Arabia: roundup of 2020 expedition

Biosphere Expeditions and the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve completed their 9th consecutive annual survey this January. Key results include an improved understanding of oryx and gazelle distribution, evidence of healthy rodent populations throughout the reserve and sightings of rare species including Arabian hare, lappet-faced vulture and Gordon’s wildcat.

The international team of 14 citizen scientists, two Biosphere Expeditions (BE) leaders and three Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) staff surveyed the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and Sand gazelle populations across the entire 227 sqkm reserve. This very significant effort provided population estimates and distribution predictions for these three species, which will help improve management, especially in light of upcoming translocations.

Greg Simkins, DDCR’s Conservation Manager says, “Every year Biosphere Expeditions’ citizen scientists help us get a clear picture of oryx and gazelle distributions across the reserve. Doing this ourselves with such a small team is much more challenging, so this cooperation allows us to make a rapid and accurate assessment and provides data, which we can use to make important management decisions.”

As the DDCR is a fenced reserve, it is easy to see a difference between it and the unfenced side. Where camels roam outside the reserve, the vegetation is scarce and few animals are seen, while inside it, the ecosystem is thriving with abundant animals and vegetation. However, the DDCR in some ways is also a victim of its own success and “with an oryx population well above the carrying capacity of the reserve, we really need to begin a relocation project to take some pressure off the ecosystem,” says Moayyed Sher Shah, Conservation Officer at the DDCR. “We’ve already made plans with a few other reserves to begin transferring animals, in March or April 2020, and the data collected by BE citizen scientists will give us valuable information about which parts of the reserve require more immediate action.”

Apart from the ungulate surveys, another species of note, recorded multiple times in the reserve, is the lappet-faced vulture, classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. “The fact that such a rare bird inhabits the DDCR is a testament to the importance of protected areas such as this,” says Sher Shah. Currently, the area in and around the DDCR is an important location within the UAE where the Lappet-faced vulture is found.

Key points of the Biosphere Expeditions 2020 Arabia expedition within the DDCR:

1. The DDCR has an Arabian oryx population of approximately 850 individuals, of which our survey methods were able to account for about 90%. More importantly, the data collected will allow their estimated distribution to be mapped within the reserve, providing the DDCR with data necessary for herd management.

2. BE citizen scientists were also involved in small rodent live captures, in which Cheeseman’s and Baluchistan gerbils were caught. Fecal samples from captured individuals will provide data on the genetics and food plants for both species.

3. Camera traps were set throughout the reserve, with over 6,000 images captured at 14 points during the week. The most significant of these was of a Gordon’s wildcat, a rare subspecies of wildcat threatened by hybridisation with domestic and feral cats.

4. Twenty-three new fox dens were identified, including one potentially used by a Rüppell’s fox; a species last recorded in DDCR when an individual was trapped during a BE survey, five years previously.

5. In 2021, Biosphere Expeditions will continue survey efforts to determine the distribution of oryx and gazelle following the translocation of ungulates in March/April 2020.

6. Additionally, Biosphere Expeditions will continue monitoring of other important species on the reserve including Gordon’s wildcat, Lappet-faced vulture, Hoopoe lark, MacQueen’s bustard, and various rodent species.

7. Next year’s expedition will take place in January and February 2021 and will continue to work in close collaboration with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

8. International citizen science volunteers from all over the world will, through their collective effort and funding, make it possible. Anyone can take part and details about the expedition and how to join are at

Finally, some pictures and videos from the 2020 expedition:

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Arabia: Bittersweet ending

Waking up on the last day of an expedition is always bittersweet. You are ready to go home, but always want to stay in the field for even just one more day with the new friends you’ve made working on an important conservation and research project. That is how I always feel, and I’m pretty confiendent this is how everyone else felt on Saturday morning as well.

Of course, the science is the integral part of why we all came together here, but the human connection is what makes these expeditions so memorable as well. In the car on the way to breakfast on the last day, William from Canada was telling me about how he was so happy about the way everyone gelled together so well, even though we are all so different. I wholeheartedly agree!

So, what did we get done over on the expedition this year? Let’s do a quick recap.

In only 2 days, we surveyed all 62 circular observation points, 17 feeding stations, and carried out random observations within each 2x2km cell. The final results show that we observed a total of 741 Arabian oryx, 283 Arabian gazelle, and 95 sand gazelle.

With our small mammal trapping, we captured 28 Cheeseman’s gerbils and 3 Baluchistan gerbils, as well as 4 house sparrows, and 1 white eared bulbul. Finding birds in our rodent traps was always a bit of a surprise!

Our fox den surveys were also successful. We were able to locate 23 new dens as well as check on the 45 from last year, for a total of 68 dens surveyed. Of those, only 6 of them were unmistakably still in use, however, one great side note is that one of them was of a sand fox, which hasn’t been recorded on the reserve for five years!

Our live trapping enjoyed mixed success. We did capture 1 feral cat, but as it was not a Gordon’s wildcat or one of our two target fox species, we were a bit disappointed. However, removing the cat from the reserve has created space for the native predatory species, which should help their numbers grow now.

Lastly, our camera trapping was quite successful. We put out a total of 16 camera traps over the week and were well rewarded with 12,410 photographs! The images captured oryx, gazelles, Arabian hare, red foxes, MacQueen’s bustard, and most interestingly, a Gordon’s wildcat!

The head scientist for this project, Moayyed Sher Shah said, “The results were  fantastic! Without the support of Biosphere Expeditions, getting these kinds of results in such a short time (particularly the circular observations) would have been impossible for the staff here at the DDCR.”

DDCR staff will go through all of these data now in order to write up a report that will provide recommendations for how to better manage the reserve. And hopefully we’ll be able to find some citizen scientists to help out with poring over the enormous number of camera trap photographs as well! I’m already considering having some of my students at university join in the effort.

Of course, all of these data are great – extraordinary, in fact, but it wouldn’t have been possible to collect so much in such a short amount of time without the much-appreciated effort of our citizen scientists. Biosphere Expeditions and our research partners are always so privileged to have such committed people come and spend their time with us in the name of citizen science. So I’d like to say thank you to all of you. Ellen C., Yvonne, William, Ellen W., Anette, Peter T., Petra, Peter G., Jens, Madeleine, Lorna, Albert and Toby. Thank you for taking time away from family, friends, and work in order to make this expedition a success. Hopefully you all made new friends and great memories while contributing a great deal to the DDCR’s research goals.

Safe travels home. Stay in touch and hopefully see you again!

Amadeus and Robin


Arabia: Circular surveys, camera & live traps

On our second day in the field (Tuesday) we managed to complete all 62 circular surveys. This is the quickest that any Biosphere Expeditions survey has ever completed the circular observations and should result in a more accurate count for the oryx and gazelle. By no means was this an easy task, as each cell is four square kilometres. We’ll let you know the final number of ungulates counted during these surveys once we’ve gone through all the data.

Next up were camera traps. After a demonstration and some training, we spread out to set up traps at suitable locations around the park, including watering holes. We will check these at the end, so fingers crossed for some good shots!

Separately, to learn more about the abundance and distribution of some other, smaller mammals, we set about using baited, live-capture traps for both small (rodents) and medium (foxes and felines) sized mammals. The small mammal traps are set up in a 100m square grid, and baited with oats. The bait clearly attracts not just small animals, however, and on one visit, we were quickly surrounded by a herd of hungry, curious oryx that were waiting for their breakfast at the nearby feeding station.

Rodents have been trapped at most of the small mammal trap locations. The most frequent visitors are Cheesman’s gerbil, and a rarer Balochistan gerbil has also been caught. These were carefully removed from the traps and then marked, measured, and sexed, in spite of their fervent protestations, and then released.

Live traps, with which we’ll be hoping to capture Arabian red foxes, sand (Rüppell’s) foxes, or Gordon’s wildcats, are baited with sardines and placed individually, positioned to give as much shade as possible to any occupant. These have also been placed all around the reserve, and will be monitored and re-set throughout the the week.

In order to reach our study sites, we’ve been enjoying some ‘epic’ driving over the last few days, making great use of the 4×4 training and battling with desert tracks that refuse to reflect what our maps and GPSs show 😉

New sightings of birds have included the blue-cheeked bee-eater, desert wheatear, greater hoopoe-lark, lappet-faced vulture, red-wattled lapwing, little grebe, white wagtail, grey francolin, shikra, common kestrel, brown-necked raven, as well as a pharaoh eagle owl. The last, beautiful bird also doubles up as our (very) early alarm clock each morning.


Arabia: Successful first survey day

Our first day of surveys has been completed, and what a great day it was! But let’s rewind a little and talk about our arrival and first day on the reserve first.

After driving to the assembly point in Dubai, Robin and I met up with our  citizen scientsts Yvonne, Anette, Petra, Jens, Toby (Germany), Ellen C., Ellen W. (USA), William, Peter, Albert (Canada), Peter, Lorna (UK), Madleine (the Netherlands) and Shamsa (UAE). We were eager to get started, so quickly made our way out of the city and out towards the desert. Once on the reserve, we had a quick a tour of the DDCR office and then Greg Simkins, the Conservation Manager at the DDCR, gave us some background on the reserve itself. Then a bit more housekeeping with documentation and it was time for our first meal together. After lunch, there was more training, then it was off to camp to set up our tents. Here in the desert sand, traditional tent poles don’t do much to keep your tent pegged in the ground as the sand is so soft, so instead we had half-meter long tent pegs made that do a much better job! After camp setup, Greg took the drivers out into the reserve to learn how to weave our way through the dunes. Nobody got stuck (well done!) and everyone was having a great time learning new and essential sand driving skills. Then it was on to supper followed by a bit more training in the evening with Moayyed Sher Shah, our conservation officer and lead scientist on the expedition. Everyone was glad to get back to camp finally and have their first night in the tents at the end of the day.

Yesterday, our first survey day, a lot was accomplished within one day. We split into five groups, with Tamer Khafaga, the DDCR research officer, joining us as well. The goal this year was to avoid counting individual animals more than once as much as possible. To do this, we needed to try and complete all of the circular observations throughout the reserve as quickly as possible; and today we covered 28 of the 62 cells. We’re getting ready for another shift this morning, so I’m very confident that we can complete the last 34 cells and get the entire reserve surveyed in just two days. The number of individual animals is important information that we get from the circular observations, and allows us to learn more about their distribution and total population numbers within the reserve. Yesterday we counted 319 0ryx, 117 Arabian gazelles, 29 sand gazelles, and 3 MacQueen’s bustards. Beyond that, other sightings included the toad-headed agama lizard, the fringe-toed lizard, a sandfish skink, southern grey shrike, the Arabian babbler, crested lark and other birdlife.

All in all, yesterday was extremely  successful thanks to the efforts of our group. Today our aim is to complete the circular observations and begin the next stage of the expedition in the late afternoon: setting the live traps for small rodents, foxes, and hopefully, Gordon’s wildcat.

Amadeus and Robin

Arabia: Getting ready

We made it to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) where we have met with Moayyed Sher Shah, Conservation Officer and expedition scientist, and Greg Simkins, Conservation Manager.

From left to right: Tamer Khafaga (DDCR), Moayyed Sher Shah (DDCR), Amadeus DeKastle (Biosphere Expeditions), Greg Simkins (DDCR), Robin Johnson (Biosphere Expeditions)

We made it to the DDCR just in time for lunch, and within 10 seconds upon entering the reserve, we drove past our first gazelles foraging in the roadside scrub. After lunch, we got started right away going through the kit to make sure everything we need will be ready for you when you arrive at base camp. Tomorrow we’ll continue setting up base camp, do a bit of shopping for some fireside tea and coffee, and then we’ll take some time to talk with Greg and Moayyed to fine-tune the details of this year’s expedition. In addition to the annual count of the ungulate species (Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle), Moayyed is keen to continue the small mammal trapping that was so successful last season. Learning about the population dynamics of these small mammals will give us further information about the biology of the carnivores that prey on them, such as Gordon’s wildcat and the red fox.

The next couple days will be all preparation for your arrival on Saturday morning. We are really looking forward to meeting each of you and getting started with this great project here at the DDCR.

As regards the weather, it rained quite heavily yesterday. Today there was the odd bit of rain in Dubai. The temperatures went up to 21 deg C during the day and drop to around 14 deg C in the night. The forecast for the next few days is much the same.

Amadeus and Robin

Arabia: Opener

Hello Arabia expeditioners 2020!

Yesterday afternoon I spent some time outside shoveling the snow off of my kid’s backyard hockey rink one last time here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (where I am based), before making my way to Dubai to meet up with Robin, our assistant expedition leader, this afternoon to start getting base camp all set up and prepared for your arrival. I know that for many of you as well, the weather in Dubai will be a huge change from what you are used to right now where you are. But don’t get fooled, we might be in the desert, but it can be a bit chilly at night!

Anyway, Robin and I are super excited to be joining you and working alongside you during the upcoming expedition. Once we are on the ground at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, we’ll send out a bit more of an update regarding weather, emergency contact numbers, etc.

I also want to make you aware of the 2019 expedition report. This needs more work and because of this is currently published in draft format only, but it will give you an idea of what was done last year and also what the aims for this expedition are. Have a read before you arrive, don’t forget to pack according to the packing list in your dossier, get excited, travel safely and see you soon!


Amadeus DeKastle
Expedition leader

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