We have so far run four expeditions (Azores, Sweden, Maldives, Malawi) successfully without Covid incidences and two more expeditions (Germany, Tien Shan) with incidences, but where our procedures worked and allowed us to continue and finish the expedition as planned. Procedures as mentioned in the September update remain in place and more information and answers to frequently asked questions are here.
Everyone still on the deferral list can now choose an expedition until the end of 2025, giving them ample of time to select an expedition that they want to come on. All they need to do is tell us which expedition and group they want to defer to – we will do the rest.
The Malawi 2022 biodiversity expedition has finished, with 12 satisfied and cheerful expeditioners loaded onto a coach to take them back to Lilongwe. This has been an expedition that kept on giving. The last couple of days gave us more elephant herds to record, more hippo counts, more elephant dung to sift through, more ants to study under a microscope, more camera trap images to view and more wildlife encounters.
The day after our discovery of the super herd of elephants reported in the last blog, we came across a super herd of Cape buffalo – maybe 100 animals quietly milling about in the dark.
Our last elephant survey gave us a beautiful hour with a family herd drinking and splashing in the lake before wandering off, leaving a large bull elephant browsing on a marula tree, blocking our way and in no hurry to move on. We waited patiently until he did wander into the trees with sufficient distance and lack of interest in us to allow us to slowly drive past, with a wide berth. So we thought. A large bull elephant can turn and charge with impressive speed, we discovered. We made a hasty 100 metre retreat in reverse gear to give the elephant the personal space he clearly needed and continued to watch him until we could circumnavigate him, successfully this time, and continue on our way to look for more animals.
A celebratory sundowner by the lake that evening was a fitting end to a successful and very enjoyable expedition. Back at base camp, Brenda and Phonice, our marvellous cooks, served up a wonderful last meal for us. Benni, our expedition scientist from LWT, summarised our expedition field research achievements and thanked us for the hard work we had put in and the impressive amount of research data this had produced.
Our initial headline results are:
42 herds or individual elephants counted, with a total of 458 individual elephants
6 hippo transects completed, with an average total hippo count of 116 hippos
976 seeds sifted (and photographed) from 38 samples of elephant dung
Over 40,000 individual camera trap images uploaded and catalogued
117 samples of invertebrates collected and preserved, giving 2161 identification pictures of ants that are relevant for pangolin food
A big thank you also from me, your expedition leader, to all involved – from LWT to Park staff and rangers, to cooks and helpers, to citizen scientists. There are too many to name individually, but you know who you are. This expedition would not be possible without you and I thank you for making it a success.
The team peacefully sitting in base camp checking camera trap images, studying ants under a microscope and sifting through fresh elephant dung were interrupted a moment ago by the VHF radio. LWT staff member Pili, leading the rest of the Biosphere team on a lakeside transect walk to count hippos, was calling for a rescue. The small group of our citizen scientists had been trapped by a herd of elephants on the floodplain. With good experience of elephant behaviour, Pili kept the team safe without problems, but they were blocked from walking back to camp by the elephants. At base camp, Benni and a couple of helpers jumped into a vehicle and set off to intercept and evacuate our trapped and intrepid citizen scientists. Not quite an everyday experience, but still, very much the kind of thing that can happen on an expedition that deserves its name.
The Malawi 2022 biodiversity expedition is in its last days, but there is no sign of it winding down. If anything, the team is operating at its best now: after initial training and many days of experience, the expedition is a well-oiled machine, with animal observations, sample collection & analysis, as well as data entry all being carried out with speed, efficiency and a smidgin of pride.
Each day starts with a dawn drive along the lakeside to look for elephants. Nobody has told the elephants this and so we have rarely spotted them at this time of day, but those of us happy to get up at 05:00 are rewarded with the sights and sounds of Malawian wildlife in the warm light of sunrise. All the team are up for breakfast at 07:00 and after that we split into research groups doing different research tasks for the day.
Driving and walking to observe elephants and hippos (and recording herd / pod size and composition) is a daily task. The hippos are easier to count: they tend to stay, semi-submerged in the muddy lake all day. The elephants come and go according to their own schedules and it is always a delight to come across them (sometimes they come across us, first, see above). We see matriarch-led family herds of up to 12 regularly, as well as solo or small groups of bull elephants alone or following a family herd at a distance. Yesterday, our afternoon elephant count team found a super-herd of more than 100 elephants milling about between the lake and the woodland. This could be as much as a third of all of the elephant population of the Vwaza Marsh Reserve and was clearly a thrilling encounter for those of us lucky enough to witness it. As with all our elephant sightings, the experience of watching these animals interact with each other (and with us) is endlessly absorbing and wonderful. So much so that we have to dig deep to find the discipline to do our job of recording what we see.
We also collect elephant dung. This is more fun and useful than it sounds. Measuring the diameter of fresh dung boli gives an analog of elephant age (we have a look-up table for this) and the contents of the dung, once sifted, cleaned, dried and analysed, tell us what the elephant has been eating. Our findings so far suggest that the elephants are not eating crops that are grown outside the nature reserve and so giving us a (tentative) happy conclusion that the reserve fence is doing its job and that human-elephant conflict is decreasing.
We have also collected the first set of photos from our 16 camera traps set up at strategic locations around our part of the reserve, giving us some evidence of the range of animals living here. Many of them are well known and expected, but it is no less thrilling to find images of hippos, elephants and antelope caught on camera, usually at night. Occasional photos of something more notable tend to bring about a shriek of excitement from whoever is sitting at a laptop diligently checking and cataloguing all the camera trap images. Our first haul of camera trap images have revealed good images of leopards, hyaenas, buffalo and porcupine.
We also look for animals at night, using spotlights from the back of a pickup, and in the daytime simply by looking around – and have been rewarded with sightings of crocodiles and a monitor lizard by the lake, a multitude of birds from eagles to canaries (alongside the ubiquitous screech of the Hadida ibis) and many pairs of eyes shining back at us at night. We have seen genets, mongooses and a couple of civets this ay. Pairs of eyes in the trees at night that suddenly jump a startling long distance are usually bushbabies, who can also entertain us with unnerving shrieks in the dark.
All in all the expedition team are doing brilliantly – they are very good at doing all of the research tasks (including sorting through countless ants on a petri dish to establish the potential good Pangolin diet). There is wistful talk around the campfire at sunset, about wanting to stay on for another week. And now, the rescue team has returned (the right number of people I note with some relief), all in good spirits with a story to tell and photos to share and the expedition continues.