Malawi: Roundup, pictures, videos

An eight hour car ride north of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, sits a little know Nature Reserve called Vwaza Marsh. The reserve is managed by The Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and tourism infrastructure is very limited within the reserve and visitors are rare. Instead tourists are more likely to go to the better known National Parks of Liwonde and Majete, both which are managed by Africa Parks.

In 2017 the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) set up a research camp inside the reserve working closely with the DNPW to map and monitor the wildlife inside the reserve. The aim of the research is to better understand the biodiversity and abundance of the animals within the reserve so that management can be improved and wildlife can be better protected from poachers. “Most of the poachers inside the reserve are after smaller bush meat, but we do also occasionally get teams of poachers with big guns going after Elephants or Hippos for their tusks”, explains Amanda Harwood, the research manager for LWT. The ivory trade is a problem all over Africa, and while in other nations the poachers have sophisticated techniques and sometimes even use helicopters, poaching in Malawi is currently on a much smaller scale. This may be why Vwaza Marsh still boasts large populations of both elephants and hippos. “It is interesting to see that a fairly large number of the female elephants in the reserve are born without tusks, or with only one tusk. It appears that here evolution is happening at a fast rate. Those born without tusks are left alone by poachers and are therefore the ones who are still alive to breed, passing on the gene of being tuskless. It is likely we will continue to see more and more of the elephants being born without tusks” says LWT’s research assistant Alex Chalkley.

Biosphere Expeditions joined forces with LWT and CRA in 2018 by sending three separate teams of citizen scientists to Vwaza. “Much of our research requires a lot of manpower and by having teams of citizen scientists, we can collect a lot of data in a short time”, explains Karen Dylan, an entomologist with CRA.

During the six weeks that the Biosphere Expedition teams were in Vwaza, 28 new elephants were identified. This is a very significant number considering it took eight months to identify 117 elephants prior to the citizen scientists coming to help. By identifying elephants, population dynamics and abundance, long-term management can be improved.

The teams also set camera traps throughout the park. Forty-nine species were captured on camera; most notably a number of flagship species that had not been recorded within the reserve before. These were lion, caracal and serval. “When the caracal imaged came up on the screen, we all cheered with joy and I got goosebumps. This elusive cat is so rarely seen, it feels very special to get several images of one” says Ida Vincent, the Biosphere Expeditions project leader.

The team also identified one new order of insects – Embioptera – the only group of insects to spin silk through their forelegs. At the end of the six week expedition, Harwood concludes that “having Biosphere Expeditions here has made it possible for us to gather a lot of data in a short amount of time. Not only this, but we have also been able to survey parts of the reserve that we otherwise find it hard to get to. This has resulted in us discovering quite a few new species in the reserve which is very exciting, as well as providing critical information for the management and conservation Vwaza Marsh.”

In summary, the three  groups combined achieved this:

  • 53 large mammal vehicle and 12 large mammal walking transects with 72 sightings and 23 species  recorded
  • 6 hippo vehicle and 11 hippo walking transects counting a total of 3,359 hippos
  • 28 new elephants were identified
  • 11 primate surveys were conducted
  • 27 orders of insects were identified with one being new for Vwaza Marsh Reserve, the Embioptera
  • 72 new morpho species for Vwaza Marsh were also identified
  • 60 bats from six different species were captured and released
  • 69 camera traps were deployed during the expedition
  • 49 species were caught on these cameras
  • out of those species, three cat species had never before been recorded by conclusive camera trap images in Vwaza Marsh Reserve: lion, caracal and serval.

We leave you with lots of pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Ng Kui Lai, Ida Vincent, Tom Bartel and John Haddon for sharing many of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Malawi: Wrapping up 2018 with data galore

Our final group has left Vwaza Marsh and Biosphere Expeditions is wrapping up its time in Malawi for 2018.

It has been a very successful expedition, with an incredible amount of data collected by our three teams. The third and final group did 21 large mammal vehicle transects and five large mammal walking transects, two hippo vechile transects and five hippo vehicle transects. While the elephants were a little more elusive in this group compared to the previous two and only five new elephants were identified, this group caught more bats. On their last survey night alone they captured 23 bats, bringing the total up to 31 for this group. They also captured 28 different species during their camera trap survey, identified nine insect orders, and processed 12 elephant dung for the elephant diet and distribution analysis. All of this when combined with the previous two groups adds up to a staggering amount of data.

The three  groups combined achieved this:

  • 53 large mammal vehicle and 12 large mammal walking transects with 72 sightings and 23 species  recorded
  • 6 hippo vehicle and 11 hippo walking transects counting a total of 3,359 hippos
  • 28 new elephants were identified
  • 11 primate surveys were conducted
  • 27 orders of insects were identified with one being new for Vwaza Marsh Reserve, the Embioptera
  • 72 new morpho species for Vwaza Marsh were also identified
  • 60 bats from six different species were captured and released
  • 69 camera traps were deployed during the expedition
  • 49 species were caught on these cameras
  • out of those species, three cat species had never before been recorded in Vwaza Marsh Reserve: lion, caracal and serval.

All this will be written up in a scientific report, which will be available within a few months.

A massive thanks to you to everyone for all your hard work, enthusiasm and contribution. You could have been an ordinary tourist lying on a beach somewhere. Instead you chose to become citizen scientists, contributing to an important research and conservation project in a remote and little-visited part of Africa. We take our hats off to you and I also thank our partners from the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and Conservation Research Africa, most of all their committed and inspiring staff on the ground, for helping our beleaguered wildlife and wild places. None of this could have happened without you.

Safe travels and I hope to see you again somewhere, sometime on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

I leave you with a few final impressions…

Ida
Expedition leader

Malawi: Aardvark and greater bushbaby added

The first round of camera traps photos for group 3 in Malawi was a success. We captured two species that we had not previously recorded during our  camera trap surveys: greater bushbaby and aardvark.

We also captured three more sightings of the elusive caracal, as well as lots of other species. So everyone is in high spirits.

   

The bat team had an exciting night yesterday, when they encountered a two metre long python on their drive back from the survey site. “It was beautiful, I can’t believe how long the animal was” says Kathrin from Germany about the encounter.

The elephants have been a little more elusive of late and we have only been able to identify four new individuals. Today, however, they all came back and one young bull that had previously been identified and named Bruno came right into camp feeding under our clothes line.

So we are hopeful for this afternoon’s elephant observation survey.

 

Meanwhile, Heather from the UK had an elephant encounter of a differnt kind: “An elephant shrew ran straight into my foot today during my Large Mammal Walking Transect”… 😉

 

Malawi: Hippos galore as the waters retreat

Group 3 is in full swing and by now – our last group of the inaugural expedition to Malawi – we are running like a well-oiled machine.

During our hippo transects we have been counting more hippos than previously, which is most likely a result of the retreating water levels. Indeed water level has gone down significantly since the expedition started seven weeks ago. With the lower water levels, the hippos are easier to spot and during one of the transects we counted a whopping 177 of them. The large number of hippos is encouraging, since hippos are targeted for their ivory tusks by poachers.

During our time here in Vwaza we have seen poachers on our camera traps and found evidence of hippo poachers in the bush. “Hippos are harder for poachers to get than elephants, since they live in the water and are very aggressive. If a hippo gets scared or injured on land it will run into the water were poachers can’t get it” explains Lilongwe Wildlife Trust research manager Amanda Harwood.

During our day off we also visited the village of Kazuni. Following a request from the village, our participants had brought an impressive amount of supplies from home for the local school. “I sent a message out to the community I live in back in France and a lot of people chipped in donating supplies” says Sue from Ireland. Needless to say the local school was delighted by the donations, which included some footballs for PE.

Our next task is to swap SD cards in our camera traps and we are all excited to see what they have captured. Stay tuned!

Malawi: Group 3 in training

The third and final group for our 2018 Malawi expedition has arrived in Vwaza Marsh.  Equipment, camera trap, elephant survey and primate survey training is done. We now only have insects and bats training to go through before our our real scientific survey works starts tomorrow.

Despite it being the dry season, green leaves have started to sprout around camp already, in anticipation of the rains arriving next month. In response to the greenery, a herd of elephants came right up to camp eating the fresh leaves. “They were so close, it was amazing” says Matthew from the USA. Quite the welcome to camp!

Malawi: Roadblock and other creatures large and small

Update from our Malawi expedition working on cats, primates, elephants and African biodiversity www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malawi

We have reached the end of group 2 on our inaugural Malawi expedition.

It has been a very busy two weeks with a lot of elephants around, not only did we identify twelve new elephants, but we were also often stopped in our tracks when they were blocking our way. Indeed one of our newly identified elephants is now called “Roadblock” 🙂

Our team of citizen scientists captured twenty species on the camera traps, notably “our” young male lion on two occasions. He  seems to have taken up residence in the north part of the park.

On our Large Mammal Walking Transects we recorded three species, and nine species were recorded on our Large Mammal Driving Transects. We counted a total of 696 hippos during our five Hippo Transects, and our bat teams captured a whopping 21 bats across four species. This is a great bat result during the dry season, when insect food is lower. The teams also did four insect surveys capturing 481 insects from eleven different orders.

Jodi  from Canada says she “had such a wonderful time; I really like that we get to be part of so many different research projects”.

Thank you so much to everyone in group 2 for all your hard work and enthusiasm.

 

Malawi: Here in Vwaza, the excitement continues…

Update from our Malawi expedition working on cats, primates, elephants and African biodiversity www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malawi

We have caught another lion on our camera traps,

as well as a never before recorded caracal!

Also featured were: genet, roan, bushbuck, civet, guinea-foul, hyaena, honey badger, baboon, impala, porcupine and white-tailed mongoose.

We also spotted some Lichtenstein hartebeest on one of our Large Mammal Driving Transects in the north part of the reserve. These species have only been spotted once before; they are also a first for our Biosphere Expeditions project and we never see them down in the south region of the reserve where camp is.

“It was so nice, we saw four of them about 100 meters away. We also found a scull of one, so this seem to be where they hang out”, explaines Eckhart, one of our citizen scientists from Germany.

Yesterday, we had a lovely time during our Primate Observations. Anneliese from the UK: “We sat for over an hour with a troop of adult male yellow baboons that were baby-sitting a number of juveniles. They did not seem to mind us at all. It was amazing.”

With only a few days of surveying left, we have been very busy in camp entering data and analysing camera trap images during our spare moments between surveys.

Malawi: Five elephants, twelve bats, fourteen transects and more

Update from our Malawi expedition working on cats, primates, elephants and African biodiversity www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malawi

Our second group in Malawi is in full swing and after just three days of proper citizen science we have already

  • identified five new elephants
  • captured and released 12 bats
  • carried out ten large mammal driving transects, two walking transects, two hippo transects
  • set up several insects traps and processed three elephant dungs

Our partner scientists from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and Conservation Research Africa are delighted by the data our team of citizen scientists have collected to establish a baseline for Vwaza Reserve. These data will be used to better manage the reserve and help protect it from poachers.

Our team has also deployed 24 camera traps in the rarely visited northern part of the reserve. Tomorrow we will switch the SD cards to see what we have captured. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Malawi: Group 2 getting trained and commencing work

Update from our Malawi expedition working on cats, primates, elephants and African biodiversity www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malawi

Group 2 has arrived at Vwaza base camp and training is in full swing.

During elephant identification training yesterday, a large herd of elephants obliged us with their presence, just in time for our training.

In the afternoon everyone enjoyed their first drive through the park spotting impala, kudu, hippos, elephants and a large herd of buffalo. “Incredible,  just incredible” said Jodi from Canada when describing the buffalo encounter.

Today everyone was trained to use the camera traps and tomorrow we will drive to the northern reaches of the reserve to place our second round of camera traps. As we’ve said before, no big camera trapping study has ever been done in  the reserve, let alone in the remote northern part of the reserve, and we are very excited to see what the cameras will show us in time.

Our first “real” science commences tonight when we set the bat traps in front of camp, as well as deploying our insect traps. Hoping for some night-time visitors to start off our work.

 

 

 

Malawi: Thank you group 1 trailblazers!

Update from our Malawi expedition working on cats, primates, elephants and African biodiversity www.biosphere-expeditions.org/malawi

The inaugural group of citizen scientists on our Malawi expedition has just left for Lilongwe after two weeks of intense surveying. During their time in Vwaza Marsh, we have conducted Large Mammal Transects, Hippos Transects, Elephant Observations, Primate Surveys, Elephant Dung Analysis, Bat Surveys, Insect Trapping and Identification and Camera Trapping. And we already have some exciting results from our initial two weeks:

Eleven new elephants have been identified and named, and we sorted through 16 elephant dung samples.

Our camera traps captured 26 different species with six of them being carnivores, including two big cats – lion and leopard. This is particularly exciting as lion has never before been captured on film inside the reserve.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During our nightly bat surveys, we captured eight bats from four different species .

Last night, Karen, our in-house entomologist identified a new order of insect to Vwaza Marsh – the rarely seen Embioptera. Embioptera is the only group of insects that spin silk through their forelegs.

We are sad to see our very first hard-working group of citizen scientists leave, but we are looking forward to group 2 to arrive on Sunday to carry on the important work of monitoring the wildlife of Vwaza Marsh.

Thank you to everyone in group 1!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.