Thailand: Final survey

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

Today saw our Thailand elephant volunteers leave the village (and our jungle base) to get driven back to Chiang Mai, where they will prepare to re-enter society, hopefully with some new and interesting experiences and conversations to bring to the table.

Having had three years pass since the last Thailand expedition in 2019, and with so much planning and preparation beforehand, myself, Kerri and the team at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary couldn’t be happier with the results of all the hard work put in by our team of elephant citizen scientists. A team who could just have easily spent their annual leave in a refined hotel with Gin & Tonic in hand by the piano lounge, most likely not having consider how many times they should tap their boots upside down to check for scorpions before going for a stroll. Thank you for coming here instead.

Yesterday saw our final survey in the field, completing collectively 130 hrs of data collection, approximately 800 km walked and 24000 meters climbed up through steep jungle hillsides, gathering data for our scientists to evaluate for ongoing research in several aspects of the semi-wild elephants’ lives. Work that isn’t normally possible as it is so labour-intensive, and requires a concerted team effort – which is exactly what this expedition brings.

We’ve nearly finished packing up now, and soon I’ll be heading back myself. Thank you again everyone – this could not happen without you.

Anthony Lyons
Expedition leader

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Thailand: Quiet morning in the jungle

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

All good things come to an end. Much like the peanut butter for the toast at breakfast, we also saw the last of our early starts yesterday. It is such a tranquil way to start the day, with our head torches on, the morning dew dripping off the trees onto our heads as we make our way through the jungle. We arrived to see the opposite behaviour compared to the previous afternoon. Boon Rott and Gen Thong were in solitary patches of forest feeding and exploring. Gen Thong did eventually head to the river after a couple of hours for a solitary drink and a bathe in silence, apart from some frogs croaking and bird song in the distance. We have our last survey today wrapping up two complete days surveying combining all the hours collected this past week. Then our elephant citizen science team head back to Chiang Mai. But I have it on high authority that there is a pot of strawberry jam and Nutella in the fridge, so at least there will be something for the toast to spur us on our final quest.

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Thailand: Stylish handbags

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

Yesterday we finished our elephant conservation expedition finished its second day in a row of our late data collection times, starting at noon, then lunch followed by two more hours taking us up to 16:00. By the time we walked back to the village it was almost dark and dinner was on the table.

For the last two days the elephants have been very social with each other, the males and the females socially bathing (I don’t blame them, yesterday was especially warm) and Gen Tong, who normally annoys the others, has spent lots of time with Boon Rott, a larger older male with large tusks. They’ve been foraging together interspersed with trunk touching and leading us into dense thorny bushes that don’t seem to bother them at all.

We’ve also had the pleasure of preparing food and cooking with our home stays. And also seeing traditional Karen textiles the women of the village make and sell. I had wondered why the Mahouts had such stylish shoulder bags…

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Thailand: Practice and Loy Krathong

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

Our team of elephant citizen scientists arrived into the village yesterday. With a slightly theory-intensive day of classroom learning, they all went to bed nice and early ready for today, our practice day in the field.

This morning with lunches made and clipboards packed, we set off on a 1.5 h trek to find the elephant herd. The sun was shining and the ground was dry as we made our way up steep slopes, only to find out we had to go back down and in another direction.

Eventually we found our quarry, a few minutes ahead of schedule, which gave us time to just enjoy their presence before we started practising our newly-acquired data collecting techniques. We spent half an hour or so on each different technique, which follows the elephants behavioural categories, their proximity to the rest of the herd and also documenting which species of plant they eat throughout the day.

Once we had returned to base, we entered the data gathered onto the computer spreadsheets, which will be the legacy we leave behind for our scientists.

It also just so happened that tonight is Loy Krathong (the festival of light on the full moon), where you make offerings from plants and flowers that float. The villagers came to our base to prepare them with us. We then light the floats and sent them down the river. The tradition is to send all your worries and bad feelings with them. So we did and I feel this can only be a good omen for the rest of our Thailand expedition.

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Thailand: Getting ready

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

Yesterday Kerri, Sombat and I made our way from Chiang Mai to Ban Naklang village, stopping in at the market place to pick up plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and other last-minute shopping supplies ahead of our expedition start date on Monday.

Today we have been getting the base expedition ready, printing out datasheets and preparing clipboards, putting up banners and arranging the kit room, packed with all the tools you’ll need for our citizen science elephant surveys out in the field.

Tomorrow I will be hiking out with Aislinn (KSES research coordinator) to meet the herd again. I wonder if they’ll remember me? Apparently they never forget…

Hopefully you will all be either in Chiang Mai by now or be arriving shortly. Please make sure you have all relevant documentation with you on Monday. And remember we will be issuing Covid tests to you all, which you will have to take when you meet Jasmine, please do not eat or drink anything other than water for half an hour prior to the test as this can affect the result (for axample, orange juice has been known to make a positive result). Please also try to make sure that your money is in notes no larger than 100 Bhat as it is hard to change in the village.

Finally, if you can it would be useful to have these two apps on your phone (they are free please download them if you’re able to). iPhone: My GPS Navigation tracker. Android: GPS Location and Elevation.

Please be punctual on Monday at the pickup point: 08:00 in the lobby of Mercure Chiang Mai, where Jasmin will meet you to take you to the village.

Looking forward to seeing you all.

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Thailand: Chiang Mai and beyond

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

I’ve made it to Chiang Mai with that slightly uneasy feeling in my stomach that seems to go hand-in-hand with spending 24 hours in transit, with the long leg of the journey being an overnight flight between Zürich and Bangkok sat between a Metallica rocker and a young couple with a baby on its first time on an aeroplane. But luckily you get that second burst of adrenaline to get you through the rest of the day. When you read this I will be on my way to Ban Na Klang, our hilltribe village base. The forecast for the area is for thunderstorms and I’ll report back with a final on-site update soon, before our Thailand elephant conservation expedition starts in Chiang Mai on Monday.

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Thailand: ex Barcelona

Update from our Elephant conservation volunteer holiday Thailand

Hello everyone, my name is Anthony and I will be leading this year’s Thailand elephant expedition. It’s the second time I will have been in the remote Karen hill tribe village, working together with Kerri from our local partner organisation KSES. (Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary).

I type this waiting at Barcelona airport for my flight, having laid all my kit on the dining table last night making sure my bag was expedition-ready. I’m looking forward to meeting up with KSES and the team soon, so we can get everything prepared, and can’t wait for all of you to join us as citizen scientists in Thailand on this excellent project.  I will update you with my telephone number, the weather and latest news once I arrive in Thailand.

Best wishes

Anthony Lyons, expedition leader

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Malawi: keeps on giving

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

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.

Best wishes

Roland, expedition leader

Hippo returns to water after night time feeding on land
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Malawi: A super-herd and a small rescue

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

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.

Another day at the office
This is what happens after 10 days on expedition
Camp visitor
Part of the super-herd
Continue reading “Malawi: A super-herd and a small rescue”

Malawi: Elephants, hippos and ants

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

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.

Elephant visiting base at night
Elephants coming to the lake in front of base
Counting elephants and herd composition from base
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