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.


Malawi: team 2 for 1

Farewell team 1.

Helen, Marion, Kathleen, Ed & Paige, Sandra & Gary, Rob, Steve Marion and Kris left on Friday morning after breakfast. Karen, Mandy and I went to Mzuzu for a food shopping run, sorting out tyres, etc. We made it back to base shortly after sunset, but it was way beyond bedtime when everything was sorted, the kitchen restocked and the remaining supplies stored away safely.

Two weeks have flown by. Thank you so much everyone for being a great team, collecting lots of data and having fun… remember the 3 Ss: safety, science and satisfaction? 😉 I think we had plenty of all! We hope you’ve enjoyed your time out here at Vwaza as much as we did and have taken with you memories that will last forever.

Team 2, see you on Sunday!

Malawi: New bat species for Malawi!

On our last expedition day for group 1, a primate group went out for observations in the morning and the rest of the team collected all camera traps. Back at base everyone helped going through thousands of pictures before lunchtime, using all available laptops, extracted animal pictures in the first step and finally ran them through the ID process. Even more, everyone helped a lot over the last couple of days putting datasheets into the computer so that we have a pretty complete picture of what the first team has achieved. Here is a summary of the results:

Large mammal transects

  • 18 driving transects were completed, the total number of sightings is 44 of nine different species.
  • Seven walking and five hippo transects, the average number of hippos counted along the lake transect was 108
  • Overall most animals were recorded in the southern part of the reserve most likely (because that’s where all the water is)

Elephant observations

This activity was performed 15 times. Every day a team went out to find elephant herds and to take ID pictures. Back at base, the pictures were used to identify individuals by comparing them with ID identification sheets of 94 elephants on the existing database. A great result is that six new elephants could be added: four females and one male. It was the observer’s privilege to name them, the new additions are now Carily, Sabra, JuMaddy, Kylie and Elias.

Elephant dung survey

Elephant dung was picked up from different locations within the reserve for further analysis. 229 seeds were extracted, washed and dried for identification. So far only four of them could be identified.

Primate observations

Six times a team of two to three people followed “our” troup of vervet monkeys for behaviour observations. Focal observations of one individual at a time were performed 29 times for 20 min each. The focal, continuous and proximity observations help to bolster an existing database that was started in April this year when the monkeys were released into Vwaza Wildlife Reserve.

Biodiversity studies & insects

On four occasions light traps were put out. The samples collected included 900+ individual insects that were processed by organising them into family groups, measuring and counting them in three sessions. 11 insect orders were represented within the samples, the largest number that has ever been found.

Camera traps

24 camera traps were out for nine nights each in the southern half of the reserve. We found animals on 1500 pictures, identified 23 different species, including 7 carnivores and one big cat: a leopard. Other species were genet, civet, serval, caracal, proqupine, spotted hyaena, honey badger, water mongoose, ground hornbill, duiker, hippo, elephant, yellow baboon, vervet monkey, bushbuk, guinnea fowl, kudu.

Bat surveys

Over six bat survey nights a total number of 34 bats of eight different species were caught in the mist and harp nets set up 30 min before sunset and closed after three hours. Two species were recorded for the first time in Vwaza: Laphotis botswanae (only recorded once in Lillongwe National Park) and Myotis bocagii. On top of that the team caught and identified a new species for Malawi! A Kerivoula lanosa, also called woolly bat, in one of the harp nets on a study site pretty close to camp. The only record of this species in Malawi is from the 1980s!

Quoting scientist Karen: “the results are insane!”. Thank you very much, team 1. Over to you, team 2!

Malawi: More research and a day at the village

After a week full of activities, the team spent the afternoon of a well-earned day off at the neighbouring village where were warmly welcomed and fed.

We were back to our research tasks on Sunday. We exchanged SD cards of 21 camera traps that were set five days earlier along the West and North road.  We managed to go through the camera trap pictures using multiple laptops. Some of the SD cards had more than 3000 pictures on them – mostly of grass! More about animal pictures when we have finished identifying the species.

As the days went by, teams went out for elephant observations each day, we continued primate observations following a troup of vervet monkeys that were released at Vwaza a few months ago. Bat surveys continued in the evenings. On some of the hippo transect walks along the lake shore, we counted over 140 individuals.

Now team 1 has only two more days to go… time flies! I’ll keep you updated about the results.

Malawi: Elephants at camp

The expedition is in full swing. Over the last couple of days we’ve completed a great variety of research activities.

On the large mammals driving transects, a herd of 130 buffalos was recorded, as well as elephant, impala, warthog, bushbock and kudu. We collected a lion scat placed nicely in the middle of the road on transect no. 5 in the northern area of the reserve. We thought it was pretty dry, maybe a few weeks old, but still had a very distinct smell. Local scouts reported a kudu killed by a lion was found on 19 Sep at the lakeshore about 500 m from camp.

The hippo transect group found the remains of the kill, as well as the dried out (and therefore conserved) lion track leading into the lake. 83 hippos were counted on only one of the hippo transects, including many young ones and a newborn baby.

The team set up insect light traps and processed the findings by sorting them into size and family groups. Three also butterfly traps were installed around camp.

The primate observation teams were also lucky with tracking the radio-collared group of vervet monkeys down to do behavioural observations.

We brought back from the field fresh elephant dung samples and have started extracting all seed from them for further analysis. Many elephant ID pictures were also taken during the elephant observations.

We have caught a variety of bats every single night we ran a bat survey, noting down measurements and features of these amazing creatures of the night, took ID and other pictures & videos.

To top it all off, the elephants came by yesterday evening to visit camp. It was a bull, two females and a juvenile foraging on one of the bushes, sniffing about and stealing the banana bait out of the butterfly trap that is set up between the kitchen platform and our tents. Everybody was safe in their tents already taking to heart all the safety instructions that were given during the training sessions. The elephants had moved on when the bat trapping team returned to camp around 22:30, but we could still hear them for a while lingering about in the vicinity.

Enjoy the pictures, say more than words about the expedition team’s life out here in true African wilderness.

Malawi: Blackbeard, the giant elephant

Our expedition started with a late arrival at base, but despite this most of the team got up just after sunrise to take in the new surroundings and absorb the stunning view of a quintessentially African landscape from the platform.

Days 2 & 3 were filled with orientation, lectures and training sessions about safety, the equipment, elephants, primates, insects, big mammals and bats – all species we are going to collect data on. We learned about the history and research methodologies of the various projects we will be involved with over the next month. For the big mammals inventory research, we prepared 21 camera traps by going through a long list of settings. As I write this, a bat capture training session including data collection is taking place in the “backyard” of camp.

In the afternoon of day 2, we went for a game drive taking the road around the lake and found a huge group of elephants. We saw about 60-70 individuals some of which could be identified. Blackbeard, for example, who is a male bull towering over the whole rest of them. When he starts walking everyone gets out of his way. And a fluffy newborn that can’t be older than a few weeks. We were mesmerised by the majestic creatures and their interactions, took hundreds of pictures and left them only shortly before sunset.

After dinner, the bat survey will go on for a couple more hours (two catches already as I type). We’re trained up and prepared for the field work starting tomorrow morning at 06:00.

Malawi: Shopping, cleaning, preparing

Mandy & I arrived at camp a few days ago.  We had a flat tyre on the drive up. Not a big deal only that the car load was too heavy for being jacked up. Local people stopped to help us unloading and changing the tyre – another great experience of the Malawian spirit.

We spent the first day at camp tidying up tents and the platform, unpacking equipment, going through the menu and writing shopping lists. Friday was our shopping day. Karen, Dominique, Mandy and I left base in two cars at 06:00 for Mzuzu, the so-called capital of the North, and hit the one and only big supermarket of the region just when it opened the doors. I lost track of the number of carts we filled with food & drinks. The staff was friendly enough to open a till just for us that was soon surrounded by helpers packing everything into cardboard boxes that were finally loaded into our cars. It wasn’t before early afternoon that we left the supermarket to pick up some lunch before heading back to camp. Unloading and storing food took up another few hours so it was late in the evening when we crawled to bed.

Now, let me introduce you to the staff that is going to be involved with the expedition: Karen (CRA) is responsible for the bat & insects science, Dominique is her research assistant. Mandy (LWT) will be the same for elephants and primates with Leigh-Anne and Pili assisting (see picture). We have a wonderful research team and everyone is looking forward to meeting the team tomorrow. And there is Manuel, our cook (a very important person on the expedition ;)) and his friend & helper Felicia who arrived yesterday.

From left to right: Leigh-Anne, Mandy, Karen, Dominique, Pili.

Writing this I am sitting on the shaded platform with a view to the lake. In the distance I can see a group of kudu, a bunch of hippos and a troup of baboons. It is sunny and warm with a light breeze – perfect conditions for doing some scientific field work.

And so it begins with group 1. See you tomorrow.


Romania: Wolves howling, bears frolocking and wild boars munching

On day 5 the team undertook habitat surveys of the future bison enclosure. With the animals due to arrive in a month and many transects remaining to be done, the clock is ticking.

Starting from the hide at Bunea, we scrambled down the precipitous forested hillsides overlooking Lake Pecineagu, wondering whether the bulky animals would fare any better on this terrain.

Oliviu, a botanist with FCC, picked out the locations of two new transects, which were staked out. With the help of visual keys, we were able to identify almost all the vegetation present, clarifying the remainder with Oliviu’s help, and reference to field guides.

Bison reintroductions are still experimental, so surveys like these are vital to understanding the large herbivores’ impact on their new habitats.

Days 6 and 7 were spent at the hides: Bunea, and the higher Comisu, with groups swapping between the two on the second day.

Both teams were lucky enough to observe bears and boar. Thanks to clear skies and the light of a full moon, we were able to watch late into the night, and record the movements of individual animals. At one point a bear and a boar were seen feeding just 5 metres from each other, at another, two bears fed simultaneously.

That night, the valley echoed with the booming grunts of red deer, with at least three audible from Bunea. The rut is just now beginning and will continue until mid-October.

Up at Comisu, the only artificial light visible, beyond those on Pecineagu Dam and the occasional passing aircraft, was a candle in the window of Bunea hide below. While admiring the night sky, we heard the distant howling of wolves on the other side of the lake.

Over the two days we also caught a rare glimpse of, and heard, a three-toad woodpecker, saw sparrowhawks dive-bombing jays, which were feeding at the hide, heard a ural owl, and found our largest sample of bear hair yet.

This brings our inaugural expedition to ths beautiful part of the world to an end. A big thank you to our citizen scientists for your energy and enthusiasm, and for making a great contribution to the conservation of this beautiful and important area. Thank you also to our partners at FCC. We are glad and proud to be supporting your efforts in conservation, which are second to none in Europe, and be a small cog in your big operation.

We’re already looking forward to next year!

Malawi: Lilongwe, but not for long

I arrived  in Lilongwe early in the afternoon. No delays, no queuing … almost. I was lucky enough to get out of the plane quickly and into the first bus to the arrival terminal. Right at the entrance you have to present your passport and vaccination card before you can proceed to the visa application check desk. Don’t forget to download and fill in the form back at home so that you can proceed straight away while others are busy with completing their forms.

Amanda (Mandy) picked me up from the airport together with Robert, a local LWT employee who you will be meeting you at Mafumu hotel for assembly. He is briefed on the meet & greet procedure and will make sure that everyone gets on the bus to base where Mandy & I will be waiting for you.

Robert & I went for some last minute shopping before he dropped me off at Mafumu Hotel. It’s a lovely place, the weather is pleasantly warm and the Malawian people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming. They say they’re the heart of Africa…

You have my local phone number from a previous e-mail. Reception in Lilongwe is very good; not sure what it is like on the eight hour drive up to base. Mandy and I will leave the capital tomorrow early in the morning – more from me once we have arrived at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.