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 Expeditions project 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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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

From grey to green

How an almost dead landscape is transformed back into a wildlife paradise by livestock – by Christiane Flechtner

Kenya – Kunsang Ling looks through her binoculars. What the Canadian sees makes the corners of her mouth move upwards: “A cheetah with six young animals,” shouts the 38-year-old to her team in the 4×4 vehicle. Just a few years ago, this region of Kenya consisted of little more than barren earth. Dead, dusty land devoid of life. But little by little, the grey is changing into green – and with it zebras, wildebeests and antelopes are reclaiming their former territory.

Counting wildlife from the back of a 4×4 (c) C. Flechtner

The Canadian is one of twelve international citizen scientists on a wildlife conservation expedition to Kenya, conducted for the second time by the non-profit nature conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions. The organisation is known for its successful involvement of lay helpers in species conservation projects worldwide and has been working hand in hand with people and biologists in various project areas since 1999 – including the Enonkishu Conservancy in southwest Kenya. “We want to help scientists to conduct their research projects successfully,” explains Malika Fettak, the NGO’s expedition Leader in Kenya. “To this end, we recruit motivated people who help collect data and help hands-on during their holidays.”

Widlife of Enonkishu, all photos (c) C. Flechtner

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Kenya is one of the countries with the highest population growth worldwide. From 1960 to 2017, the number of inhabitants rose from 8.1 million to 49.7 million – an increase of a full 513 percent. In the next 25 years, the number is expected to double again. The country is groaning under the burden of a overpopulation and the associated expanding infrastructure, which increasingly encroaches on animal habitats. In just three decades, the species-rich country has lost almost 70 percent of its wildlife – on the one hand through the destruction of its habitat, and on the other through the effects of climate change with extreme droughts.
The 1,700-hectare area of Enonkishu Conservancy, located around 240 kilometres south-west of the capital Nairobi, also since ceased to be a habitat for wild animals. It is a buffer zone between the famous Mara Serengeti ecosystem and civilisation.

The land belonged to 32 different landowners, who used it as farmland for corn or bean cultivation and cattle breeding – and overused it enormously. The excessive number of livestock led to extreme soil erosion. In order to counteract the devastation, the landowners joined together in 2009 to form a community and transformed the area into a conservancy, a protected area jointly managed by the local population.

The thousands of years old behavioural patterns of wild animals served as a model for rewilding of the area: “Here, the great migration of the wildebeest through the Serengeti has been imitated on a small scale,” explains the expedition leader. The wildebeest not only loosen the soil with their hooves, but also fertilise it with their dung. Then they move on, and the grazed green grass can grow again. “Here in Enonkishu, they leave this task to the cattle – they systematically let them graze in certain areas and then drive them on. Within just a few years, dead earth transformed into a green oasis, from which not only the landowners benefit, but also the wild animals,” says Fettak happily.

The job of the expedition participants is to collect data to provide figures to document the return of the wild animals. While Kunsang, together with Matthias Herold from Germany, Sirpa Lahtinen from Finland and Kathy Haan from the USA, observes the waterhole for several hours from a hide using binoculars, GPS devices and rangefinders, ranger Albert Ngetich, together with Canadian Brian Oikawa and Dutchman Paul Serail, set off on foot to the summit of Kileleoni Hill to observe the area from a bird’s eye view. The third group checks camera traps for pictures of nocturnal animals.

Waterhole obervation (c) C. Flechtner
Hill top obervation (c) C. Flechtner
On the way to a research activity (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner

The results are quite impressive: The wildlife numbers have proliferated within a year. “The whole thing has developed a momentum of its own,” says the expedition leader. “The landscape has turned into a paradise where farm animals and wildlife can live peacefully side by side,” says Fettak. A positive side effect is that tourists are also discovering the area for themselves and supporting Enonkishu with their entrance fees to the protected area.

It may even be possible to find imitators of the sustainable concept elsewhere. It would be good for the densely populated country, and with the acceptance of wildlife and its benefits for people, this will be a chance to increase already scarce wildlife habitat bit by bit.

(c) Christiane Flechtner

This is how you survive on safari

This article was translated into English from the original article in Dutch by Paul Serail on Quest.

“It’s not a safari”, Biosphere Expeditions warned in advance. It was an adventure.

Cheetah (c) Paul Serail

Those who go on safari are driven around the savannah for a day by a guide. I went to Kenya for science. With twelve citizen scientists we counted zebras, wildebeest, giraffes and other cool animals in the Enonkishu Conservancy nature reserve.

How far is that wildebeest? Editor Paul Serail, third from left, measures the distance. (c) Paul Serail

Then you should also set out on foot. And not all animals on the savannah are harmless. As I walked into the bushes to take a pee, an irritated elephant hooted furiously nearby. Oops. During another walk I really had to run it twice for an elephant.

Hippos are the most dangerous

How do you get through your expedition safely? Tip 1: stick together. Tip 2: keep your distance from the animals.

But what should you do if the animals do not keep their distance from you?

Hippos are the cause of most casualties in Africa. A hippo usually flees to the water. Therefore, make sure you never stand between a hippo and the water.

If you leave elephants alone, they will leave you alone. Mostly. (c) Paul Serail

Elephants pretend to attack

Stressed elephants often perform a fake attack, then stop and make themselves big. They shake their heads “no” and rake the ground with one foot. They can also trumpet at the same time. The right solution: get out.

Buffalo, especially the bulls, have a short fuse. (c) Paul Serail

If you stay, it can happen that an elephant really attacks. He does this without sound, with folded ears for extra speed and with the tusks ahead. Running makes no sense, because the elephant will win that competition. Stand still, make yourself tall and yell, “Stop!” It works, I am told.

Buffalo do not fake attack. You better stay far away from the animals to avoid misery.

Whoever runs away from a lion is prey

Has she already eaten? (c) Paul Serail

If a lion comes across as slightly interested, stand still. It will be difficult, but otherwise the hungry hunter sees you as prey and you don’t want to be that. It can be wise to make yourself big and shout loudly. Then you come across as a threat, rather than a meal.

Other expedition pictures, all (c) Paul Serail

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Do you also want to go on an expedition? You can. Biosphere Expeditions organises volunteer trips in nature. From diving to coral reefs to the mountains where snow leopards live. And everything in between.

(c) Paul Serail