Thailand: Elephants all over the study site

The weather is hot during the day now. We like the sun, but we are sweating for science also. In the early mornings we walk by the local families huddled around their fireplaces. For most of us a long sleeve shirt is plenty.

We spent Friday & Saturday surveying in the afternoon, when all elephants have been very active. The two females and the toddler stuck together most of the time as usual and were followed by quite a few of us watching their every movement and recording activities and social behaviour every five minutes. Every elephant has their personal data logger and two more citizen scientists record association data of the herd. Until Saturday the males stayed away, roaming on their own but still followed by us citizen scientists.

We’ve been walking a lot up and down hills, along the main path, to the river, back into dense undergrowth, etc., etc.. With elephant toddler Gen Thong around it never gets boring, anyway. He likes testing the boundaries and is always up for game.

On Saturday & Sunday we found Boon Rott and Dodo together for the first time since we started our surveys. It was great to see them getting along well, Dodo following Boon Rott. He is the newest member of the herd and in the process of slowly settling in. It will take some more time for him to get his bearings and there is a lot to learn from his mate about his new environment. We saw them mud-bathing together and displaying social behaviour – they must like each other.

Apart from surveying elephants, some of the team took the chance to participate in community activities in the afternoon of our early survey days on Thursday and Sunday. Kunsang learnt some traditional weaving skills and her scarf should be finished by the time we leave. Others went for a Thai massage to the lower village to experience a blind man’s magic hands. He is said to be unique in what he is doing – I can certainly attest to this.

We have one survey day left tomorrow (Monday). Keep your fingers crossed that all five elephants will decide to spend some time in one group. That’s our hope at least, but they have their own minds 😉

Thailand: Collecting data

The team has completed the second elephant survey day. Introductions, presentations and lectures on the science, the history of the elephants to be surveyed, the equipment, safety and living with the local people were followed by a half day of practical training in the field on Tuesday. Data collection started on Wednesday and will continue until Monday, working towards the goal of completing two full sets of survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00. That means that the schedule will change from day to day, some days starting at 06:00 others at 08:00.

We left base at 08:00 on Wednesday for the 4.5 km hike to find the elephants. Too-Meh, the herd’s grandmother (57 years), her daughter Mae-Doom (23 years) and Gentong, Too-Meh’s grandson (6 years) were  together near the river. They foraged most of the time and took a bath in the river later on. Right at lunchtime, one of the male elephants, Boon-Rott (13 years) joined them, so that almost the whole team was reunited for lunch. The third male elephant, Dodo (Gentong’s brother, 13 years) decided to roam around solitary. A team of two citizen scientists followed him up and down steep hills and even further away from where the rest of the herd enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very good first survey day – easy for some, more challenging for others, though.

Today (Thursday) we went for the first out of two early shifts. Leaving base before sunrise, we very much enjoyed the 90 min walk along the river watching the sun come up and slowly dissolving the mist. For the first time during this week the sky was clear blue and the sun pushed the temperature up and over thirty degrees. Keep your fingers crossed that we won’t get any more rain!

We celebrated Neil’s birthday on Wednesday evening. Talia prepared a delicious homemade cake, which was presented after dinner. Thank you, Talia, for doing so, and thank you, Neil, for sharing it with us!

Thailand: Training

Everyone arrived safely at base today. Our team of ten citizen scientists from Brazil, Germany, the UK and US moved into their homes after lunch. Today was full-on introduction and training, stuffed with information before we go out tomorrow (Tuesday) morning for a practical data collection training walk.

Thailand: Ready to roll

I arrived at our base camp village of Ban Naklang on Saturday. Kerri, the founder of our partner organisation, and I had a meal at one of the homestay houses and continued to work on preparations, finalising the day-to-day schedule. Sunny weather was interrupted by heavy rain showers on Saturday and Sunday, but the weather forecast in predicting improving wheather conditions.

You will be picked up by Talia, our expedition scientist, tomorrow morning (Monday) at 8:00 at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel, and Kerri and I look forward to meeting you at base.

I leave you with a few impressions from base and our jungle office, now all ready for your arrival…

Thailand: Preparations in Chiang Mai

I arrived in Chiang Mai on Thursday morning welcomed by sunny weather and temperatures around 30 C. I spent the day running around the old town doing some last minute shopping, passing food and other markets, enjoying the smells of Thai food prepared on the streets, as well as the cornucopia of strange-looking fruit, vegetables and flowers laid out on the tables.

The weather forecast says that the temperatures won’t change much over the next week or so, but there is a 50% chance of rain on the first couple of days of the expedition.

Kerri & Thalia, founders of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (our partner organisation on the ground) and I are also finalising the work schedule. Each day will include a walk of about 60 – 90 min to get to where the elephants are , as well as three hours of observation and data recording, interrupted by a one hour break. Please be prepared that the walk will include river crossings, some of them waist-high as Kerri told me this morning. So please make yourselves comfortable with the tought that you won’t be able to keep your shoes & trousers dry throughout the surveys. You might also want to consider bringing walking poles if you’re not comfortable enough with using the bamboo sticks that will be provided at base.

I will leave Chiang Mai tomorrow morning. You’ll hear from me again once I have arrived at the village. I shall then also let you have my local (emergency) phone number. Until then please e-mail the office in case of emergency or if need to get in touch.

I’ll leave you with some impressions of Chiang Mai…

Thailand: Getting ready

Hello everyone, my name is Malika and I am going to be your expedition leader on this year’s elephant conservation project in Thailand. It’ll be our second year of collecting activity, social behaviour and other data by following the study objects around in the forest – and I can’t wait to get started.

I was busy with packing and preparing the equipment, paperwork, etc. and will start my journey from Europe to Chiang Mai today. Not much more to say for now; I’ll let you have the latest infos once I’ve arrived on the ground as well as my local (emergency) phone number. I hope your preparations are going well and you are all as excited as I am to get going. I hope you have all read last year’s expedition report as part of your preparations. If not, I suggest you download this now for some light reading on your flight. It’ll help you with training and being an effective citizen scientist.

See you all soon…

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

P.S. I have also added some videos below so that you know what’s coming

 

 

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Maldives: Bleaching devastates vulnerable inner, sheltered reefs, whilst the more resilient outer reefs with stronger currents, bounce back

Two Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check survey teams have been laying underwater transects over a two-week period from 15 – 28 July 2017 in order to get a clearer idea of the impact of the April/May 2016 bleaching event. Biosphere Expeditions has been collecting these types of data from Ari atoll since 2011, visiting the same sites repeatedly in order to create a reliable dataset.

It was soon apparent that many inner reef sites had not recovered from the bleaching and that hard coral had reduced dramatically to an average of only 8% . Over time, many of these corals will be broken down into rubble, so it is essential that grazers – parrotfish and surgeonfish continue to do the job of cleaning the dead coral of algae, in order to allow new coral ‘recruits’ to settle on the old dead coral.

However, fish stocks are depleted too. Important fish, such as parrotfish (for grazing the reef of algae that colonise corals after death) and grouper (an important food fish), were recorded, but not in any great numbers, which is another cause for concern. Grouper numbers, for example, were woefully low, with densities averaging only about 1 individual per 100 sqm of reef. Parrotfish, on the other hand, were abundant, sometimes reaching densities of 14 individuals per 100 sqm – densities at which the fish should be able to graze away the emerging algae.

Hope for inner reef remains in some isolated spots, such as Holiday thilla, to the south of Ari atoll, where many coral recruits were recorded. Overall, though, the picture was one of coral death, destruction and decline.

The picture was more encouraging for outer reefs that are more heavily dominated by Porites colonies. Here, much of the reef appeared to have totally recovered from the heating in 2016, with hard coral cover at an average of 38%.

The second half of the expedition visited sites further afield in Vaavu Atoll, attempting to glean information from historic survey sites first surveyed in the late 1990s.

Here too there was a mix of good and largely bad news, with healthy sites generally located in more exposed and southerly locations on atolls.

The expedition was joined by Maldivians and an international team of fee-paying citizen scientists. Maldivians ranged from members of the new NGO Reef Check Maldives , created as a result of Biosphere Expeditions’ placement and capacity-building programme for local people, to consultant marine ecologists, government staff, and Maldivians working for the tourist industry.

We are encouraged by the keen participation of our Maldivian colleagues and look forward to seeing go Reef Check Maldives from strength to strength. Because this is what is needed in the absence of any sensible government strategy that balances economic development against protecting the reef foundation on which the country itself, as well as its economy, identity and culture is built on: Civil society stepping up where the government is failing its people to protect the nation’s reefs and with it the nation’s wellbeing.

The expedition is kindly supported by the Marine Conservation Society and The Rufford Foundation.

A selection of pictures from the expedition is below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

One of the questions on a Reef Check site description form is ‘Is this the best reef in the area?’ Distressed by our recurrent findings of unhealthy degraded reefs, we decided to go in search of just that, so on 26 July, after consulting the knowledgeable crew of our research vessel, we surveyed Litholu Kandu, an outer reef on the far eastern tip of Vaavu Atoll. We were not disappointed. This may not have been a pristine reef, but in comparison to what we had been seeing, it was a sight for sore eyes. As we headed north we found that the reefs once again were suffering, and these weren’t just the inner reefs, but the outer reefs as well.

On 27 July we performed our whale shark transect, but were not as fortunate as last week, and no whale sharks were sighted. But a large pod of around 50 spinner dolphins put on a great show of leaping and spinning, really playing up to their name.

For our final day the weather turned and our last transect, on a particularly silted reef, we battled with the wind, rain and poor visibility. The site we were surveying in Embudhu, South Male’, previously had 30% hard coral cover (in 2012), but now foreign investors in conjunction with the ministry of tourism here in the Maldives are reclaiming 7 km of land to build tourist islands akin to those in Dubai. As if the reefs aren’t having to cope with enough already! It was a sad way to end our week, but another example of why these surveys are really important, and why the world, and the Maldives, really need to wake up to what is going on just below the surface!

And what is going on is that inner reefs are devastated. Outer reefs aren’t in the places we’ve been to. If you look at IUCN ratings, over 30% cover is OK, so there may be opportunities for some recovery, but the problem is that impacts just keep increasing – sedimentation, pollution, ocean warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, you name it, it’s all here in the Maldives, which is why the inner reefs are indeed knackered and may not recover…..and this is of course where most of the resorts are….

We’ve been coming here since 2011 and even in this short time things have become much worse. Unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what they are doing to their reefs, which are after all the basis for everything in the country, including the very country itself, then greed, ignorance, apathy and short-sightedness will win the day and kill the reefs – and with it much of the country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. There’s no nice way to put this. What we are documenting is the rapid decline of a country in more ways than one.

Thank you to a fantastic team who have worked really hard in the face of an ecological crisis. This was the first time that Biosphere Expeditions has run an expedition for those already trained in Reef Check protocols and methodology, and it has been a great success. To be able to get to work quickly after a brief refresher, and to travel to distant locations has been a real bonus. It has also been great for participants of previous expeditions to meet up with old friends, and to make new ones. Everyone hopes that other diving destinations will follow suit and if they do, I hope to see you all in another location continuing the good work!

We would also like to thank the fantastic crew of our research vessel. The food has been amazing, and the knowledge and skill of the dive guides has really helped the whole operation run smoothly. A special thank you to Inthi, for being flexible and accommodating at all times.

So until next year… we wish the Maldivian reefs a year of recovery. `They need all the luck and help they can get.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

To continue in the general trend, Vaavu Atoll has, so far, heralded a mixture of good and bad news for the reef. Fotteyo, the first site we surveyed on 24 July was a welcome example of a healthy reef, even though it was an inner reef. Could this be because it was uninhabited, we wondered?

Our second site caused some consternation as the latitude and longitude of the historic data we were using, didn’t match up to the name of the reef we were supposed to be surveying. We stuck with the lat/longs but were disappointed when we found most of the coral dead. The following morning, just to corroborate our findings and to make sure that we had covered all our bases, we also surveyed the actual Maaduvaree reef (across the channel from the lat/longs we had), in the hope that we may find a completely different story, but it was only marginally healthier. The upside was that there was a resident pod of spinner dolphins in the area and a couple of the team, Lori and Farah actually saw them underwater during the dive. For those who missed them, a stunning double rainbow, caused by a sudden downpour lifted the spirits of everyone else.

On the way to our next site, Vattaru, we dropped in to witness a school of reef sharks, some of them visibly pregnant, and then continued on to survey another completely uninhabited island reef. We had high hopes, due to our experience at Fotteyo, but here, the sub-aquatic picture was completely different. This reef was made up of individual coral outcrops, some of which were healthy with some evidence of new recruits, but the majority of the rest of the site was dominated by rock, rubble and sand. There was also some indication of recent bleaching and bleaching in progress, which was unsurprising as the water temperature was 31 degrees Celsius – too hot for coral to tolerate.

Tomorrow, 26 July, we will continue to survey the reefs of Vaavu Atoll, and do our best to document what is going on in this underwater ecosystem. We are trying to remain positive, but what we have seen so far of the Maldivian reefs, reveals a story of very significant degradation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Team 2 arrived on Saturday, and already, in only one day, we have completed so much. This is the first ever Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check expedition to take previously trained Reef Check EcoDivers only and dedicate the whole expedition to gathering data. With the training process removed, it has allowed us to plan a new itinerary that will re-visit historic Reef Check sites that have not been surveyed in many years due to their distance from Male’ and also for the fact that in one week, to collect repetitive data sets, there just isn’t the time!

Some of the sites we will be surveying have had no data collected since 1997, prior to the last big bleaching event. Most of this week’s team trained with Biosphere Expeditions in other locations such as Musandam (Oman) or in Malaysia during the last couple of years, although Graham and Janet, from New Zealand, have had a seven year break! Adam from the USA gained his Reef Check qualification in the Phillipines and is new to Biosphere Expeditions.

So after a quick refresher in methodology and an intensive reminder of indicator species, we set off to Bandos to perform our first ‘mock’ Reef Check survey. It went well and everyone was comforted by their ability to ‘slip back into it’. The fish survey was given a great opportunity to tell the difference between snapper and emperor fish when a huge mixed shoal swam through both transects.

Happy with the lessons learnt, we re-surveyed the site ‘for real’ and are looking forward to our first survey tomorrow on Vaavu Atoll – our first uninhabited reef!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.