Status update March 2021 – No expeditions in 2021, concentrating on restarting in 2022

We have taken the decision to defer all 2021 expeditions to 2022 and to concentrate on restarting in 2022.

Here are our reasons:

  • We, as an organisation, want to be a responsible global citizen. We do not  want to contribute to spreading the virus and prolonging the pandemic.
  • When we conducted a straw poll amongst some of our 2021 expeditioners, the results were clear. A majority did not feel comfortable with going on expedition in 2021 and were keen to defer to 2022.
  • Keeping expeditioners and local partners guessing and hoping about 2021 is neither a good, nor a fair, nor a professional strategy. Our partners and many expeditioners agree that concentrating on 2022 instead is preferable.
  • Many expeditioners and staff from around the world are unlikely to be vaccinated until mid to late 2021 or even (much) later and we do not want to expose them to unnecessary risk. In addition, more research needs to be done on whether those vaccinated can still pass on the virus. Early research suggests that virus transmission is much reduced, but we want to be sure before exposing local people to international expedition teams and vice versa.
  • Social distancing within an expedition setting is very difficult and sometimes simply impossible (for example on research boats, in 4×4 vehicles, mess tents, expedition base accommodation, etc.).
  • Even if expedition teams could be vaccinated, large and unpredictable vagaries around travel remain. Participants could be required to quarantine on arrival in the expedition country as well as on their return back home. This makes travelling to/from an expedition an unreasonable proposition for most.
  • If only one person tested positive on expedition, quarantine regulations of the host country would apply, which is likely to result in missed flights and significant extra costs for all participants, let alone health implications.
  • Finally – and entirely unsurprisingly – there has been next to zero interest in 2021 expeditions this January/February, a period which usually sees a peak in interest and signups. Any interest there has been, was in expeditions in early 2022, already on our portfolio. With no new signups and those already signed up for 2021 deferring to 2022 in large numbers, 2021 expeditions are becoming increasingly unviable, whatever the pandemic will do over the next few months.
  • Our conclusion is therefore that expeditions with involvement of international citizen scientists are well-nigh impossible in 2021. Our local conservation partners and a large majority of our expeditioners agree.
  • Therefore, we have deferred all expeditions to 2022 with immediate effect. Dates for all 2022 expeditions are now online. Please join us now and support our work!

Having said all this, no expeditions in 2021 – and therefore next to no income – means that our survival is at stake. At the time of writing, we still have €5,165 to raise for our survival appeal to ensure we make it to 2022.

Please contribute, if you can!

Status update February 2021

The following conversation with expeditioners for our Sweden, Germany and Armenia expeditions, planned for June/July, will give you a good indication of where things are headed at the moment. We do not think this will change until at least autumn 2021, probably even later.

In a nutshell, a majority of expeditioners do not feel comfortable with the idea of being on expedition in June/July. Social distancing on expedition is an issue, as are questions over travel to/from the host country and what happens when returning home. Many expeditioners have already opted to defer to 2022 because of these issues.

As a result, Sweden and Armenia are now extremely likely to be deferred and we are working with partners on 2022 dates now. Germany may be consolidated into one team only in June 2021, or it may be postponed to the autumn of 2021. We are working on these options now.

Full details of the conversation and straw poll results below:

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From: Biosphere Expeditions [mailto:info@biosphere-expeditions.org]
Sent: 16 February 2021 06:32
Subject: June/July expeditions Sweden/Germany/Armenia IV

Dear expeditioners for Sweden/Germany/Armenia

All but a couple of you have now replied, thank you, and the results are clear:

A two-thirds majority of you support making vaccination a requirement. A majority of those who are not sure also tend towards vaccination. Only 7% are against.

Close to half of you are tending towards deferment to 2022 or have deferred already. Those unsure also tend towards deferment by about 70%. Less than a quarter of you are still keen to come on expedition this June/July.

Your opinions about and actions towards deferment mean that Sweden and Armenia are now extremely unlikely to run in 2021 as too many of you have deferred to 2022 already to make the 2021 expeditions viable (and because we are expecting zero recruitment to those expeditions for 2021 under the current circumstances). We are working with our partners on 2022 dates and will keep everyone informed.

For Germany, the ranks are thinning too for 2021 and as such we are looking at two options: (1) Consolidating into one team in July 2021 or (2) in autumn 2021. We will let the Germany team know about these options and their dates soon and then take it from there.

Thank you for working with us on this. We will now communicate with each expedition team individually about options and dates.

Regards

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director
Biosphere Expeditions

—–Original Message—–
From: Biosphere Expeditions [mailto:info@biosphere-expeditions.org]
Sent: 14 February 2021 11:22
Subject: June/July expeditions Sweden/Germany/Armenia III

Dear expeditioners for Sweden/Germany/Armenia

Most of you have now responded, thank you (latest results are attached). We’re still missing answers from quite a lot of the Sweden expeditioners and a smattering of the other expeditions, so if you can, please write to us with your thoughts.

Quite a few of you have also taken these updates to think about their participation and have opted to defer to 2022 already.

YOUR biggest concern seems to be travel / quarantine restrictions to get to the host country and back. Of course, it is unknowable today what the situation will be like in June/July. Needless to say that we will keep monitoring this.

WE share this concern and also two others. Firstly, whether social distancing will be possible and realistic on some expeditions (for example Sweden and Germany, where we have people share rooms and there are not enough to put everyone in singles). Secondly, whether – given the deferrals we have had already – there will be enough people left to run a particular expedition.

We’ll keep you updated about developments and will also send you final straw poll results in due course.

Regards

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director
Biosphere Expeditions

—–Original Message—–
From: Biosphere Expeditions [mailto:info@biosphere-expeditions.org]
Sent: 13 February 2021 08:53
Subject: June/July expeditions Sweden/Germany/Armenia II

Dear expeditioners for Sweden/Germany/Armenia

Thank you to those who have written back. Preliminary results of 24 out of 62 possible responses to date are attached and contain a clear message thus far.

Those who are undecided about 2021 or 2022 cite various reasons, the main ones being restrictions inside the host country as well as travel restrictions there and back. Many are unsure whether they are allowed to leave their home country or whether they will be required to quarantine on arrival in the host country or indeed when they return back home. This is a good reflection of the uncertainty around travel that prevails at the moment and is something that is unlikely to change for a while as various virus mutations make their way around the globe with countries racing to curb their spread and to vaccinate as quickly as possible in parallel.

For Armenia, the recent war is a worry also. Our response to that is that (1) the latest round of fighting is over and (2) there is now a ceasefire agreement akin to the one in 1994, which provided a generation of relative stability and (3) that whatever hostilities there have been since the 1980s, our proposed expedition study site has never been in dispute or affected by any hostilities.

Interestingly, fear of infection does not seem to play any role at all.

If you have not replied yet, please do let us have your thoughts.

Regards

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director
Biosphere Expeditions

—–Original Message—–
From: Biosphere Expeditions [mailto:info@biosphere-expeditions.org]
Sent: 11 February 2021 08:42
Subject: June/July expeditions Sweden/Germany/Armenia

Dear expeditioners for Sweden/Germany/Armenia

As you might have seen on https://t1p.de/ec2z, we have now deferred all 2021 expeditions until June. In June/July, we have our expeditions to Sweden, Germany & Armenia scheduled.

Whilst our strategy to decide about the feasibility of each expedition 6-8 weeks in advance only still stands (also see https://t1p.de/ec2z), we would like to ask your opinion on future strategies in this e-mail.

Early indications that vaccinations also significantly hamper virus transmission are good and encouraging (see https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55913913). So one option could be to require proof of vaccination as a prerequisite for taking part in an expedition.

Now, we are all of different ages, have different ailments, backgrounds and jobs and will therefore be in different risk groups. We also all hail from different countries with varying speeds of vaccination and priority groups.

So today we have three questions for you:

1. What do you think of requiring a vaccination in order to take part?

2. Are you likely to have had two vaccination doses by the time your expedition group starts?

3. Are you minded to defer to a later expedition if a vaccination is required or are you minded to defer anyway, because you don’t feel comfortable with going on expedition in June/July (or don’t think it will be possible)?

Please just press reply to share your thoughts on all this with us. Replying is of course optional and will help us to come up with a suitable strategy going forward. No decisions have been made yet and this e-mail is meant to involve you and make sure your voice is heard as we move forward and make further decision.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Regards

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director
Biosphere Expeditions

Things that have come out of our Altai snow leopard expedition

Biosphere Expeditions ran a snow leopard expedition to the Saylyugem area of the Altai Republic (Russia) from 2003-2012. We would have continued, had it not been for Russia introducing its ‘foreign agents’ law in November 2012, which made continuing expeditions with international citizen scientists impossible.

However, the expedition and its publications helped to provide the scientific base and impetus for authorities to act. All this has, in recent years, come to fruition in an impressive success story for conservation.

Shortly after the end of the expedition, the Saylyugemsky National Park was established, with its Saylyugem Mountain section roughly corresponding to the expedition study area. One of the aims of the park was to protect vulnerable argali mountain sheep and the endangered snow leopard, which is exactly what our scientific reports argued for. Needless to say that we were very pleased with that outcome.

Since then, the snow leopard population in the park has bounced back and there are now regular camera trap records of snow leopards, including females with cubs and resident males. Most of these records are made by the park authorities, Russian researchers and WWF Russia, who are permitted to work in the area.

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There has also been a rare live sighting on a mountainside, recorded in this video:

The argali population remains precarious and vulnerable to poaching, as does the Siberian ibex population. This lack of prey is a challenge to the snow leopards, as evidenced by recent findings that resident males cover distances of more than 100 km without tracking back on themselves – a very high and unusual distance for snow leopards to cover in this way. The inference is that they are forced to do this in search of large ungulate prey, which continues to be rare in the area.

In another development, also initiated by the expedition and argued for in our expedition reports, the involvement of local people in nature protection continues successfully.

There is now a joint snow leopard conservation project between WWF Russia, the National Park and local people. Local people are involved in – and paid for – camera-trapping, enforcement of environmental legislation and other conservation activities. These activities provide alternative means of income based on conservation and intact nature, and through this local poachers are, little by little, converted to conservationists who by 2020 had installed, checked and maintained 30+ cameras traps over an area of more than 300,000 hectares. These camera traps in 2020 alone recorded 74 incidences of snow leopards in the Kosh-Agach region of the Altai Republic.

All this is good news for snow leopards in particular and nature conservation in general. Biosphere Expeditions is proud to have played its part in getting this success story up and running.