Seventh annual citizen science expedition to the DDCR impresses with rare findings

January 2018 saw Biosphere Expeditions’ seventh annual citizen science expedition to and in collaboration with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). Participants from all over the world helped to collect ecological data on rare desert species. This will help DDCR management to define conservation management objectives in the future. Greg Simkins, the DDCR’s manager, says that ”Biosphere Expeditions not only provides us with an opportunity to engage with citizen scientists from a variety of countries to highlight our conservation work. Our joint annual survey expedition also enables us to make a rapid assessment of important species and their distribution within the DDCR each year”.

Expeditioners assessed Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelle populations, monitored the status of fox dens, mapped plant distribution, set live and camera traps, and recorded fauna by observation.

Camera traps took over 4.500 pictures including several of the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), a bird species that has only ever been recorded in the UAE on three occasions. In total over fifty species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants were recorded by the expedition team.

Expedition leader Malika Fettak says that “this was a very successful expedition working with enthusiastic people that share a common goal. Everyone on the team put a lot into the project and was rewarded with fantastic results of two live captures of Arabian red fox and the exceptionally rare proof of cinereous vulture within the DDCR.” Andy Trace, a citizen science participant from the UK, agrees: “I really felt like a scientist and I am certain our efforts are going to help the DDCR’s conservation goals.”

Early examination of the expedition results suggest that Arabian oryx and Arabian fox populations in the DDCR are healthy and continuing to expand. A detailed report of the expedition findings will be published in August 2018. Biosphere Expeditions and the DDCR look forward to many more annual survey expeditions to help wildlife and conservation in the unique place that is the DDCR.

The expedition was kindly supported by Platinum Heritage.

A selection of pictures and videos from the expedition is below:

 

Field update from our our Arabian desert expedition

The team has now left the DDCR, base camp is packed up and stored for next year and all that’s left is this final diary entry to conclude a successful expedition.

We were a relatively small team this year and we are extremely grateful for all the hard work everyone has put in to get through the survey schedule. It was a sizeable piece of work, but I am sure that you will all miss waking up to a desert sunrise, star gazing at night and trekking over the dunes with the anticipation of an exciting sighting just over the next ridge.

Before I go into detail with our findings, I would like to thank everyone who was involved and helped making this expedition happen. A special thanks goes to Platinum Heritage for their support and taking the team on a wonderful night safari in their classic Land Rovers. After a fantastic meal in their style desert camp, we very much enjoyed an introduction to astronomy, listening to Esra’s explanations, while perfectly couch potatoed in the seating area, our eyes on the constellations of the night sky. It was a night to remember.

In terms of scientific results, here are a few salient points:

All 46 2×2 km quadrants were surveyed with circular observations and all 220 fox dens checked for signs of activity. Our 17 camera traps recorded over 4600 photographs, including an observation of cinereous vulture, which is only the third record for this species in the UAE, a very exciting result! We also had some good reptile sightings in the last few days, including Arabian toad-headed agama, hissing sand snake and tracks of sand boa. Although many fox dens, originally recorded on a baseline survey a few years ago, are now inactive, we discovered new active dens and the numerous fox tracks and captures on camera traps indicate that the Arabian fox population in the reserve is healthy. Our live traps also caught two Arabian foxes, for which biometric data was collected. Over 50 species of bird, mammal and reptile were recorded by the team this year and we finally managed to identify the mystery duck at the large waterhole as a female garganey.

There are plenty of photographs from this year’s expedition (see slideshow), perhaps even one or two of Arabian oryx :), and we are looking forward to seeing the footage Andy shot with the drone. The film, once it is finished, we will happily share through our channels.

Greg was really pleased with the amount of data we collected, although it will take him a while to analyse and see what it all means in detail. The results will be published in the near future in the expedition report and also help identify the most appropriate research objectives for next year’s expedition.

Thanks again everyone for your input, effort and contribution. I hope you’ve enjoyed our time in the desert as much as we staffers did. Without your input, none of these data would get collected and these surveys would not get done, so we hope to all of you again some day, somewhere on this beautiful planet for another conservation and citizen science adventure!

P.S. And don’t forget to share your pictures and videos too.

Field update from our our Arabian desert expedition

The team all arrived safely at the DDCR on Saturday. First stop was the DDCR office for an introductory briefing from Greg about the history of the reserve and its conservation objectives. We then transferred to base camp for lunch and started the team training in the afternoon. This included the GPS devices, which are an essential part of the expedition enabling us to navigate in the desert, find survey points for species counts and record locations of species sightings. The GPS is also an important safety tool enabling the vehicle to be relocated after a desert walk. To practice survey skills and get the data collection started we ventured out close to camp, in quadrat 19, making a circular observation and checking several fox dens for signs of activity. With time left before sunset, Greg and Paul took the expedition drivers: Dirk, Cat, Toby and Andy, for driver training. As well as learning important driving techniques, the sand driving was good fun and everyone managed to get over a challenging dune. Going over the dune ridges is a bit like being on a roller coaster.

On Sunday we split up into three survey teams and went out to set up camera traps and live traps. The live traps are checked first thing every morning and we will check the SD cards of the camera traps for results at the end of the week.

On Monday morning the central team (Andy, Toby and Rick) had an Arabian fox captured in their trap and the south team (Paul, Dirk and Anjum) recorded cat tracks around their trap. Andy, our cameraman along this expedition, was able to get some footage of the fox being recorded and released. Andy also has a drone, which he has been using to get aerial shots of the beautiful desert scenery. Monday night after dinner we took UV lights out to search for scorpions and although they are not very active at this time of year, our efforts were rewarded when we found a small Arabian death stalker scorpion.

On Tuesday we had another trapping success with a feral cat caught in one of the live traps. Although it would be nice to trap a Gordon’s wildcat, capture of a feral cat is important because one of the biggest threat to the Gordon’s wildcat as a species is interbreeding with feral cats, so trapping data on feral cats and the opportunity to remove one from the reserve is useful.

As well as good sightings and data collection for our larger mammal target species including Arabian oryx, sand gazelle and Arabian gazelle, we have seen a lot of other interesting wildlife including pallid harrier, desert whetear, spotted eagle, lappet vulture, McQueens bustard, white spotted sand lizards and Cheeseman’s gerbil. Yesterday evening Paul caught a Baluch rock gecko in the camp fire log pile, which we managed to get some nice photographs of.

Field update from our our Arabian desert expedition

Everyone arrived safely at the DDCR. Our day was packed with briefings, theoretical & practical lessons. Writing this, at I am at the office while everyone else has gone to base camp after dinner. I believe they will all be asleep when I arrive! It’s been a long day for all of us with lots of information & learning new skills. Tomorrow we start again at 6:00 a.m., so I hope everyone will have a good first night in their tents. Here are just a few impressions of today.

Field update from our our Arabian desert expedition

We have met up with Greg to discuss this year’s science objectives, logistics and methodology of the data collection. Greg has managed the DDCR for over 15 years, so has an impressive knowledge of the area and has been instrumental in the development of the wildlife conservation interest of the reserve, including species re-introductions and re-vegetation by planting of shrub and tree species.

Our plan is to split into three groups of three surveyors for each day’s field work and each group will survey three quadrants per day. The reserve is divided into 45 main quadrants, each of which is  2 x 2 km. Our goal is to survey all 45 quadrants during the course of the expedition, so our data will be comparable with previous years. This will be tough this year as we have fewer people, so we need all hands on deck, working hard please!

The first job of each survey day will be to check if any of live traps have been successful. Then we will undertake wildlife counts from an observation point at the middle of each quadrant, followed by checking of fox dens to record their status (active, inactive or abandoned). We will record any other sightings that are made of our nine target species whilst driving in the reserve between our observation points. On Sunday we will set up our 18 camera traps and check these for results at the end of the expedition. Our main hope with these is to record the more elusive species such as Gordon’s wildcat and sand fox.

The weather at base camp has been very comfortable, pleasantly cool in the evenings and mornings, not lower than 10C at night, with clear skies for star-gazing at night and desert gazing during the day.

We are looking forward to meeting the team on Saturday morning (09:00 in the lobby of the Premier Inn). Once at the DDCR, there will be introductions (to each other and the research), teaching of survey skills and methodologies and some training in off-road driving skills and an opportunity to practice.

Safe travels to Dubai and we’ll see you all soon! Here are some pictures to get you in the mood:

Field update from our our Arabian desert expedition

Hello and welcome to the first expedition diary entry of 2018 for our Arabia expedition to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR).

I am Malika Fettak, Operations Manager at Biosphere Expeditions, and also your expedition leader for this expedition.

Malika entering data in our Bedu base camp mess tent

I’ve been on this project from the very beginning back in 2012 when we gained our first experience of driving in soft sand (and digging cars out) and I am by now well-versed in the challenges of walking dunes, setting live & camera traps and running a desert camp.

Over the years the study area and wildlife populations have developed significantly and I hope you are as excited as I am to take part in a genuine research & data collection expedition soon, living and working within the magic desert landscape that is the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. We are very grateful to Greg Simkins (see below) for hosting us on this expedition and for being our expedition scientist.

We are also very grateful to Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa for helping with the logistics, especially delicious meals, and to Platinum Heritage for their support of our conservation activities. You’re in for a treat mid-week when they host us at their desert camp.

I’m in the final state of planning and packing up. I fly out to Dubai tomorrow from Germany. At Dubai airport I will meet up with Paul Franklin (flying in from the UK) and together we’ll proceed to our DDCR camp straight away.

Paul on our Slovakia expedition last year

Paul & I will team up as expedition leaders. Paul has led other expeditions before and I’ll show him the ropes on our Arabia project. More about us is on the Biosphere Expeditions website and more about other key people you will be meeting on the ground, the camp, weather conditions, etc. will follow soon.

Now time to rake Greg over the coals! He’s had staff issues and been a very bad boy by only submitting his 2017 expedition report to us today (instead of six months ago!). This means we only have an unedited, un(peer)reviewed draft so far, which you can view/download here. It does detail results of 2017, however, and the thrust of this expedition as a result. I suggest we all tut-tut at Greg profusely over the next few days. The more tutting, the earlier the report for this expedition, we hope.

See you soon and I will be in touch with more details, including a local phone number for emergencies, once Paul and I have hit the ground.