Malawi: Underway

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

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.

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Malawi: Mad Max?

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

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 – voilΓ  – 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:

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Malawi: Slog no more

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

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.

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Malawi: Back in business

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

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!

Some impressions of the 2019 expedition:

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Maldives: A dozen years, done

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

We have just finished our twelfth (!) year of Reef Check surveying in the Maldives and who better to talk about the results of this coral reef expedition than our scientist Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt:

Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt summarising the expedition’s results

Over the last week we surveyed eight sites, collected hundreds of data points, saw good reefs and bad, big things such as sharks and manta rays (but sadly no whale sharks), but more importantly little things such as butterflyfish, snapper, coral banded shrimp, diadema urchins, hard and soft coral, rubble, rock and nutrient indicator algae. Our newly qualified EcoDivers now know and appreciate the significance of these indicators and their dedication and attention to detail is what makes this expedition work.

Dr. Solandt will now write up our findings into a report, to be published within a few months and given to government and decision-makers in the Maldives. Our placements Shuga, Bas & Hampti will continue surveys whilst we are away, keeping the Reef Check fire burning until we return in a year’s time. A twelve year dataset is an impressive achievement in any kind of scientific study and it is the time and money that our citizen scientists put in that makes this possible. So thank you again Paula, Steve, Olivier, Peter, Rick, Mark, Shuga, Bas, Toshia, Ann, Tine and Hampti and all those that came before you, and happy birthday Mark on top. What a great excuse to have a farewell and birthday party put together.

Expedition team 2022

What a great expedition. I hope to see most of you again on expedition some day on this beautiful and fragile planet of ours!

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Expedition leader

Thank you to Jean-Luc Solandt for all the pictures in this year’s Maldives expedition blog

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Maldives: Giving, not taking

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

We are half way through our annual coral reef and whale shark expedition here in the Maldives. Training in Reef Check was the usual mad dash. Everyone got there in the end. Congratulations to all new Reef Check EcoDivers!

Today is our first day of surveys only. Like a fairly well-oiled machine we descend onto the reef, lay the line of science, then count fish, invertebrates and impacts as well as substrate along it. The numbers and codes we glean from two depths tell us tales of reefs hanging on, despite multiple stresses: oceans that are getting warmer and more acidic due to climate change, land reclaims through artificial sandbanks whose grains in the current smother the corals, building works on many islands and increased tourist activity as if continued growth on a finite planet and building bridges between islands was the answer. It is not. The former is a mathematical impossibility and the latter a short-sighted pipe dream.

So we do what we can. There are 250 liveaboards in the Maldives taking tourist divers around all year. We are one liveaboard of 14 scientists and citizen scientists doing surveys for a week. We are the only ones. You can do the maths yourself.

We may be one in several thousands and a quiet voice in the chatter of growth and development, but it is a beautiful experience nonetheless. A holiday with a purpose with Reef Check as our zen companion. Reef Check teaches you to look at a reef in a totally new way, to appreciate the little things and not obsess about the megafauna. We enjoy coral banded shrimp, the skill to be able to tell a soft coral from a hard coral from rock or rubble. We delight in watching grouper behaviour, small as they may be, or spotting snapper that have not been overfished. Sure, there are lobsters, humphead wrasse, turtles and sharks too. But this is not what it’s about. Instead it is about doing our bit for the reef, giving up our time and money in the process. It’s about hard work, not pleasure diving to satisfy your very own self-centred needs. It’s about giving, not taking. And this really is what the planet needs now.

Thank you Jean-Luc, Paula, Steve, Olivier, Peter, Rick, Mark, Shuga, Bas, Toshia, Ann, Tine and Hampti for giving.

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Maldives: A reef bouncing back

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

The Baros staff passed their EcoDiver tests with flying colours, congratulations. Amongst them is Shuga, a local marine biologist, who will join us on the boat and who will be a great asset to the team.

As the culmination of our two days of diving, we conducted a first survey of the Baros house reef. And what better place to record the data and celebrate certification than the beaches and the bar of this beautiful little island. The data confirmed my initial impression of a reef in recovery mode: good hard coral cover (38%), decent fish populations (with parrotfish and butterlyfish dominating, and groupers, sweetlips and snappers present), and very little coral damage such as bleaching or evidence of anchoring or pollution.I hope this is a good omen for the rest of our surveys. See you later today to find out.

Newly qualified (from right): Shuga, Ali and Ambra
Data entry
Baros house reef from above
Data entry

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Maldives: Flying and reefs

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

It feels strange and somehow wrong to be sitting on a long-haul flight again. Strange because it’s been a good while, thanks to the pandemic, and wrong because so much has happened since then in terms of the planet sending very clear signals that we are doing a great job in cutting off the branch that human civilisation sits on. So we at Biosphere Expeditions have decided we will only fly if absolutely necessary. If we can’t avoid flying (such as to the Maldives), we now try to pack as many jobs as possible into a flight. So I am here on the non-too-shabby resort of Baros, not far from Male’, to train their dive centre staff and the resident marine biologist in Reef Check so that they can conduct surveys themselves and eventually also train other Maldivians (and on the way back, I will stop off in Dubai to work on our forthcoming Arabia expedition).

Baros

Shuga, the Maldivian marine biologist I am training here, will also join us on the expedition, alongside two other Maldivians, as part of our placement programme.

Anyway, I am Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions and I will be your expedition leader for this Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition, next to our esteemed expedition scientist Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt. We’re both old and frustrated codger-biologists, so you have been warned! πŸ˜‰

I arrived to grey, stormy weather and rain. Jean-Luc’s codger message to me on take-off was “enjoy the rain, old man”. I wasn’t surprised.

But underwater made up for it. The Baros house reef was in a bad state three years ago, but it has bounced back somewhat. There is quite a bit of coral regrowth and within two 40-minute dives, I saw all fish indicator species (grouper, sweetlips, butterflyfish, snapper and more), three shark species, a turtle and all substrate types (hard coral, soft coral, rock, sand, rubble etc.). Not expecting much, it was a pleasant surprise to see the reef not dead, but fighting back. I wonder whether this is a good omen for the forthcoming expedition? It will certainly be interesting to see what state the reefs are in. Don’t get your hopes up high, though. We may just be documenting humankind’s cancerous effect on this part of our planet too. We will see. Jean-Luc will be telling us, without mincing his words, what it all means and I can guarantee you that he will open your eyes to reefs and help you see them like you’ve never seen them before, no matter what state they will be in.

The itinerary he has set for the expedition is below and a visualisation of the places we will survey and visit is here.

Survey schedule

I will write again in the next couple of days. In the meantime, happy packing and travels. I hope you have swotted up on Reef Check. The more you can do now, the easier the whirlwind of the first two training days will be, trust me.

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Tien Shan: Wolf scat, snow leopard photos and petroglyphs

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Nobody could accuse this snow leopard volunteer expedition of being dull, and the interesting times have continued with the third and final group for this year.

Group 3 started dramatically with a mountain storm erupting without warning within hours of the team arriving at base camp. 30 minutes of high winds destroyed one of our three yurts and many of our tents, necessitating two prompt actions – a hasty arrangement to hire a yurt from a local shepherd and a long drive back to Bishkek for expedition leader Roland to buy some more tents. Both missions were completed successfully. Then expedition leader Roland tested positive for Covid. Leading an expedition while self-isolating proved to be a novel experience, but group 3 was a strong and dependable team and the expedition continued largely as planned. Another expeditioner then also tested positive for Covid a day after Roland, but thanks to the implementation of our Covid protocol, the spread stopped there.

Despite these setbacks and some challenging weather in the first few days, the expedition team pulled out the stops and achieved some good scientific research over the two weeks. We visited most of the camera traps already located in the mountains, to replace SD cards and to retain, move or bring back each camera. We surveyed many 2×2 km cells – many of them covering new valleys we had not visited before. We saw ibex, high up on ridges. We discovered many instances of ibex footprints and scat and – excitingly – some snow leopard footprints too. We also found large carnivore scat on a few occasions.

It is not easy to directly tell whether such scats are from snow leopard, wolf or even lynx, but the location and neighbouring clues often help. Wolf predation of livestock is common here – much more than with snow leopard who favour ibex as their main prey and we came across a few horse and cow carcasses and accompanying wolf scat on at least one occasion. Even more excitingly, we found likely snow leopard scat a couple of times and we have a total of six potential snow leopard scats from the three groups, ready to send off for DNA analysis to confirm their identity.

Group 3 also had the task of checking the camera traps that were put up by the previous two groups. All the camera traps were placed in strategic locations, often on high ridges, where we have found good evidence of ibex at least. Some of these cameras have captured good photos of ibex and snowcock, amongst other snow leopard prey animals. And two images of cameras have given us images of snow leopards – just a few days old in each case. This revelation never fails to being much excitement and celebration at our debrief sessions each evening.

Snow leopard image

Alongside our surveys of snow leopards and their prey, we naturally look out for any other interesting wildlife and other finds. We are always accompanied by buzzards, eagles and vultures. And often we come across petroglyphs, which are common in this valley but no less intriguing because of it. These are rock carving line pictures, depicting local animals, made many thousands of years ago in some cases. Most of the petroglyphs show recognizable animals (but some are not at all obvious and invite imaginative interpretation). Simple line drawings of ibex are especially common and we have also seen carvings of Argali sheep, camels, dogs –and occasionally snow leopards.

Ibex petroglyph
Snow leopard petroglyph

In group 3 we have also continued our social research into attitudes to the opportunities of eco-tourism amongst the local shepherd families. This involves visiting our neighbours up and down the valley, in their yurts and tents, always being received with great hospitality and courtesy. With our multilingual Kyrgyz scientist Dr Taalai Mambetov acting as interpreter, our expeditioners interview the shepherds, loosely following a prepared series of questions, but largely enjoying a free-flowing conversation. The interviews gave us a good insight into the realities of shepherding life in the upper Suussamyr Valley – and a strong appetite to host adventurous tourists here in the future.

The 2022 Tien Shan snow leopard expedition has brought some memorable challenges but was ultimately very successful, with a total of 30 expeditioners achieving an impressive amount of citizen science over six weeks in Suussamyr Valley: We have surveyed seventy six 2×2 km cells, many more than once, collected six samples of likely snow leopard scat ready for DNA analysis, discovered three sets of photos of snow leopards on camera traps, found snow leopard footprints, seen herds of ibex on mountain ridges on several occasions and we have interviewed twelve local shepherd families. And alongside all this, we have immersed ourselves in the wild mountain environment, scrambled up rocky ridges, seen a lot of local wildlife, discovered ancient and intriguing rock art, watched crazy games of ulak (the national sport of Kyrgyzstan, with horse riders fighting over a goat carcass, in a mad chaos of hooves and mud) and made new friends.

As one expeditioner reflected – β€œA once in a lifetime experience! This was a great way to deep dive into a country, push yourself outside your comfort zone and save some wildlife. The science we do here may not seem like much on a single day, but it adds up and contributes to a wonderful research project.”

So I end this diary by thanking all expeditioners, whose time and funds make this expedition possible, our partner NABU Kyrgyzstan and its snow leopard rangers, our head ranger Aman and his wife Gulia, our amazing cook, our expedition scientist Dr. Taalai Mambetov and everyone else who helps to make this expedition a success. Thank you all. You all contribute to making this expedition what it is.

Group 3
Karin, Walter and Sarah recording evidence of ibex footprints
Haley & Aman
End of workday briefing
Haley, Lars and Irving outside the hired drying yurt
A game of ulak about to start
End of expedition dinner
End of expedition dinner
Dismantling base camp

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Tien Shan: ulak and interviews

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Aman, our chief ranger, spotted them first, through binoculars. Once he pointed them out to us, they were obvious, even to the naked eye. Around twenty vultures circling over a spot on the far hillside, occasionally landing and pecking at… something. It was a dead horse. This valley is home to many herds of horses – not wild, but roaming free – and they occasionally fall victim to wolves. The vultures we saw might spend a few days getting a meal from what the wolves had left, a reminder for us of the circle of life.

Vultures are not part of our snow leopard expedition, but they are one of the more dramatic creatures that we have seen on this expedition. Our valley seems to have an unusually high population of large birds of prey. We see bearded vultures, golden eagles, buzzards and other raptors every day, often flying or perched on a rock very close to us. On group 2 we have also seen badgers – smaller, lighter coloured and less nocturnal than their European cousins, a mysteriously tame weasel and other mustelids, as well as a host of smaller bird species – wagtails, warblers, larks and choughs have all been seen and identified. The choughs are especially a welcome accompaniment to our high mountain walks, with their acrobatic flight and musical calls.

Most days we spend on hikes, slowly surveying many of the side valleys, peaks and ridges, looking for any evidence of the species we are researching – snow leopards and their main prey species (ibex, argali, marmots and snowcocks). Most days our small teams find something to report – marmots are relatively common on the lower slopes. Footprints or scat of ibex are found on the higher slopes and sometimes – always to great excitement – we see a herd of ibex walking along a ridge or up a slope. All of these findings are photographed and recorded on datasheets according to our research protocols.

We have also been deploying camera traps in suitable places – mostly on high ridges with signs of snow leopards or ibex – and have been able to check some of the cameras already. When we retrieve the traps or their SD cards, the exciting work of scrolling through all the photos begins. Many of them are of moving grass, sometimes even bright sunlight triggers them, so it is painstaking work. But sooner or later we are rewarded and we have happily discovered a handful of images of ibex, snowcocks and two snow leopards so far. These are important pieces of evidence for the research project as well as a source of great excitement for us at base camp. At the time of writing there are still a good few cameras waiting to be retrieved from the mountains by group 3.

We have had a few rainy cold days – this is the high mountains after all. But everyone has brought suitable clothing as recommended in the expedition kit list so our work continues whatever the weather. And the wood burner in our β€˜drying’ yurt has proved very welcome when we return to base camp. An especially stormy night ripped a couple of our tents and we also suffered tent damage from a wayward animal. But we have enough spare tents, so no problem.

A new element of our research this year is a survey of the local shepherd families about the potential for ecotourism, which might offer a new source of income for local people, give an incentive to protect and encourage wildlife and perhaps in time allow a reduction in livestock numbers in the valley, which are in competition with the ibex and the argali. The interviews we have been carrying out are intended to assess interest in the idea. So far, volunteer citizen scientists Margot and Kathy have been our chief interviewers, accompanied by our scientist Taalai as interpreter. This team has been welcomed with wonderful hospitality by the women and men they have approached, and ten interviews have now been completed, with a great variety of responses. The great majority of people are in favour of small-scale ecotourism in the valley and at least one respondent said he would give up shepherding altogether in favour of an income from ecotourism.

These interviews have been a fantastic way of getting to know our neighbours. And more widely, it is clear that the Biosphere Expedition is very welcome here – the local shepherds are very hospitable and express a great interest in what we are doing. Last week we were invited to watch a game of Ulak – the national game of Kyrgyzstan, involving two teams of horse riders ferociously competing to score goals with a goat carcass – followed by a generous meal in a local shepherd’s yurt. Many toasts and promises of continued friendship and collaboration were made.

So group 2 has finished with great success and we look forward to starting our third and final group of this year’s snow leopard volunteer project in Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

Felix looking for ibex
Margot & Kathy with local shepherds
Pondering interview questions
Roland, Georg and Taalai on top of a ridge
Mountain survey
At the local natural history museum
Checking a camera trap
Ibex horns found in the field
Group 2

Continue reading “Tien Shan: ulak and interviews”
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