Arabia: Round-up and pictures 2019

Biosphere Expeditions returned to Dubai in 2019 for its eight consecutive expedition to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). A group of 17 citizen scientists from six different countries, including two local placements from the UAE, spent two weeks working in the reserve collecting ecological data on the wildlife and habitats within the DDCR.

Greg Simkins, the DDCR Manager, comments on the expedition: “It is great to have citizen scientists from Biosphere Expeditions coming back year after year, as it gives us an opportunity to collect a large amount of data over a short period of time that can be compared between years to determine changes in species population sizes and vegetation communities”.

During the expedition, the expeditioners worked closely with Greg and the other DDCR staff, including Moayyed Sher Shah, the DDCR Conservation Officer, who provided training during the initial phase of the expedition and then assisted the newly trained citizen scientists out in the field. Moayyed says: “This was my first year working with Biosphere Expeditions and it was a great experience to be involved with such a motivated and enthusiastic group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds”.

Whenever possible Biosphere Expeditions provide opportunities for local students or early career conservationists and this year’s expedition was joined by Areej Jaradat from the UAE. Areej has studied environmental science, but previously found it difficult to get field work experience. The expedition gave her an opportunity to confirm she would enjoy the life of a wildlife conservationist working out in the field. Areej has volunteered to assist Moayyed with the analysis of several thousand camera trap images captured during the course of the expedition. This analysis, amongst other things, recorded the presence of the rare Gordon’s wildcat in the reserve, the first confirmed sighting in several years, as well as rare lappet-faced vultures.

The data collected during the expedition will help the DDCR formulate management plans for the reserve and its wildlife populations. The expedition also provided a great opportunity for citizen scientists from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities to experience the stunning environment and wildlife of the Arabian desert.

The expedition was kindly supported with vehicles, fuel and a desert dinner by Arabian Adventures. Dr. Matthias Hammer, executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, is “very grateful for this significant support by Arabian Adventures whose 4×4 cars are an invaluable tool for the expedition.”

Thailand: Wrapping up

We still had another early day of data surveying to get under our belt, and Sunday was that day with alarm clocks sounding off from 04:30.

After some strong coffee and toast, at we set off at 06:00 into the dark once more with our headlamps, data sheets, permanent markers, thermometers, stopwatches, cameras and packed lunches.

We met the elephants in the cooling mist at the top of a hilly field around 07:15. We had some time to kill before our surveys was to start at 08:00, so we just enjoyed watching them move around and socialise with each other. We also heard the whine of mopeds and pickup trucks getting farmers to their daily working in the rice paddys, all of them slowing down to get a glimpse of the magnificent beasts.

Not long after starting our work, Dodo, who had Anna surveying him for the morning, was standing over by a bamboo gate. His mahout had closed it to allow all the traffic get by earlier on, but now Dodo seemed keen to be out, gently using his trunk to touch various things on the other side, like some bushes and one of the mahouts mopeds. But when Dodo knocked a moped over with just a tickle of his trunk, the message was heard and he, Anna and his mahout were off, not to be seen until lunch time.

Boon Rott, who didn’t seem to be in the the mood for socialising, kept himself busy with Henning in the top corner of the field foraging away. Getting as close as Henning would allow, sniffing his boots and the breeze.

Down in the bottom corner the rest of us watched Too Meh, Mae Doom and Gen Thong, as they foraged in the grass and bushes for tasty things to eat. The point of which is to see how many different types of plant they like to consume, and make a database. This all goes toward evidence that shows that elephants in captivity need a varied diet, and not just a few different types of leaves and bananas. The database currently shows over 200 different plants.

As we were done with our work by midday, we all stole an afternoon to ourselves to enjoy. Between us we wove scarfs, weaved baskets, sewed up worn-out dungarees and had every muscle in the human body pummelled, flattened, elbowed and squeezed by a local man, who does a mean Thai massage.

All good things come to an end, and Monday was our last chance to survey the herd. With a far more agreeable observation start time today of 10:00, we had a leisurely breakfast and set off on our way.

Not long into our survey, a tractor made its way along a track, smoothing it over after the rain had churned it up a couple of days ago. The sound of clanking metal and the low rumbling of the diesel engine caused Mae Doom, Too Meh, Boon Rott and Gen Thong to act skittish. Mae Doom started trumpeting, the sound was incredible and filled the valley to the brim. The three of them made their way to the river at the bottom of the hill, where they spent the next couple of hours mud bathing next to the water. We could hear their communication using a deep guttural rumbling sound. Gen Thong was looking restless, and keen to play, but had to content himself with his own company, and join in the foraging.

We finished up our final day surveying sitting there watching them. It seemed to be the hottest day of the whole expedition.

Alex collated all our data into a presentation showing us what all our hard work has been about. We then had our final evening meal together, followed by a lovely surprise. That evening ‘Loy Krathong’, or the festival of light, was happening. All the children in the village (and our very own Nick, who’s on first name terms with nearly everyone) had made floats to send down the river after dark. They were made from halved cucumbers, hollowed out, and adorned with banana leaf sails, held in place with bamboo skewers, then a finishing decoration of pretty flowers, candles and incense. The children then made their way down to the river, where, with the help of a few adults, they lit the candles and incense and let them float away into the night. We watched them from the rope bridge leading to out base, as they sailed underneath us, gently meandering down the river and out of sight.

Malika and I like to thank everyone who was involved making this whole expedition possible. Kerri for smoothly organising base and activities in the village, Talia and Alex for staying on top of the science. The amazing cooks who’ve kept us happy with the most delicious Thai cooking. Our delightful homestay hosts who welcomed us in their homes and all the villagers of Naklang who have been incredibly warm to throughout. The mahouts, who spend their time, day in, day out, with the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way and us safe during our surveys. And last but not least our great thanks go out to this year’s expeditioners for putting time and sweat and money into a unique project that wouldn’t happen without people like you. We both hope that you’ve enjoyed your time here with the elephants as much as we did.

Safe travels back home or enjoy your onwards travelling. We hope to see some of you again some time somewhere on this beautiful planet earth.

Anthony & Malika

Thailand: Elephant antics

On Friday we had a later start to our surveying at noon, this is to allow us, over the time of all our surveys, to observe the elephants throughout a whole day. We set off at 10:00, just as the torrential rain started. Within a couple of minutes the paths through the village and to the elephants morphed into a grade 1 kayak rapid. But we did make it to the elephants.

When we arrived, it was clear that the behaviour we had observed yesterday with Mae Doom and Boon Rott was probably due to Mae Doom coming into estrous (heat). The elephants made their way on to the steep slopes of the forest and began the daily task of pulling down bamboo sprouts and chomping between 200-400 kg of leaves, bark, branches, wild flowers and herbs. There was a bit of excitement when a woman herding buffalo panicked at the sight of the elephants and ran away, leaving the buffalos to work it out for themselves, which, it turns out spooked the elephants a little. Thankfully one of the mahouts, Leo, took care of the buffaloes and another mahout took Gen Thong and Mae Doom down the steep-sloped forest to the river, out of harm’s way. Kerri, Anna, Anneke and myself followed them as they eventually made their way back to Too Meh, the faithful matriarch of the herd, who had missed all the excitement, and was taking advantage of some peace and quiet and had been foraging, blissfully unaware.

Nick had been with Dodo, who once again was heading along a track toward a village way off in the distance and Henning was with Boon Rott, who was contented with foraging in the forest until his mahout led him to the river for a long drink.

When we all met up to head back to camp, Malika and Bianca told us that they had seen the woman who fled, leaving her buffalo. She was still anxiously looking down into the wood and wondering if the elephants were still there…

Saturday morning, part of the group (Anna, Anneke, Alex, Bianca and Anthony) left straight after breakfast to do a biodiversity trail.  Our task was to space ourselves 1 m apart and face in alternating directions on a 200 m transect and count all arthropods you can see within a 30 sec period before moving along, until you reach the end of the run.

Then our group reformed for elephant surveying. Anneke was watching Boon Rott bathing in a muddy puddle up in the hills. Mae Doom and Too Meh were foraging in a large sloping field, joined by young Gen Thong, who seemed to forever be in the middle of them both, acting restlessly and having a few comedy stroppy moments, rolling around on the floor looking for attention. For those of us watching them, Anna, Gesa, Henning and Malika, it was  interesting and amusing at the same time. Alex and Nick, meanwhile, were not in the jungle following the elephants through thick and thin, but were observing from the comfort and shade of a farmer’s hut perched in a perfect viewpoint at the top off the hill… 😉


Thailand: Elephants in the morning mist

With our training sessions complete, our team of citizen scientists set forth into the mountains to have their first encounter with the elephants and put faces and trunks to the names. After a 90 minutes walk from the base we found all five elephants socialising together in a large hilly clearing in the forest. We have two females, Too Meh (59 yo) and her daughter Mae Doom (25), and three males, Too-Meh’s grandsons Dodo (15) & Gen Thong (8), as well as Boon Rott (15), who is not related with the others. We had heard that over the last few month the elephants have been separating themselves into male and female groups, so it was a was a nice surprise to see them all together.

We spent the rest of the morning practicing our theory and learning how to identify each individual whilst taking down all the data correctly. After a picnic lunch in the forest, we walked back to the village. Back at base we practiced data entry into the computer.

In the afternoon the team was introduced to the biodiversity trail activity. In her presentation Alex explained the background of the science, the methodology and the species we are supposed to look out for and record on the datasheets.

On Thursday we went out to do our first full day survey, followed by an early morning on Friday to survey the elephants at first light. `In order to get a full picture of what our study objects are doing between 8:00 in the morning and 16:00 in the afternoon the survey hours change every day. Our goal is to complete two full data sets of every hour within. For the early morning survey, we set off in the dark with torch light and found the heard in the morning mist. Dodo led Anneke off into the forrest away from there rest of the group, never to be seen again – well, not until lunchtime. Henning was observing Too Meh, who led him down to the river and out of sight. Malika, Anna, Nick, Bianca, Anthony and Gesa, along with Kerri and Alex, all watched the story of the ever flirtatious Mae Doom and the ever ready Boon Rott having all their plans dashed by the constant interruptions of adolescent Gen Thong, who made sure to kill the mood by reversing into the middle of the couple. We’ll keep you posted if there’s any developments…


Thailand: Training

It seems the drought that we mentioned in the last entry has taken short hiatus today as we were awaiting the arrival of the team in the bus.

They arrived at the base (only an hour or so late, due to a heavy downpour) all ready for action. Our team of citizen scientists this year come from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. They’ve all been made welcome by their homestay hosts and moved into their new lodgings,  dropped off their bags and had the first of many amazing Thai meals made by our lovely local cooks.

After lunch we all sat down and talked through the philosophy of Biosphere Expeditions (Safety, Science and Satisfaction), leading in to an in-depth risk assessment. We then spent the rest of the day learning about the history of the project, our local partner KSES, and how record data out in the field. We carried on our classes after dinner, learning what to look for whilst surveying the elephants. With this all in mind, the team is ready to get up into the hills tomorrow morning and the meet the elephants for the first time…

Thailand: Opener

Hello everyone, my name is Malika and I will be leading this year’s Thailand elephant expedition. It’s my third time here in the remote Karen hill tribe village, working together with Kerri from our local partners organisation KSES and Talia, the expedition scientist. This year we also have with us Anthony, expedition leader in training and Alex, KSES’s project assistant.

Anthony and I flew into Chiang Mai a couple of days ago and proceeded straight to the village on Saturday morning. We found the village nestling between lush green vegetation, although apparently the past rainy season has been too dry. Since we are now in the middle of the dry season, it has not been raining for weeks, they say. The air is still humid, especially in the evening hours outside on our meeting, eating and working platform. Please don’t forget to bring long sleeves not only to keep you cosy & warm, but also to protect you from mosquitoes that are most active during sunset.

The four of us have spent the last couple of days sorting out equipment, preparing datasheets, printing and laminating picture sheets, talking through activities and work schedules. We are looking forward to you, our citizen scienitsts, to join us here and complete the team. Our study subjects, the elephants are currently roaming an area about 90 min away from base. Some good hikes are waiting for us! 😉

Not much more to report for now. Talia will meet the team tomorrow morning in the Lobby of the Mercure Hotel in Chiang Mai.

The hills are alive with elephants, they are calling you and I will see you there tomorrow.


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.