The Malawi 2022 biodiversity expedition has finished, with 12 satisfied and cheerful expeditioners loaded onto a coach to take them back to Lilongwe. This has been an expedition that kept on giving. The last couple of days gave us more elephant herds to record, more hippo counts, more elephant dung to sift through, more ants to study under a microscope, more camera trap images to view and more wildlife encounters.
The day after our discovery of the super herd of elephants reported in the last blog, we came across a super herd of Cape buffalo – maybe 100 animals quietly milling about in the dark.
Our last elephant survey gave us a beautiful hour with a family herd drinking and splashing in the lake before wandering off, leaving a large bull elephant browsing on a marula tree, blocking our way and in no hurry to move on. We waited patiently until he did wander into the trees with sufficient distance and lack of interest in us to allow us to slowly drive past, with a wide berth. So we thought. A large bull elephant can turn and charge with impressive speed, we discovered. We made a hasty 100 metre retreat in reverse gear to give the elephant the personal space he clearly needed and continued to watch him until we could circumnavigate him, successfully this time, and continue on our way to look for more animals.
A celebratory sundowner by the lake that evening was a fitting end to a successful and very enjoyable expedition. Back at base camp, Brenda and Phonice, our marvellous cooks, served up a wonderful last meal for us. Benni, our expedition scientist from LWT, summarised our expedition field research achievements and thanked us for the hard work we had put in and the impressive amount of research data this had produced.
Our initial headline results are:
42 herds or individual elephants counted, with a total of 458 individual elephants
6 hippo transects completed, with an average total hippo count of 116 hippos
976 seeds sifted (and photographed) from 38 samples of elephant dung
Over 40,000 individual camera trap images uploaded and catalogued
117 samples of invertebrates collected and preserved, giving 2161 identification pictures of ants that are relevant for pangolin food
A big thank you also from me, your expedition leader, to all involved – from LWT to Park staff and rangers, to cooks and helpers, to citizen scientists. There are too many to name individually, but you know who you are. This expedition would not be possible without you and I thank you for making it a success.
The team peacefully sitting in base camp checking camera trap images, studying ants under a microscope and sifting through fresh elephant dung were interrupted a moment ago by the VHF radio. LWT staff member Pili, leading the rest of the Biosphere team on a lakeside transect walk to count hippos, was calling for a rescue. The small group of our citizen scientists had been trapped by a herd of elephants on the floodplain. With good experience of elephant behaviour, Pili kept the team safe without problems, but they were blocked from walking back to camp by the elephants. At base camp, Benni and a couple of helpers jumped into a vehicle and set off to intercept and evacuate our trapped and intrepid citizen scientists. Not quite an everyday experience, but still, very much the kind of thing that can happen on an expedition that deserves its name.
The Malawi 2022 biodiversity expedition is in its last days, but there is no sign of it winding down. If anything, the team is operating at its best now: after initial training and many days of experience, the expedition is a well-oiled machine, with animal observations, sample collection & analysis, as well as data entry all being carried out with speed, efficiency and a smidgin of pride.
Each day starts with a dawn drive along the lakeside to look for elephants. Nobody has told the elephants this and so we have rarely spotted them at this time of day, but those of us happy to get up at 05:00 are rewarded with the sights and sounds of Malawian wildlife in the warm light of sunrise. All the team are up for breakfast at 07:00 and after that we split into research groups doing different research tasks for the day.
Driving and walking to observe elephants and hippos (and recording herd / pod size and composition) is a daily task. The hippos are easier to count: they tend to stay, semi-submerged in the muddy lake all day. The elephants come and go according to their own schedules and it is always a delight to come across them (sometimes they come across us, first, see above). We see matriarch-led family herds of up to 12 regularly, as well as solo or small groups of bull elephants alone or following a family herd at a distance. Yesterday, our afternoon elephant count team found a super-herd of more than 100 elephants milling about between the lake and the woodland. This could be as much as a third of all of the elephant population of the Vwaza Marsh Reserve and was clearly a thrilling encounter for those of us lucky enough to witness it. As with all our elephant sightings, the experience of watching these animals interact with each other (and with us) is endlessly absorbing and wonderful. So much so that we have to dig deep to find the discipline to do our job of recording what we see.
We also collect elephant dung. This is more fun and useful than it sounds. Measuring the diameter of fresh dung boli gives an analog of elephant age (we have a look-up table for this) and the contents of the dung, once sifted, cleaned, dried and analysed, tell us what the elephant has been eating. Our findings so far suggest that the elephants are not eating crops that are grown outside the nature reserve and so giving us a (tentative) happy conclusion that the reserve fence is doing its job and that human-elephant conflict is decreasing.
We have also collected the first set of photos from our 16 camera traps set up at strategic locations around our part of the reserve, giving us some evidence of the range of animals living here. Many of them are well known and expected, but it is no less thrilling to find images of hippos, elephants and antelope caught on camera, usually at night. Occasional photos of something more notable tend to bring about a shriek of excitement from whoever is sitting at a laptop diligently checking and cataloguing all the camera trap images. Our first haul of camera trap images have revealed good images of leopards, hyaenas, buffalo and porcupine.
We also look for animals at night, using spotlights from the back of a pickup, and in the daytime simply by looking around – and have been rewarded with sightings of crocodiles and a monitor lizard by the lake, a multitude of birds from eagles to canaries (alongside the ubiquitous screech of the Hadida ibis) and many pairs of eyes shining back at us at night. We have seen genets, mongooses and a couple of civets this ay. Pairs of eyes in the trees at night that suddenly jump a startling long distance are usually bushbabies, who can also entertain us with unnerving shrieks in the dark.
All in all the expedition team are doing brilliantly – they are very good at doing all of the research tasks (including sorting through countless ants on a petri dish to establish the potential good Pangolin diet). There is wistful talk around the campfire at sunset, about wanting to stay on for another week. And now, the rescue team has returned (the right number of people I note with some relief), all in good spirits with a story to tell and photos to share and the expedition continues.
As I write this, sitting in the cool of the dining area at base camp, some of our Malawi citizen scientists are watching – and counting – a large herd of elephants drinking at the lakeshore, another team is out on a hippo count walk and others are peering at and photographing ants through a microscope, sifting samples of elephant dung for seeds and logging camera trap photos. It is a happy, calm and efficient scene! The Malawi 2022 biodiversity expedition team is up to the task – following a few days of settling in, training and practice, they are getting on the research tasks with notable competence and conviction.
The elephant herd analysis is important project for the conservation scientists at LWT to understand and monitor herd composition and health. The hippo count, similarly, is needed to measure changes in hippo population over time. The ant research is all about working out which habitats provide the most suitable ants for pangolins (a highly endangered and much trafficked rare animal that is a frustratingly fussy eater). The elephant dung analysis will tell the scientists the extent of cultivated crops in the elephants’ diet: there is very real conflict between the elephants here and the communities that live in the adjacent land. The dung analysis will reveal whether the new fence between the reserve and the cultivated land is doing its job or not.
And in between all these research tasks, we have been enjoying spotting – or being bothered by – the local wildlife. Elephants and hippos are seen daily, with an almost regular visit by elephants herds walking across the river in front of base camp every afternoon. We have also had elephants calmly wandering through base camp at night, tearing at branches for food and not threatening us at all, so long as we just watch and enjoy. There are clearly many wild animals exploring around our camp every night, judging by the grunts, snuffles and shrieks heard in the small hours. Surely not all of these sounds come from the expedition team’s tents. Last night we heard hyaenas calling to each other. Our night drives and camera traps have also revealed a diversity of nocturnal animals – bush babies, genets, civets, owls and porcupines and more. Baboons are a constant, but fascinating nuisance at base camp and have to be chased away from our buffet breakfasts.
We have had some minor inconveniences – delayed baggage transfer, vehicle tracks blocked by trees pushed over by elephants, baboons stealing our food – but the expedition is going superbly so far and we expect to continue to hard work collecting good field data and enjoying the ever-changing encounters with wild animals, for the rest of this Malawi African wildlife volunteer expedition.
After an epic drive half the length of Malawi, including a wrong turn, the expedition team arrived at base in darkness on Sunday. Spirits were high and grumbling non-existent, a sure sign of a good expedition team. So straight into introductions and a talk we went, before dinner and early bed.
Monday started early with tea & coffee at 05:00 followed by a 05:30 two-hour game/orientation drive round a small part of the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. The rest of the day we spent on training – background, equipment, datasheets, methodology for our various activities such as camera trapping, hippos, elephants, pangolins, iNaturalist and more. It’s an intensive two days of training and as I write this we are into day two. Olivia, our chief scientist, has set us targets. For example 200 species records on iNaturalist and 700 entries. Matthias, a birder, sprang into action and already has 57 bird species recorded. Of course Olivia can always adjust the target… Last night we also set up camera traps.
And all the while Vwaza reminds us where we are: Africa. As we are trained to be citizen scientists animals amble by base: baboons, elephants, kudus, impala, bushbuck and more. Crocodiles and hippos lurk in the lake, the sunsets are spectacular, the dawn chorus beautiful, the food good and plentiful, the (new) showers working. Life is hard as a citizen scientist in Malawi.
Vwaza is as beautiful as ever, the sunsets amazing, the elephants on form (and in camp this morning), the hippos grunting, the sky blue and a balmy 26C during the day.
We’re shopping, writing, building, planning, scheming all day. It’s going well and almost to plan. The fuel situation in Malawi is tough at the moment. Very little around, long queues at the petrol stations, European prices. This morning at 4 we went to a ‘nearby’ station to get our towels down early for fuelling up. We were in the front of the queue and there was fuel – so far so good. When the station opened at 6, there was a power cut. No power, no pump, no fuel. So we rustled up a generator, put it on our pick-up, took it to the petrol station and – voilà – two hours later our tanks were full. Word got round quickly and soon there were crowds.
Is this the beginning of the end game? Will Mad Max become reality? You have to wonder. Still, we soldier on and do what we can to protect nature and our beautiful planet. We are the ambulance that tries to keep the patient alive until the doctors decide to save it. Thank you for your service for the next two weeks.
And so that you know what you have let yourself in for, here’s a taste of what’s coming your way:
Our advance party is in Lilongwe and it’s good to be back. Malawi is its old self. Chaotic, friendly, hot, sunny, dusty, red. They call it “the warm heart of Africa” and whichever PR agency came up with that tag line did a good job.
We’ve met with Benni, Tom, Olivia from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), our local partner, to talk through our Malawi expedition. We’ve run from shop to shop in search of medical supplies, duck tape, tupperware, etc. We’ve unpacked, inventoried and re-orged equipment that has languished in storage for three years, desperate to be let out into the field. We’ve made plans and new friends. We’re typing away at our laptops, updating documents, procedures and datasheets and writing blogs. We’ve negotiated potholes and the ebb and flow of Lilongwe traffic. We’ve stuck out like sore thumbs with our fair skin at markets and shops. Much of it the usual expedition routine – often scorned as we became too comfortable with expedition life, but now much appreciated after lockdowns and no fieldwork for far too long.
Anyway, we are getting ready for you. Roland is sitting in an aeroplane somewhere between London and Lilongwe, and on Thursday morning, we’ll be on our way to Vwaza to get everything ready for you. We’ll report back from there and then we’ll see you on Sunday.
After a three-year wait we are now also back in business in Malawi and if the weather in Lilongwe (solid sunshine for the next week with temperatures peaking around 30C) is anything to go by, then the sun is indeed shining on us and this ‘back in business’ expedition.
But we need to get there first and this is proving somewhat difficult. Because of a funeral in London on Monday and the accompanying hysteria in the kingdom, Roland’s flight, which was meant to take off on Monday has been delayed for 30 hours. Quite why remains a mystery. On the topic of hysteria, also see an interesting article about funeral vs environmental crisis coverage.
Matthias, leaving from a republic, is on schedule to depart tonight. He will prepare the ground for Roland and then double up as chauffeur to drive our great expedition leader up to Vwaza after his red carpet arrival, with all the prep work having been done.
Matthias will report back in from Lilongwe. For now, enjoy your packing & preparation, make sure you swot up on the science using your field manual, and start getting excited. It is happening again after a long wait!