Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s already Friday and the team have worked really hard. For the first time ever we will manage to cover all cells of the reserve this year. That means 63 circular observations, some of which require quite some trekking through the beautiful dunes to get to. As you walk through this amazing landscape, you often wonder how anything can survive, let alone thrive here. But it does, thanks to the hard work of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve staff, and especially Greg and Tamer, who we have the pleasure and privilege to support here. So as you walk, you come across fox dens, sand fish, gazelles flitting about between the dunes, oryx standing majestic on their crests, old date palm plantation swaying in the wind and the sun painting the dunes in a million hues of red, yellow and gold.

It also means six live and 18 camera traps out between the dunes, vegetation surveyed and dens accounted for.

Our days are full and the nights are now colder. The cloud has passed and the wind has lessened, so for the past two days we have experienced the desert as we expected it in our heads. Hot and with blue skies over a sea of sand.

On Wednesday night our routine was broken courtesy of Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris who took us out on a beautiful sunset drive in some vintage Land Rovers and then treated us to some Arabian hospitality, food and an astronomy lesson under the night sky. Thank you for this!

As I write this, teams are coming in from the field with SD cards from the camera traps, live traps and the last lot of data for Greg. I will write more once the preliminary results are in tomorrow

 

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s Wednesday and the expedition is in full swing. All camera traps are out, as are the live traps. We have four teams in the field, working for around six hours each day. We’ve had wind blowing the sand in our faces, overcast days and sunshine, even some rain at night at base camp. The team is doing well and we are on target to cover all our research cells by the end of the week and finish all the tasks that Greg has set us.

We’ve counted hundreds of oryx and gazelles, thousands of ghaf trees and broom bushes, seen beautiful Pharao eagle owls swoop up in the air on their silent wings, a red fox flitting across the dunes, a red streak against the wavy ocre of the desert, agamas burying themselves in the sand, gerbils racing for their lives in a white dash across the tracks, and the sun set and rise in all its fiery beauty as we get on with our jobs.

We have covered countless kilometres all across this beautiful reserve, crunching sand and gravel under our tires, without getting stuck yet, due to some very good driving skills. Two more days to go. Thank you to the team for working so hard!

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s the morning of day four of the expedition. After a day and a half of training, the team did well to start collecting data on day two. By now all camera and live traps have been set and we are working our way around the 63 circular observation points (15 done already), filling in the random observations sheets (sightings thus far include Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelle, Arabian hare, Arabian toad-headed agama, eagle owls, francolins, larks, shrikes, wheatears and more) and counting vegetation (lots of broom bushes, Sodom’s apples and ghaf trees) and fox dens.

We get up before sunrise, are out as the day dawns and back as the sun sets in an orange orb over the desert. Our camp in a ghaf tree grove echoes to the sounds of turtle doves who call this little oasis their home too. Yesterday we braved the winds and sand to push on with our work despite the stony grains crunching between our teeth. Last night it rained, but this morning looks calm and rosy as the morning rays bathe the sky in a pink hue over this beautiful, calm desert bubble, not far from the bustling machinations of commerce and development in Dubai. The food al Al Maha is great and since an army marches on its stomach, this army of citizen scientists is marching well.

Starting today, we will be checking our live traps daily (and the camera traps at the end of the week), continue to tick off circular observations (basically sitting on a dune and counting animals and vegetation for 30 minutes), check more fox dens and count other species of interest as we criss-cross the reserve in four teams all day.

More soon.

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

We’ve arrived and we’re unpacking, shopping, setting things up. The food that Al Maha kindly provide for us is great. The sun is shining, it’s warm during the day and not too cold during the night to sleep under the stars (but there are plenty of tents too).

Today we are working with Greg on the research side (I hope you’ve read the 2016 expedition report to set the scene for you) and tomorrow we are tying up loose ends. And then we’ll see you at the right place and time on Saturday morning. Safe travels to get you there.

In another piece of excellent news, we’re a finalist for the 2017 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards! That in itself is another great feather in our cap. Now wish us luck for the final round, which entails an assessor joining our team for the week, who will take part in the expedition as normal, as will a journalist from National Geographic, and they will both want to talk to the rest of the team, so be nice to them please 😉

See you soon!

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Hello and welcome to the first expedition diary entry of 2017, for our Arabia expedition to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). I am Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, and also your expedition leader for this expedition. Other key people are Greg Simkins, head of the DDCR and also our expedition scientists, as well as expedition leaders in training Tessa Merrie and Amadeus DeKastle.

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And then of course there’s you, the expedition team. There will be a full complement of 12 of you from the UAE, UK, USA, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as a journalist for National Geographic Traveller and an assessor from a major travel award, which I can’t tell you about yet, since there’s a news embargo until the shortlists are officially announced on 16 Jan. But suffice it to say that it’s great just to make it onto the shortlist, which in itself is a major feather in our awards cap.

But enough of this for now. Let’s focus on you all getting there and the work ahead.

I hope your preparations are going well and you are starting to get excited. Tessa and I will fly from Norwich in the UK via Amsterdam to Dubai on Tuesday and set things up with Greg, Tessa & Amadeus. Amadeus will be coming from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and you will all be coming from Europe, the USA and the Middle East.

Once we are all together, we will follow the recommendations of the 2016 expedition report, which was published at the end of December. Do have a look at this to be prepared. The methodology we will use and the skills you will need are explained in the report and there is also a YouTube playlist with it. We will follow the cell methodology, use camera traps and GPSs, as well as binoculars and spotting scopes. You might also want to watch some sand driving technique videos on YouTube; there’s plenty of them and this is a good skill to have too.

I’ll be in touch again from Dubai (then also with my contact number there). Good preparations and safe travels. I look forward to meeting you all.

Regards

Matthias Hammer

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Buttonquail steals the show

An international team of citizen scientists, working on a conservation project in South Africa recently completed a world first – capturing a Hottentot buttonquail (Turnix hottentottus). This is remarkable, because this species, considered to be endemic to the fynbos biome of South Africa, has never been caught before.

It is also a species of some mystery, with limited and variable knowledge regarding its ecology and conservation status. The Hottentot buttonquail is one of 18 species of Turnicidae; a group of cryptic, small, terrestrial birds probably best known for their polyandrous breeding systems.

There has been little consensus over the last 30 years as to the conservation status and taxonomy of the animal. Taxonomically the species was considered conspecific with the black-rumped Buttonquail, while now they are considered a separate species. From the conservation perspective, the species has variously been described as: ‘on the brink of extinction’; ‘possibly extinct’; ‘possibly critically endangered’, while at the same time it was classified as ‘Least Concern’ globally; and as of 2014 ‘Endangered’ both globally and nationally.

Clearly there is still much to learn about this species. Project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee is on a quest to advance the knowledge of this species. In addition to undertaking a range-wide population assessment of the species, Dr. Lee has been keen to mist-net and capture an individual so basic biometric information can be taken. This will permit telemetry collars to be fitted to this species so we can better understand their biology, ecology and inform conservation action.

On capturing the first individual at Blue Hill Nature Reserve, in the Western Cape, Dr. Lee said ‘I am delighted. I have been mist-netting and ringing birds since 2011, with over 7000 birds caught, and this was the first Hottentot buttonquail, not just caught by me, but by anyone. Clearly it wouldn’t have been possible without the collective efforts of the Biosphere Expeditions team’.

Biosphere Expeditions leader, Dr. Craig Turner stated ‘what a highlight for any expedition. Our volunteer teams want to contribute to worthwhile conservation science, but perhaps never imagined they could achieve a world first’.

Dr. Lee is soon to publish a range-wide study assessing the population and distribution of the Hottentot buttonquail, and then will pursue to use of telemetry collars to better understand this over-looked species.

Here are now also the highlights of the photos and videos you all shared (thank you).


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

This October saw the eighth expedition of Biosphere Expeditions’ annual coral reef survey of the Musandam Peninsula. Fifteen divers from all over the world (Canada, France, Germany, Oman, the UK and USA) spent a week of their holiday time to assist with reef conservation in Oman. Diving two or three times a day, they conducted surveys all over northern Musandam.

Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, a coral reef expert from the Marine Conservation Society and the expedition’s chief scientist, summarises the expedition: “Our surveys have taken place during a particularly rich plankton bloom, so visibility in water has been quite low. Many sites hosted large numbers of snapper, way in excess of 1000 per kilometer square, which is encouraging. But the average size of the snapper is quite low, which indicates overfishing. Also, the large numbers of Diadema urchins continue to be a threat to the corals, because they are overgrazing the bedrock and base of some corals. Grouper (hammour) numbers are reasonable, but size ranges continue to be small due to overfishing, which is a worry, since only larger groupers can breed and produce more fish.”

Dr. Matthias Hammer, the founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, this year led the expedition himself, “because we are now at a crucial stage of development in Musandam. The discussions we had with fishermen are encouraging. They have been told about and are respecting the Khor Hablain ‘closed area’, declared in 2013, where only line fishing is now permitted. We commend the government of Oman for its foresight in closing such a large area of the Musandam for all but line fishing. This is far-sighted and will surely help with the conservation of fish stocks and coral reef health around Musandam. However, Kumzari fishermen are concerned over illegal fishing from Iranian waters and believe this has resulted in significant catch declines in the past decade. We therefore encourage the Oman government to heed the fishermen’s concern and also continue its marine conservation efforts by putting marine conservation high on the agenda. After all, conservation management is essentially good overall management.”

Indeed, successful marine conservation efforts will always include the local fishermen. History has shown that the most successful marine conservation areas are those that are created bottom-up, with the help and acceptance from local fishermen and communities, rather than top-down governmental decisions that are not understood or accepted on the ground, and therefore often ignored. “With a bottom-up approach, the chance of everyone winning is so much higher than with top-down, where often everyone loses”, conclude Drs. Solandt and Hammer.

In another development, three more Omanis (Jenan Alasfoor from Muscat, as well as Ali Saleh Ibrahim and Waleed Alkaabi, both from Sohar) were trained on the expedition in reef survey techniques as part of Biosphere Expeditions’ on-going placement and local empowerment programme. All three qualified as Reef Check EcoDivers during the expedition and can now conduct reef surveys anywhere in the Indo-Pacific, including in Oman. This brings the total number of Omanis trained over the years up to seven – including divers from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, and the Environment Society of Oman – in what Biosphere Expeditions hopes to be the start of an all-Omani community-based survey effort. Dr Hammer said that “Biosphere Expeditions has been very successful in setting up such a community-based programme in the Maldives (see more information on this here and here) and we are very hopeful that Oman will now follow suit”. Ali Saleh Ibrahim adds that “the knowledge I have gained participating in this expedition will help me to go further with my interest of protecting the underwater environment. Now I am ready to start my first independent Reef Check together with other Biosphere Expeditions placement graduates and I plan to do this in the coming months. I really appreciate Biosphere Expeditions’ efforts to save coral reefs in my country and thank them for giving me the opportunity of a placement on the Musandam expedition, and putting Oman on their world map of conservation expeditions.”

Dr Solandt concluded the expedition this year by saying that “coral health of the sites we have visited this year appears good, though we have seen a few more incidents of disease than in previous years. We have been encouraged by the large number of snapper and we believe that more small no-take zones will help local fishermen and their communities into the future. We encourage the government to discuss further measures with them in order to recover fish stocks and achieve a bright future for all – local people and the environment we all depend on.”

Below is a selection of expedition pictures, as well as a video.


Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our citizen science volunteer project with elephants in Thailand

I have just finished the Thailand reconnaissance visit and we are now very close to confirming the expedition. The dates have changed a little (new dates are  23 – 31 October | 3 – 11 November 2017) and we still need some final quotes for services and to iron out a few final details, including the expedition contribution, but we are almost there.

The expedition page and briefing are ready save for the expedition contribution, which we want to have by the end of November at the latest. We will then tell everyone on the wait list first, so that they can be the first sign up on the expedition, before we launch it to the public a week or so later. If you are not on the wait list already, you can join it below, simply by submitting your e-mail (the form will do the rest).

 

Below are also a few videos and pictures from the site to give you a better idea of the expedition. These and links to more, as well as the briefing, are also on the expedition page.

I hope you are all getting excited. We certainly are and we look forward to updating you soon.

Best wishes

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director