Pandemics result from destruction of nature, say UN and WHO

Experts call for legislation and trade deals worldwide to encourage green recovery

Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International, and the world has been ignoring this stark reality for decades.

The illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places were still the driving forces behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans, the leaders told the Guardian.

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Azores: gotcha!

It bit choppier than expected yesterday (Thursday), but the lookout had seen sperm whales, so off we went. Once again, we were headed to the south of Pico, off the town of São João.

We stopped and put the hydrophone in just to make sure and, yup, we were close. The whales we could hear were a bit farther to the southeast, so we headed that way, only to have the lookout shout “Blow, behind you”! And sure enough about 300 m behind us, a sperm whale had surfaced. When they are getting ready to come up to the surface they stop clicking, which is why it wasn’t detected on the hydrophone. As we maneuvered to get around behind the whale, I thought I recognised the white marks on the dorsal from the other day. Sure enough when it fluked, it was “1198”, one of our well known females that had first been seen in 1989. This was very promising, “1019” has been seen with her the last few years and we missed her the other day. The second and third whales were also well known: “3186” aka “Bearpaw” and “2234”. We then spotted “1198” again, this time she had a calf with her, displaying suckling behaviour; arching up and diving next to the female’s dorsal fin. Then we saw “3186” once again. We decided we would watch one more, before heading back to Horta. Blow, this time a little closer to the shore. The dorsal fin was different to the others we had seen and looked familiar. “1019”!!! Yes! She was first seen in 1988, the same year that I started studying the whales and dolphins in the Azores. So she and “1198” are at least 40 years old, because when they were first sighted, they were identified as adults, rather than juveniles.

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So off we headed back to Horta, with the lookout trying to find dolphins. And find them he eventually did! You can see from the track of the boat when we took a “hard left”! A couple miles further offshore from our course we found a group of spotted dolphin. These were the first spotted dolphin of 2020!! There were some very small calves in the group and they were riding the bow as they travelled towards the west against the waves. What a finale!

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What will the next trip bring? Watch this space. Thank you once more to Biosphere Expeditions, and everyone who has contributed to their appeal, for the funding to make these outings possible!

All pictures (c) Whale Watch Azores

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 (, 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

Costa Rica: Turtle conservation in coronavirus times

This year everything is different. The country is effectively closed and so are all its beaches. This means there are no international volunteers or citizen scientists with us this year.

The main threat for our sea turtle nesting beaches is through illegal poaching. But COVID-19 has stopped us dead in our tracks and we currently have just our key local staff of one biologist and two research assistants struggling to patrol 7 km of beach to save as many nests as possible. But our funding, which comes from expedition contributions, is now lacking too, so we are struggling to pay our local staff. We are grateful to a couple of our local guides who have offered to work for free for the peak nesting season. Another piece of good news amongst all the mayhem is that our lobbying and education work with the government is finally paying of. So this year, just in time, we also have more support from the coastguards, who are also more available because all beaches are closed to the public.

So all in all, we are surviving here. So far we have managed to save round half of all nests overall. This is a far cry from the around 70% we can achieve with volunteers and underlines how critically important they are in what we do, but it is nevertheless impressive, given the very difficult circumstances.

Here are the latest figures from Pacuare:

  • 125 leatherback nests this year – 67 protected in hatchery (54%)
  • 53 females identified
  • 740 hatchlings released from 15 nests so far
  • Emergence success rate 73%
  • 5 green turtle nesting activities with 2 nests protected in hatchery (40%)
  • 1 green turtle killed by poachers
  • Overall percentage of leatherback and green turtle nests saved so far 47%
  • By comparison, 67% of leatherback and green nests were saved in 2019 with the help of citizen scientists

Thank you to everyone who has supported the Biosphere Expeditions fundraiser so far. This is a crucial component to our success in spite of the pandemic this year. Please keep giving, if you can. The peak nesting season is still to come and every cent or penny will count!

Nicki Wheeler
Volunteer Coordinator
Latin American Sea Turtles


Tien Shan: missing our citizen scientists from around the world

Usually by this time of the summer we’re already getting started with our  expedition here in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, mid-June is my favourite time to be up in our study area as the wildflowers are in full bloom and the mountains are at their most beautiful. More importantly for our research though, the number of shepherds is minimal, which increases the potential of seeing our study animals. This year though is obviously very different. It is increasingly challenging to create plans too far in the future, and as such, we were not sure that the lockdown in Kyrgyzstan would be lifted by this time of the summer. So instead, our community expedition will be taking place at the end of July for a total of eight days with the main goal of camera trapping and extending our community-based conservation work. Without our international citizen scientists, there  won’t be much time for us to do the normal surveys that are a big part of the project year after year.

One of the first teams, in 2017

Both the people and the data they collect will be sorely missed! It makes you realise the importance of people from around the world coming to join us each year, working hard towards the goal of snow leopard conservation. It will be a very different expedition without them.

Amadeus DeKastle
Expedition leader

Azores: busy, busy, busy

Saturday morning started a bit grey and damp, but the south of Pico was looking brighter. First we spotted a Cory’s shearwater with a damaged wing, at one point it looked like some monofilament was wrapped around it. We called the university and they said someone would come to collect it. But as we fuelled the boat, the bird came closer so once we finished, with no sign yet of the people from the university, we decided to catch it. Using a net, normally used to collect skin or poo samples from whales, we managed on the second attempt. Luckily for us, there was a bird box from the rescue campaign in the autumn, when the young birds can be found on the roads, at the police office in the marina. So we boxed up the bird and left it to be collected later. The bird will be transferred to Pico where hopefully it can be re-rehabilitated and released.

Off we went, just ahead of the rain showers. The lookout, Antero, had seen a sperm whale in front of the vigia at São Mateus, before we left, so that was our destination. As we reached the south, the wind dropped off and the sun came out. It was summer! Removing a couple of layers of clothing, we were scanning the horizon looking for a blow the lookout had directed us to. We found the whale and got the camera out just in time for the fluke. As it dived, I shouted “1198”!! She is one of our very well known females, first seen in 1989. Her group had been seen a few days previously closer to Lajes on Pico. The lookout then said we should go a few miles ahead where there were more whales. I did think this was strange, since usually the “family” of 1198 tend to swim fairly close together. But you don’t disagree with the lookout, so off we went. We just missed a mother & juvenile diving, but soon found another few whales, then another one and so on! We even saw what I think were two young males. By the end of the day, we had 13 different flukes from 16 encounters, but not another member of the 1198 family. So I will just have to wait a little while longer to see “1019”, one of my favorites, first seen in 1988. Apart from one of the animals I suspected were male, all of the other flukes were new to the catalogue. The “male” had been seen by the university in 2004. I will be in contact with them to see if it was identified as a male at the time. I doubt it, because the animal we saw was not a “mega” male, which are the very large, up to 18 m, animals. This was maybe 14 or 15 m most, so in 2004, it would have still been with its family group most likely.

In between some of the sperm whale sightings, we also saw a very energetic group of bottlenose dolphin, with at least one very small calf. We didn’t spend very long with them, because a sperm whale came up to the surface. As we were trying to leave the dolphin, two of them raced in front of the boat and did some amazing, 5-6 m leaps into the air!

About 45 min after the bottlenose dolphin, we came across a group of pilot whales. The group was split into a group of three large animals and another of five or six smaller ones. The three large ones just rested at the surface about 50 m from the boat, waiting for the others to catch up. And when they did, the whole group moved off and dived.

We kept following sperm whales and just as we started to see repeat whales and were thinking of heading for home, I spotted another blow. As we headed over a second whale appeared and they headed towards each other. Heads were coming out of the water, mouths were open and we saw what at first glance appeared to be a turtle that they were playing with. That turtle turned into something much more dangerous, a big tangle of rope. The two juveniles continued to play with if for another five minutes, before moving off, leaving the rope behind. On the boat, we gave a collective sigh of relief. It would have been disastrous if the rope had gotten stuck in one or both of their mouths. Although there is a knife on board as well as a mask, disentangling a whale can be quite dangerous.

Another four whales had come to the surface in the meantime and our two juveniles went over to join the adults, maybe complaining that we had removed their “toy” from the water. It appeared that the group was going to socialise and since the wind had started to pick up, we headed for home. We arrived home, happy and tired after 56.5 miles and 6 hours at sea.

All pictures (c) Whale Watch Azores

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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

Azores: the south of Faial strikes again!

The wind has been blowing quite hard from the north all last week and yesterday (Sunday) was the first chance to get out again. The lookout on the south of Pico only saw a few small groups of dolphin, so we decided to stay to the south of Faial, where the waves were a bit smaller than the north side. It was a good choice!

We found a co-operative group of common dolphin, including some very small calves, where you could still see the fetal folds. Fetal folds are the “zebra” like stripes formed from the baby dolphin being bent inside of the womb, before birth. The brighter the stripes, the younger the animal. These marks will fade after a few months.

Just after the dolphin, we saw the second loggerhead turtle of the day! Not in “Turtle Time” for those of you wondering! 🙂 After the turtle dived, we put the hydrophone in for the second time and got a surprise. We had already passed a group of sperm whales! So we headed back the way we came and after about five minutes, I spotted three animals surfacing not too far from the boat! Yes! Then a small calf popped up and joined them and then another two! There were six sperm whales at the surface, including two calves; one suckling and the other not. Two of the four adults had been photographed in 2015, the other two are new to science.

Luckily, they didn’t all dive at the same time; one, then two sequentially and finally the fourth adult left the surface. The small calf was left at the surface and the larger one had shallow dive. WOW!! Now we understood why we hadn’t heard them on the hydrophone the first time we listened, they had all been up at the surface at the same time! We followed their clicks and waited for a second showing of the flukes, just to make sure we got the ID photos. And once they had all gone again, it was time to start back towards the harbour.

We passed very close to the Morro, the big white rock that you have to avoid hitting when landing or taking off from Horta airport! It is very impressive. No more animals were spotted, but I will be going out again soon, tagging along with Rui & Monica from the University of the Azores again. This time, they are going to be trying to tag a sperm whale.

Weather looks good, let’s hope the animals are waiting for us. Today Monday, 8 June is World Oceans Day.

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Azores: sperm whale day

Sperm whales to the south, sperm whales to the north. Not a lot in between yesterday (Friday).

I joined the University of the Azores again to look for baleen whales. The lookouts had only seen sperm whales to the south of Faial when we left the harbour. Since there was no lookout in the north, we went to search the area which wasn’t covered by a lookout. We spotted the first turtle of the day about 3 miles offshore and then found a mixed group of common and striped dolphin. They were not interested in the boat, so we kept going. Shortly afterwards, we spotted our second turtle of the day. This was a fairly large turtle and Rui decided to launch the drone to get some overhead photos. There is a project planned to have an unmanned aerial drone surveying the waters around the island for wildlife. But before that can happen, they need to write some algorithms to decipher the footage they will get. The photo of the turtle was only taken from 15 m height and it is tiny!

Unfortunately, during the flight one of the engines malfunctioned, so the drone couldn’t be used again during the trip. We kept heading to the NW of the islands, until the lookout on the north called to say he was on duty and and  had spotted sperm whales closer to the coast and couldn’t see anything else, despite good visibility. So we headed in to get some photo-ID of the sperm whales on our way to the south coast. The vigia directed us to a group of three and then spotted a big blow about two miles further out. It turned out to be a male sperm whale and it didn’t wait for us to get in position to get a fluke photo. So we turned towards the south once again, but ran into sperm whales once more! A group of two, then a juvenile and another single all within a mile. So after another three flukes, we finally made it to the south coast, only to find that the wind had slightly changed and increased, making it impossible to do any work. So we had to call it a day. On the way home, we came across another tw loggerhead turtles. Still smiles for me, because although we weren’t actually looking for sperm whales, we found them once again and managed to get five ID photos.

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