Citizen science: Now more than ever

By Nick Rice

The curious snuffling of a foraging trunk and the distant muffled crunching of leaves and branches, the hum of busy insects and a cotton-white blanket of morning mist hugging the dense, muggy jungle… these are some of the sensorial memories that drift into my mind when locked inside a small apartment in Barcelona during the confinement that began in March.

Just a few months earlier, the strict lockdown of my four walls was instead a remote Karen Hill Tribe village in the north of Thailand, a 5-hour drive from Chiang Mai. For nine inspiring days I stayed in Naklang, a temporary new member of its population of 450, and worked as a ‘citizen scientist’ for an elephant welfare project established by Biosphere Expeditions – a non-profit and award-winning ethical conservation organisation that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Citizen science is a relatively new term that describes lay people working alongside scientists to conduct valuable field research with the aim of improving and protecting nature and wildlife around the world.

Biosphere Expeditions has partnered with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) in Naklang, working together to rescue elephants from the often-punishing reality of elephant tourism camps in Thailand, and re-wilding as many elephants as possible.

Our team for the nine-day expedition is made up of ten people; six citizen scientists from around the globe, who are taught how to observe and collect data by the founder of KSES and their resident scientist, and guided in the field by two Biosphere Expeditions leaders.

We get to study and spend time observing KSES’s semi-wild herd of five elephants; 59-year old Too Meh and her 24-year old daughter Mae Doom, Too-Meh’s grandsons, 14-year old Dodo and the 8-year old tearaway Gen Thong, and their adopted family member, 14-year old Boon Rott.

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By studying semi-wild Asian elephants in safe and natural surroundings, Biosphere Expeditions and KSES can create a rigorous scientific report detailing diet and authentic wild behaviour – the report can then be referred to and presented as a benchmark for the proper treatment and welfare of elephants in Thailand.

Each morning, after an early breakfast and preparing our gear for the day – stopwatches, data sheets, lunch – we hike into the forest, past terraced rice paddies and water buffalo loping in the river, into the general area where the elephant herd is roaming, always within range of their respective mahouts.

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Every elephant has a close bond with their mahout – normally a local man who has known the elephant for years – and this relationship ensures that human/animal conflict is avoided and dangers such as ingesting pesticides from cornfields is mitigated. The elephants live as though they would in the wild, albeit for this human safeguard.

Once the elephants are located in the forest, the expedition team separates into smaller groups and each group collects a different set of data, covering activity, behavioural data and diet. This information will form the basis for scientific reports advising on the correct care of elephants. A concrete example of this is that the data shows that elephants consume up to 248 different types of foliage in the wild. Compare this to a tourist camp diet that may consist solely of bananas or sugar cane and the poor health implications are obvious.

In terms of behaviour, we observed over the course of the expedition how social the elephants are, spending hours of each day together, interacting in a variety of ways. In contrast, some tourist camps work the elephants for long hours and then keep them apart from each other, starving the animals of social attention and comfort.

The partnership between Biosphere Expeditions and KSES couldn’t be more vital as today there are more domestic elephants in Thailand than there are wild elephants, caused by the usual culprit of loss of habitat, combined with the cultural perception of elephants as property.

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Another aspect of the Biosphere Expeditions and KSES project is monitoring general biodiversity and fostering the participation of local people in the protection and conservation of elephants through education initiatives and community-based tourism, which prioritises the development of local communities.

The Karen people, our hosts for the expedition, are unfailingly warm and sociable, opening their homes and inviting us to join them in their daily lives. We learn about and buy examples of their traditional weaving, enjoy their food, absorb a few phrases from their ‘Pakinyaw’ language, and can understand first-hand their intimate relationship with elephants.

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Now the world has changed so dramatically, it throws into stark relief how delicate the balance between humans and nature is. The coronavirus crisis shocked the planet and triggered an unprecedented halt in ‘business as usual’ in the industrialised world. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the brief respite given to the natural world and its wildlife, with ecosystems all over the world given a chance to recover, at least momentarily.

Biosphere Expeditions have 13 projects running worldwide, ranging from leatherback turtle conservation in Costa Rica to protecting the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan, and never has their work been more vital.

Travel itself will likely change in the aftermath of COVID-19, with many people wanting to contribute towards a more conscious form of tourism. The fragility of our existence and the degradation of the planet is inarguably evident for all to see. Hopefully there will be an increase in travellers supporting community-based tourism and embracing experiences that promote social and economic growth in marginalised regions and which protect and conserve wildlife and the natural environment.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, the Founder and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions says, “We have spent the last twenty years helping to build the data that improves the chances for wildlife. And we will continue to do this essential work. Without the science underpinning our understanding of the world, we cannot make rational choices in support of its future.”

Taking part in a Biosphere Expedition is an unforgettable experience, but if it’s not possible just yet, there is always something you can do to contribute. Biosphere Expeditions have 20 tips on how to be (radically) green, and also a Do More campaign or tips on how to beat the volunteer charlatans. Also check out their 2020 Magazine, which mirrors this new development of more activism and campaigns for our planet.

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Azores: 13 sperm whales

On Monday the lookout said there were more whales than the group of six that has been here for over a week. So off we went to the south again.

The first few whales we encountered appeared to be socialising, but did not show us their flukes and , one even breached out of the water (no photo unfortunately). The next group, however, settled into a nice rhythm of up and fluke. I don’t think we had more than ten minutes without a whale at the surface. I think at one point we had nine individuals up at the same time spread over half a mile.

After sorting out the photos, I could discern 13 different individuals. So far there is only one match going back to 2009, but I still have a few more individuals to check.

The weather is looking good for the coming week, so hopefully the animals will continue to co-operate.

Azores: Risso’s dolphins, sperm & humpback whales

We spent the weekend out on the water.

Sperm whales and only sperm whales on Saturday. Something interesting is going on with the “1019” group. There was another whale seen in the area, which has never been seen with this group before. “3768”, the “newbie” was first seen in 2009 and then again last year, by me. In between, though, it has been seen a few times in Sao Miguel. So I guess only time will tell if another individual is going to join this group. Female sperm whales normally stay with the same group they were born into, while males will eventually leave when they reach their late teens. This group, however, seems to be a bit flexible. For a long time it was only “1019” and “3186”, but then a few years ago “1198”, “2234” and 2402″ joined them.

Sunday out a bit grey, but this lifted as we left the harbour. The lookout had reported sperm whales and Risso’s dolphin! He lost the Risso’s before we got to the area, but as we were passing through, I caught sight of a dorsal fin and we had found them again. This is the first time Risso’s dolphin have been sighted in 2020. We spent a bit of time getting some ID photos and then headed towards the sperm whales, only to be stopped by the lookout. “Stop, I see a shape in the water. There must be a whale close by”. So stop we did and surprise, surprise, a humpback whale appeared! It is a bit late in the year to be seeing a humpback, but not unheard of. They are usually feeding further north  at this time of year. This whale was on a mission, travelling fairly quickly to the northwest, close to the coast of Pico. Unfortunately, it did not show a fluke for the ID photo, but we did get a photo of the dorsal fin, so will have to hope someone recognises it.

Finally it was time to head to the sperm whales. The lookout sent us off São João, quite a way to the east. We put the hydrophone in and found that the whales were behind us! Oh well, it is very unusual for the lookout to get it wrong, but I guess the whales changed their mind on the direction they wanted to go to. So we had to head back the way we came. Along the way, we came across a second group of Risso’s dolphin! So maybe it is like the bus, you wait a long time and then two turn up at once 🙂

We did eventually make it to the sperm whales and they were the same group as we saw yesterday. “3768” was still there, today with a juvenile and we also saw “1198”. We didn’t have enough time to wait for the other individuals, hopefully tomorrow there will be more.

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Azores: sei whales

Thursday morning the lookout had a “small” surprise for us! A couple of sei whales travelling to the west. Unfortunately the wind and the waves made it difficult to get photos. But I did manage to get one of the dorsal fin ID pics.

Sei whales often pass the Azores a little bit later than the other baleen whales and have actually been seen from April – September. The name sei whale comes from “seje” the Norwegian word for pollock or coalfish, which appear off the coast of Norway at the same time as the sei whales.

We didn’t stay too long with the sei whales, because sperm whales were spotted a little bit further out. Off we went and once again, it was “Whitehead’s” group, although no sign of the lady herself.

It was not the easiest working conditions, blows were difficult to spot, so we had a bumpy ride back to the harbour a bit early, after snapping a photo of “2578” again.

Azores: Whitehead & striped dolphins racing

Today is the holiday of São João in the Azores (St John’s). Usually there is a big festival up by the chapel on the way to the caldeira. Not this year.

We had a lovely sunny day, even if there was a bit more breeze than forecast. We headed once again to the south of Pico, since the vigia had spotted a couple of groups of sperm whales there. We started off the lighthouse at São Mateus and arrived just after one whale had fluked, so we had to wait a bit for the next one to surface.

It was worth the wait, because as she dove, I identified her as 2578, who is part of the “Whitehead” group, one of our very well known groups of sperm whales. Unfortunately, she was heading into the wind and waves, so we decided to head towards the other groups further down the coast. But as we were about to leave, another whale surfaced. This time it was “2776”. It looks like she may be pregnant, since her shape was a bit “rounder” than normal. This would make sense, since her last calf was born in 2014 and they have a calf about every six years. Hopefully we will see a calf soon. “Whitehead” herself will have to wait for another day.

On the way to the other group of sperm whales, we came across a group of striped dolphin. They were not very interested in the boats and decided to go off at speed. This behaviour gives us the opportunity to get some amazing photos as they go. We do not chase the animals to get them to do this behaviour. Just before the dolphins, we spotted a loggerhead turtle basking at the surface.

Then it was time for some more sperm whales. There were two groups, one closer to the coast and one further offshore. We stopped by the offshore group and got two flukes before it was time to head for home. This group I do not know off the top of my head, so will have to run them through the matching program.

The weather looks good, so hopefully we will be out a few more times in the next few days. Maybe will even photograph “Whitehead’s” fluke!

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Pandemics result from destruction of nature, say UN and WHO

Experts call for legislation and trade deals worldwide to encourage green recovery

Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International, and the world has been ignoring this stark reality for decades.

The illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places were still the driving forces behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans, the leaders told the Guardian.

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Azores: gotcha!

It bit choppier than expected yesterday (Thursday), but the lookout had seen sperm whales, so off we went. Once again, we were headed to the south of Pico, off the town of São João.

We stopped and put the hydrophone in just to make sure and, yup, we were close. The whales we could hear were a bit farther to the southeast, so we headed that way, only to have the lookout shout “Blow, behind you”! And sure enough about 300 m behind us, a sperm whale had surfaced. When they are getting ready to come up to the surface they stop clicking, which is why it wasn’t detected on the hydrophone. As we maneuvered to get around behind the whale, I thought I recognised the white marks on the dorsal from the other day. Sure enough when it fluked, it was “1198”, one of our well known females that had first been seen in 1989. This was very promising, “1019” has been seen with her the last few years and we missed her the other day. The second and third whales were also well known: “3186” aka “Bearpaw” and “2234”. We then spotted “1198” again, this time she had a calf with her, displaying suckling behaviour; arching up and diving next to the female’s dorsal fin. Then we saw “3186” once again. We decided we would watch one more, before heading back to Horta. Blow, this time a little closer to the shore. The dorsal fin was different to the others we had seen and looked familiar. “1019”!!! Yes! She was first seen in 1988, the same year that I started studying the whales and dolphins in the Azores. So she and “1198” are at least 40 years old, because when they were first sighted, they were identified as adults, rather than juveniles.

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So off we headed back to Horta, with the lookout trying to find dolphins. And find them he eventually did! You can see from the track of the boat when we took a “hard left”! A couple miles further offshore from our course we found a group of spotted dolphin. These were the first spotted dolphin of 2020!! There were some very small calves in the group and they were riding the bow as they travelled towards the west against the waves. What a finale!

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What will the next trip bring? Watch this space. Thank you once more to Biosphere Expeditions, and everyone who has contributed to their appeal, for the funding to make these outings possible!

All pictures (c) Whale Watch Azores

The virus is both a chance and a challenge

As the coronavirus pandemic has a stranglehold on the planet, travel plans have had to be cancelled everywhere. Even those where people help nature conservationists during their holiday time as citizen scientists.

Peter Laufmann spoke to Executive Director Dr. Matthias Hammer.
(this is a translation from the original article in German in natur magazine)

Dr. Matthias Hammer, Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions

Laufmann: The corona pandemic seems to be giving nature some breathing space. That must please you as a nature conservationists, right?
Dr Hammer: Of course! I am very happy about nature being given a chance to recover for a change, instead of the continuous assault of the last decades. There is also the hope that humanity as a whole will stop to ponder for a while. That we realize it is possible to work from home, to fly around less, etc.

What’s the situation like in nature conservation?
Well, for us, for our citizen science / wildlife conservation expeditions, the effect is of course that we won’t be able to carry out any projects in 2020. But that is the lesser of two evils. The bigger evil is the situation of our local partners.

How come?
It is much worse for our local partner organisations. In the developed world, we can apply for state aid. Besides, we are a very lean organization. We don’t have large offices which we have to pay rent for and the like. Our running costs are very low. State aid, as limited as it may be, helps us a lot. But our local partners are in a difficult situation. There, there are by and large no such programs. And much of their income has disappeared. For example in Enonkishu, a conservancy in Kenya, their main income is the fees that tourists pay when they come into the reserve. This has dropped to zero practically overnight, so they now have a reall challenge on their hands to keep paying their rangers and other staff. And if no rangers are being paid, how do they fight poaching? Not only that: the increasing poverty through the crisis also increases the pressure from poaching as cash-strapped people go in search for bushmeat, for example.

So what does this mean?
There are two sides to it: It’s both a chance and a challenge. On the one hand, it’s a chance for nature to recover, because there are no visitors. In the Red Sea, for example, the water is clear and the reefs are recovering, as the ecosystem remains largely on its own, because of course there are no divers or tourists causing disturbance. On the other hand, the lack of money is a real problem, as I explained earlier. Conservation costs money.

How can we counteract this? Both on a large scale and you with Biosphere Expeditions?
We are a relatively small organisation. Our influence is correspondingly small. At best we can do something on the ground with our partners and bring money and, of course, manpower to advance their conservation projects. But since this has now ground to a halt, we have also started a fundraising campaign. Our project partners have written a few lines about what they currently need money for; where their need is greatest. And I have been surprised by how generous people are despite, and perhaps because of the crisis. For our partners this really is a godsend in their hour of need.

How does Biosphere Expeditions deal with the fact that there are now those calling for a fundamental change in the way we travel?
Air travel in itself is of course bad for the environment. There is no question about that. If there are no contrails in the sky, everyone has a basic understanding that this must be good for the planet.

How does Biosphere Expeditions deal with this dilemma?
We have several approaches. First, it is a fundamental concern of ours to eliminate ourselves in the long run. In other words, we want to advance projects to a point where we are no longer needed. Take the Maldives, for example: via expeditions there for eight years, we have established a non-profit organisation (www.reefcheckmaldives.org), which is now entirely run by locals. The reef research that we have done with volunteers is now under their leadership. Point two is that we encourage our participants to offset their carbon footprint. I am aware that this is also under criticism, but as part of the mix, I believe it is a positive thing. We as an organisation naturally compensate for the CO2 our activities produce as well. Thirdly, we must not forget that the alternative to tourism is often the chainsaw or total overfishing. In other words, nature conservation takes place because there’s an economic benefit for local people to intact wildlife and wild places. This is what we conservationists call the ‘what pays, stays’ principle, whether it is via safari tourists or through citizen science projects. It’s too shortsighted to reduce everything down to CO2 exclusively, although we must keep an eye on this. The world is more complicated than just CO2 budgets.

How will the pandemic influence your citizen scientist projects?
That’s a difficult question to answer. The crisis will be with us for a long time; years rather than months. We have contingency plans in case expeditions are still impossible right through to 2022. How people’s behaviour will change… I wouldn’t want to predict this as this is not my area of expertise. But I do believe that the desire to do something useful in your holiday time will keep increasing in people. This was already evident before the pandemic and will hopefully get a further boost now.

Is this the end of tourism?
I am afraid not. As soon as lockdown restrictions are relaxed, people will by and large fall back into old habits. Still, it would be nice if humankind could become significantly more mindful through this crisis.

What should politicians do to support nature conservation and environmental protection in times like these?
On no account lower environmental standards! Under no circumstances save the big polluters. The money that is saved by not bailing out destructive corporations should be put to good use elsewhere in combating climate, the other and more dangerous challenge humanity faces, and preventing destruction of wildlife and wild places. We need the planet as the basis of all life and economic activity. For on a run-down planet, there will be no life worth living and no economy to speak of.

How does someone use their time during lockdown?
There are lots of ways to help from home as well. Citizen science also works during lockdown. You could for example analyze photos of animals or galaxies, or provide computing power for virus research. The possibilities are endless.

(c) Peter Laufmann