Update from our SCUBA conservation holiday volunteering with coral reefs and whale sharks of the Maldives (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

Welcome to the Maldives diary. My name is Matthias Hammer and I will be your expedition leader for the Maldives replacing Kathy Gill. More information about me is at www.biosphere-expeditions.org/about > tab “Staff”.

I hope your preparations are going well and I look forward to seeing you in Male’ on 2 September at 09.00 in the lobby of the Nasandhura Palace Hotel. My Maldivian mobile (for emergency purposes only, such as missing assembly) will be +960 7570825. Because we have such great support from our Carpe Diem liveaboard team, I will only arrive a day ahead of you and set things up. I may write again before we all meet, but if not, I look forward to seeing you Sunday after next.

Safe travels.

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Expedition leader

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Update from our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

With the freezing overnight temperatures continuing we decided to deactivate the box traps for a couple of nights. This was to prevent the capture of smaller animals that cannot cope with such low temperatures at times when they are usually in their dens. Thankfully this spell of weather has passed and the nights have warmed up again, so all the traps are fully operative. However, nothing to report in terms of captures. We have tracks of predators walking near the traps, but nothing has gone in as yet…

The elephant teams have been continuing their observations morning and afternoon and getting quite close to the animals now, something that we were unable to do in the first slot. This has meant some interesting feeding observations and also some reversing to maintain our 50 metre distance rule (we should not get closer than this for safety reasons) as the elephants are wandering towards us and have, on occasion, appeared out of the bushes at a closer distance, but always calm and relaxed. It’s amazing that such large animals can be invisible in acacia bushes.

Our waterhole counts have been interesting too – there are a lot of different species here, with everything from giraffe, to cavorting wildebeest and shy oryx, not to mention the donkeys who were a surprise to me. Due to the destructive nature of the elephants here, it is not sensible to build the sort of hides that you can find in Europe – nice wooden boxes for people to sit in with a window slit to look out of.  Unfortunately these don’t last long as the elephants can be very inquisitive and when they want to find out about something they investigate with their trunks and objects often don’t survive very long. So we use adapted bushes with enough foliage to keep people covered and just enough room for three people sitting on folding stools. These have worked very well in fooling one species – the elephant team spent 20 minutes in front of the newest hide doing their radio telemetry work and noting cheetah tracks before one of them followed some tracks right to the door of the hide and three laughing people. It has been more difficult to hide from the other species, most animals seem to know that we are there, often staring straight at the hide before drinking and going about their business. This month is known as the month of changing winds and we more than suspect that the animals can smell us (some team members even claimed to have had showers the same day so they don’t understand it). Our evening camp fire discussions over the last couple of nights have included a lot of debate on hide design – a portable, collapsible design seems to be the most favoured at the moment, but I think we will have a proper design competition before the end of the slot.

Giraffe at the waterhole
Giraffe at the waterhole

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Update from our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/peru)

The ground is set at the ARC to welcome the first expedition team. Over the last few days Alfredo and I have worked on the datasheets and a weekly work plan including various tasks for each group. We went out for a night walk in the forest spotting a tarantula and more nocturnal animals, unfortunately no mammals, though.

Writing this I am waiting at the Tahuayo Lodge for the team members to arrive from Iquitos. All of them have made it despite late arrivals and cancelled flights from Australia. Once they arrive here, the rest of the day will be packed with introductions, safety procedures and background information about the animals and the research.

Tahuayo Lodge
Tahuayo Lodge

Having spent most of the time working on our computers and finishing preparations, Alfredo and I can’t wait to go out into the field.

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Update from our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

The temperature has dropped again over the last few nights with ice on the waterholes early in the morning and our water pipes freezing, so there is no water first thing in the morning. The Land Rovers have also refused to move before they have warmed up, but teams have still managed to leave camp by 08:00. On Thursday morning a caracal was found in box trap number 1 (a quick congratulations to the team from the last slot who set this trap up before they left – their third capture, truly box trap setting gods:)). The wildlife vet came to sedate the animal so that samples could be taken, and the usual efficient and professional organisation came with her. She arrives on scene with helpers (some also qualified vets) and a tent is set up with a table for the animal to be taken to once it is sedated. A clock sits over the proceedings and everyone works quickly to ensure that the animal is sedated for the minimum amount of time. Our team members likened it to everything from the set up used by Medicine sans Frontier in the field, to the arrival of a CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) team.

CSI field lab
CSI field lab

Caracals are known to bruise their faces when they are in box traps, something that they quickly recover from, but our animal had damaged its lower teeth, a very rare happening, so a decision was taken to remove it to a large enclosure where it could be watched for some days before release.

One team was very fortunate in finding some big drag marks crossing their path, and on following them into the bush they found the remains of an impala that had been killed by a leopard.  It was a very fresh kill, which means that the leopard will be back to eat more. A decision was quickly made to move one of the box traps to this location and set up a kraal around the kill so that if the leopard wanted to get to the meat, then it would have to go through the box trap and hopefully be captured. The team worked hard with the very spikey acacia bushes to create a kraal that the leopard could not get through. This morning we found the tracks of the leopard coming back to have a look for its kill but it hadn’t tried to reach it  – we are very hopeful that it will ‘take the bait’ within the next few nights…

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Here’s what happened since my last update.

Thursday (16 Aug) was our first day out walking so we chose a nearby valley to get everybody’s legs and lungs working at this altitude. The skills still fresh from training yesterday were put to good use. As soon as we had left the tree line, we spotted two groups of ibex (one with 3 males, 3 females, 3 juveniles, the second with 4 adults, 2 juvenilea) wandering up the scree and out of sight over the ridge. The sighting was logged (correctly!) on the datasheets using GPS and compass. There was snow on the highest ridges; unfortunately this is where snow leopards like to live. Climbing up would be difficult and dangerous for a big group so Martin and Hannes took up the challenge with Oleg, Jenny and I leaving the rest of the group surveying the valley floor with our visiting scientist Anna (a scrape was found here last slot). Camera traps 2 and 8 were successfully collected and revealed unidentifiable ghostly figures moving in the night. The importance of a test day became clear as Wan-Lin’s walking boot sole came clean off as she crossed a stream. Luckily, Hannes, the man with a plan (and a rucksack full of EVERYTHING) came to the rescue by pulling out a roll of duct tape and neatly lashing the sole back on. The shoe held together back to camp and is still going strong.

Taping Wan Lin's shoe
Taping Wan Lin’s shoe

More sunshine on Friday (17 Aug) prompted a move to an advanced base camp with the objective of retrieving a number of camera traps placed around a ridge near a high tarn (lake). It was a day hike to the lake and back and a select few (Hannes, Martin, Karl, Jenny, Kate, Oleg and I) would be left at the lake overnight to spend tomorrow at the top of the ridge retrieving the traps. All of us helped shift camp to the lake and then the valley group (with Anna) retreated down the boulder field to research the steppe habitat in the valley. As we (the ridge group) saw the valley group disappearing with Oleg, stormy clouds gathered and the first drops of snow started falling. Still, we had had fun designing sleeping arrangements. Hannes (ever a man for an experiment) had rigged a tarp/stone house and intended to sleep the night there. Karl and I preferred the simple approach and brought bivi bags. The rest preferred to use the two lightweight camouflage tents.  It started to snow at 21.00 and soon the bivi bags gave up, both Karl and my sleeping bags were soaking wet, we decided to head into the tents. Now the two tents were at maximum capacity (3 persons) with Hannes stubbornly sticking it out in his homemade den. As the snow built up into the early hours of yesterday morning (18 Aug) we had to wake up every half hour to kick the snow off the roof of our tent to avoid it collapsing. Hannes fared less well! At regular intervals during the night his tarp buckled under the weight of the snow. This was his signal to wake up and bash the snow off, getting soaking wet in the meantime. At around 03.45 he gave up too and showed up at our tent begging for somewhere warm to sleep! Naturally, we allowed the soaking wet German inside and spent the next 3 sleepless hours crushed up like sardines. At least we were warm!

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We couldn’t get up the ridge (for obvious reasons) yesterday, so after a brief breakfast we set off on the 4-hour journey back to the Land Rover. The camera traps will have to wait for another day. That’s the uncertainty of expeditions!

We arrived back at basecamp safely where it was raining. The rest of the group had decided (wisely) not to venture out onto the steppe and instead they were keeping warm in the mess tent. At time of writing the rain has stopped and the cloud is breaking up! Time to make another plan!

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Update from our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

The temperature has been slowly warming up as the team has warmed to their tasks. There were two days of training and yestreday have completed the first two full days of work. The training all went well – the presentation about the abilities of the Land Rovers have obviously been taken on board a little bit too well by Ilka. When she was driving there was a comment at one point, in unison, by the two passengers in the back of the vehicle pointing out, ‘There’s a big hole’.  The response from the driving Ilka was ‘This is a Land Rover’. With no pause, the reply came from the voices in the back ‘It’s still a big hole!!’.

The box traps were disarmed during the team change-over, so that no animals were captured whilst we were busy with training. They were re-armed yesterday and today, and new camera traps have been installed to add to the ones already in the field.

Setting a box trap
Setting a box trap

Already we have found several tracks of predators, and our work to understand the elephant movements has begun with several observations, during some of which we were able to get very close to the animals and see them ripping off parts of bushes.  In one instance we witnessed one of the larger animals working out whether to knock over a tree or not – she decided against in the end, but it was a good example of how the elephants work things out and test out their strength on potential sources of food (pushing hard with the front of their head between their tusks).

The team members are all working well together. They are getting used to the daily planning cycle and the constant changes and adaptations necessary to plans as things develop the way they do on expedition. The showers are hot and the beer is cold, there are a lot of beautiful animals to observe and a lot of work to be done. One team member, Fritz, made a good comment about his normal work that applies well here – he said that it is best to have a vision and to react to circumstances in a way that supports the vision. Plans should follow the vision, not lead it – very ‘expedition’!!

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Update from our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/peru)

Alfredo and I reached base yesterday. The speed boat brought us to the Tahuayo Lodge in 2.5 hours, where we switched to a smaller boat. After the record floods of some months ago, the rivers are now very low, so it took us another 1.5 hours (!) to reach our final destination: the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo River Research Centre. So out of the window goes our timetable so far (nothing is a constant as the change of plan on expedition).

Over the next couple of days we’ll be setting up base as well as our survey walks and canoe trips. We’re looking forward to welcoming trailblazing group 1 in a few days. Please come prepared for the unexpected and with the appropriate guinea pig attitude 😉

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Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

Sorry again for the silence for such as long time. As you all know by now communications are difficult and when we do get back to a decent internet connection in Novosibirsk, we have so much to do for the turn-around, that it’s difficult to find the time to post the diary. But enough excuses, here’s what’s been happening since my last update:

9 August

I stayed at camp today to organise packing up the cars and the campsite, so I have split the group and sent a valley group to complete interviews, a second group ascended the valley to collect a camera trap. Local people are franticly gathering hay for their livestock before the winter sets in.

10 August

It was an early start today as we drove to Kamlak, the halfway point on the long journey back to Novosibirsk. Today has the best scenery, which takes the weight off the drive and it all ends with a famous Russian banya (sauna). The masochistic (ridge group) among us choose to lift the temperature well over 100 degrees Celsius before beating each other with birch leaves. The process is completed by a dip in an icy Siberian river then all is repeated ad infinitum. This evening we have been listening to Jenny’s presentation on the data we have recorded over the past two weeks (see http://www.slideshare.net/BiosphereExpeditions/research-results-group-4-altai-2012). It’s all very impressive! Well done Jenny and the team.

11 August

The long last stint in the car before it all ends for slot 4! We have had a great time (in all weathers). Have a safe trip back home!  But for the expedition leader and scientist it starts again with the fifth and last slot.

Thank you everybody on slot 4 and welcome slot 5!

12 August

It’s the busiest day for Jenny, Oleg and I. But this time we have another member of staff to help: Kate, whom you should all know from chasing you for paperwork and sending you dossiers, instructions, etc. Together we have the usual multitude of problems to solve and tasks to complete: food shopping, welcoming the team, organising permits and running a familiarisation course with the cars. Now some dinner, sleep then tomorrow we go!

13 August

Today we drove to Kamlak. It sounds so simple, but never is! The problem this time was missing bags. It’s going to be cold at base camp, so everybody must have warm clothing. No clothes mean a very uncomfortable expedition!

As luck would have it the Russian airport authorities managed to locate one bag, which turned up this morning. Another may possibly turn up this evening? I took the decision to split groups. Jenny and I went ahead (behind schedule) to Kamlak and the famous banya (sauna). Oleg and Lucy (missing bags) will drive to Kamlak very early tomorrow morning.

14 August

For Jenny and I it was an early 70 km drive from Kamlak back along the road to Gorno Altaisk. Here we met by Oleg and Lucy (the early morning drivers) and received permits for the Altai region. Jenny, Lucy and I then attended a meeting with Mikhail who works with WWF Russia for the whole Altai region to discuss data collected from previous slots and to plan ahead for slot 5 and future collaboration. When the permits where collected from the office, we set off to pick up the team from Kamlak (only six hours behind schedule) and gave Oleg a well-needed rest from driving. Towards the end of the afternoon huge storms raged across the Altai Mountains further slowing us down due to landslides and rocks littering the road. We ended up at our dinner stop at 21:0), hungry but still in high spirits. Mercifully the 20 km off-road drive to camp was relatively dry, so we arrived at 23:30. Training day tomorrow!

15 August

Training day. As always, the first part of all things Biosphere Expeditions is the training sessions. This allows the expedition leader and scientist to teach team members the skills and practices vital to complete the expedition objectives. On the last slot the training differs slightly as the job this time is to retrieve and check all the camera traps. We still had to learn how to use a GPS and a compass. Anna (a guest scientist on this slot from the Siberian Environmental Center researching Pallas cat gave a short talk on her research and how useful we can be for her research).

Heavy rain this afternoon made the off-road driving training interesting! We also got a visit from Kampi our friendly neighbour who has moved down the valley closer to our camp due to the encroaching winter.

Today also allows the team to get to know each other and relax. We have made it!

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Update from our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/peru)

I am writing from Iquitos where I arrived the day before yesterday in the late afternoon alongside two bags and two big boxes filled with expedition equipment. I felt pretty spaced out when I finally stepped off the final plane into Amazonia, having travelled from Africa for 38 hours, dipping into various countries and timezones. After the first night my watch was finally set to local expedition time ;).

Yesterday morning I met up with our local scientist Alfredo who did a great job guiding me through noisy streets and crowded shops for some hardcore pre-expedition shopping. It was around noon when we ticked the last bits and pieces off the shopping list; as far as gear is concerned, we are now ready to leave for the jungle and when you ready this we’ll probably be in a boat to the remote research centre about 2 1/2 boat hours up the Amazon and then many smaller rivers.

I now also have a Peruvian mobile number: +51 961 821125 (for emergencies only) but please note that there is no mobile phone coverage at base and you can only reach me by e-mail from tomorrow on.

Finally, I’ve uploaded some pictures to give you an impression of Iquitos: a view of the Amazon (early morning after a heavy downpour), famous motortaxis and street life outside the A&E hotel.

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Safe travels group 1 and I’ll see you at our research base on Sunday.

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Update from our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Hello I am Kathy, your expedition leader for group 2. My time in Namibia here started with a highlight the day before yesterday. When Kristina and I took outgoing expedition leader Malika to the airport, we saw a leopard crossing the road! Sightings of truly wild leopards in the field are very rare, so to spot one crossing the busy road to the airport was like hitting the jackpot.

We took the same road again with group 2 after assembly (everyone has arrived safely). There were more leopards to be seen, but the giraffes were there to greet us when we arrived at our study site. We were then straight into the training sessions finishing up with more questions (and a beer) around the fire before supper.

Giraffe
Giraffe

It’s still cold but the showers are now hot – fingers crossed it will stay that way.

Today it’s more training and into the field.

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