metal cases, wire, datasheets, GPS and compass, three teams went out together with the rangers to place them in the field. Besides an ongoing camera trap grid survey (18 cameras placed in fixed spots throughout the conservancy), these cameras are placed in places of high wildlife activity for an opportunistic survey during the expedition. Our hopes are to obtain pictures of more elusive and/or nocturnal species or maybe even of the three lions that are roaming Enonkishu right now.

We finished the training sessions with exploring the hide at the Memusi dam waterhole on Tuesday afternoon. All three cars drove in convoy memorising the track that leads up to the dam. From there we continued onwards on transect 2 through dense bushland, mapping mammals on the way and coming came across buffalo, impala and giraffe. We briefly explored the area around Nubian camp, a deserted camp site along the way, within preferred buffalo and elephant terrain. Alan found a leopard track and is quite keen to send an explorer team in due course for further investigation and general bio-mapping . We turned around and went back when the rain came, quickly turning the bush track into a stream.

Today (Wednesday) we have scheduled this year’s first proper vehicle drive transect activity, a walking mammal mapping activity and a waterhole observation shift. Writing this, three teams are out in the field completing the morning tasks in good conditions. As it is, Alan, Rebekah and I will be scheduling activities according to the weather on a daily basis. Keep your fingers crossed that the overall weather situation will slowly, but steadily convert into stable and dry conditions – just like they’re supposed to be this time of the year! 🙂

Costa Rica: Round-up and pictures

During 2019, an el Niño year, the leatherback turtle nesting season is expected to have higher numbers of turtles nesting on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. “The warmer sea and weather will make this a peak nesting season”, says Nicki Wheeler, Volunteer Coordinator at Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). And more turtles means that more poachers will also be searching for precious eggs on the beaches. The soft-shelled eggs fetch a high price on the black market, and conservationists who protect the Vulnerable leatherback turtle population do so, amongst other things, by patrolling nesting beaches to protect nesting turtles and their eggs.

Turtles nest during the cover of darkness and by the end of each night, all the eggs are gone from the beaches, either taken by poachers or saved by citizen scientists and re-buried in the safe sand of a guarded hatchery.

“Each egg is sold for one US dollar on the black market, and with each nest holding 60-120 eggs, that is a lot of money” explains Fabian Carrasco from Mexico, the onsite scientist with LAST at their Pacuare beach site on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Biosphere Expeditions works together with LAST, and for the fourth year in a row, an international team of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists have been actively patrolling Pacuare beach and guarding the hatchery. The hatchery held over 10,000 eggs, which amounts to over 10,000 US dollars on the black market.  Trade on international markets could even bring hundreds of dollars per egg in Asia. Given the amount of money at stake, every egg on Pacuare beach would be poached, were it not for the efforts of LAST and Biosphere Expeditions.

Turtle eggs are valued as a (fake) aphrodisiac and as a traditional cultural food in many countries in Latin America. Leatherback eggs are more popular than other sea turtle eggs, because they are the largest of all: close to the size of a pool ball. However, the eggs are high in cholesterol and can harm the health of frequent consumers.

“In a new and positive development, and due to our efforts and reports, the coast guard has started to visit the beach more often,” says Carrasco. “For example, at one point during the 2019 nesting season, ten coast guard members came and arrested two poachers. At another time they arrested one poacher and retrieved four bags of eggs from him. We re-buried the eggs in the hatchery, just in case they are able to hatch.” The coast guard also started using new thermal imaging to find poachers and turtles. “All this sends a clear message to other poachers that they are no longer able to poach at will and face the combined efforts of the law, LAST and Biosphere Expeditions”, concludes Carrasco, “it is one of the many positive outcomes from our conservation work here.”

Lucy Marcus, the project’s expedition leader adds: “This is great news as our recent annual reports have made it clear that increased law enforcement on the beach would be a very positive step forward in turtle conservation. It seems our voice is being heard!”

Marcus continues: “All in all our expedition saved 25 clutches of leatherback turtle eggs, totaling close to 2,500 eggs. We patrolled the beachers for a total of 84 hours and were on shifts in the hatcher for 42 hours. During our time here, only nine nests were poached, meaning that our success rate was 65%. Without the presence of our local partner LAST and our active conservation action of beach patrols and hatchery duty, most likely 100% of the nests would be poached or otherwise lost. I think these figures speak for themselves in terms of the important role that citizen science plays in protecting the wildlife of our beautiful, beleagured planet.”

The citizen scientists searching for turtles on the beaches are richly rewarded as well: “The chance to see the leatherback turtles and to get up close and watch them lay their eggs was a once in a lifetime experience I will always treasure”, said Cynthia Singer, a Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientist from the USA.

The full scientific report of the expedition is due to be published later in 2020. See www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports for details.

Here are some pictures of the 2019 expedition: