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

What day is it again today? Western timings have lost their meaning out here in the desert. It is day four of our expedition and everyone has passed an intensive training regime on the research equipment, data sheets and dune driving.

Training
Training session

Apart from the Biosphere Expeditions participants, a number of rangers from our partner Al Maha resort also attended our training sessions to get an insight into conservation work on Sunday.

Al Maha rangers with expedition scientist Steve Bell (left) and expedition leader Malika Fettak (right)

On Monday, we set ten live and nine camera traps, started the health assessment of Arabian oryx through body condition scoring and our vegetation survey of the DDCR within our 2×2 km quadrants.

Oryx body scoring
Oryx body scoring

Tuesday we hit the jackpot, a lucky day not only for our scientist Steve. Why? Because we caught a sand fox in one of the traps! These tiny big-eared foxes are one of the rarest species in the area. A maximum number of twenty are estimated to be present inside the Dubai Desert Conservation reserve, an area of 227 square kilometres! Its mass is no more than 2 kg. We captured an adult male of 2+ years. Tricia, Branko, Yvonne and Martin were the lucky team members attending the procedure of sedating, measuring and micro-chipping him.

Sand fox in the live trap
Sand fox in the live trap
Measuring the sedated sand fox
Taking a blood sample from the sedated sand fox

Of course, the catch was the story of the day today when sat around the campfire for the daily review. Trevor, together with Kate and Branko comprising today¹s northern team, reported excitedly about “his” bird encounters and how he finally got to see three Macqueen bustards in the wild. Thrilled as he was he even tried to communicate in Arabic with some farm workers showing around a self made drawing of an eagle owl in order to find out whether they might have seen one. Spotting an Arabian red fox made Mark¹s day – another lucky encounter on a survey walk through the sand dues, even though he keeps on saying that he is not a good wildlife spotter 😉

Around the campfire in the evening
Around the campfire in the evening

Everyone has settled well into base camp, experienced refreshing showers in the afternoon, freshly cooked vegetarian dishes for dinner and early breakfast at 6:00. Work starts as the sun rises at around 7:00. The weather has improved and there has been no rain for the last couple of days. But after the rain, the desert is bathed in oranges and reds at sunset and the dunes reveal their full beauty in the early morning hours shortly after sunrise. It’s a magical place we are working in!

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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)

The sun has returned to the DDCR and looking at the long-term forecast it is pretty good apart from the chance of some showers over the weekend. We have replaced the old worn-out tents with new fully waterproof ones so there will be no worries about kit getting wet.

It has been really busy in camp today with the DDCR staff fitting solar electrics, Steve the scientist moving in and sorting out camera traps and the cook setting up the kitchen all at the same time. Our cook for the week works at the Al Maha Resort (who are supporting the expedition by providing all our food and the cook) and he specialises in vegetarian menus.

From now on vehicles will not be allowed in the area where you can see them on the photo and camp will become more peaceful. We have been unpacking and checking all the equipment today – only a few days to go now…

camp2

This morning there were lots of oryx tracks about 10 m from my tent where a group had passed during the night, so they are obviously not concerned by our presence. After the rain on Tuesday the wildlife is looking freshly washed and the sand tracks around the reserve are a little easier to drive on.

Tomorrow we will be doing last minute preparations and we look forward to meeting the team at 08:00 on Saturday morning!

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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)

Malika and I (Kate – assistant leader) have now been in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) for two days unpacking and sorting out all the gear and equipment and setting up camp. The photo of camp was taken yesterday soon after we got here – it will look a little different when we are properly set up ready for the team’s arrival.

Arabia camp

Malika was surprised to see that the view from camp had changed dramatically since last year; Sheik Mohammed (the Chairman of the Reserve and Ruler of Dubai) has a long-term vision, which includes planting native tree species at various sites throughout the DDCR, one of which has been chosen just to the north of our camp. It is really good to see conservation in action and the site has been busy with DDCR staff for the last couple of days putting in the final few trees and some irrigation, but they should be finished by the weekend. We will learn more about this from the DDCR staff in our briefings about the work here.

We have already seen quite a number of the study species and had a few Arabian gazelles wander curiously up to camp to check us out. There is also a group of oryx in the area near to camp that we have seen each day.

We have also been privileged to experience the first rain this area has experienced for over five months! I took the second photo this morning on our way to go shopping to replace worn out kit – a good way of avoiding the heavy rain showers. In case we are fortunate enough to experience this rare event again remember to pack a waterproof!

driving to Dubai

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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 everyone and welcome to the first diary entry for Biosphere Expeditions’ 2014 Arabia desert expedition. My name is Malika Fettak and I will be your expedition leader.

mf

I am about to leave Germany, arriving in Dubai a few days ahead of you to get things organised on the ground. Kate Fox, my assistant leader, will be flying in from the UK to shadow me as expedition leader in training. All going well we should meet at Dubai airport tonight, spend a night at the Premier Inn in Silicon Oasis (our meeting point), take over one of the expedition 4×4 vehicles on Monday morning and then proceed to the DDCR. There we will meet our partners on the ground Greg Simkins, Steven Bell and Pete Rosenschoon from the DDCR and start setting up base camp, organise a cook, food, equipment, you name it.

But enough of that for now. I¹ll send some pictures once Kate and I get there. Start getting ready for lots of sand, sun and some tough work with Steve, Pete, Greg, Kate and I. We are all looking forward to working with us for a week in the desert! Have a look below for what awaits.

Safe travels and see you in Dubai!

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

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Update from our desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

We have added quite a few more photos of our 2013 expedition below and to  www.facebook.com/biosphere.expeditions1 | https://plus.google.com/103347005009999707934/ | http://pinterest.com/biosphereexped/. Thank you to Wouter Kingma (www.wouterkingma.com) for providing the bulk of them. Come and join us again in January 2014 if you can!

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

I’m back in Germany as I send this and wanted to give you a quick summary of our achievements.

During last week’s field work a total of 42 quadrants were surveyed, covering 200 of the DDCR’s 227 sq km. Three teams surveyed an area of 56 sq lm each by foot; set, checked and collected 12 live and 11 camera traps in total. Provisional results of species encounters are sightings of nine different species (excl. reptiles) such as Arabian gazelle, sand gazelle, desert eagle owl, lappet -faced vulture, Maqueen’s bustard, red fox and sand fox. The central group’s four camera traps took 56 pictures of the species above (and oryx, of course), seven more SD cards still need to be checked for results. The presence of Gordon’s wildcat within the reserve was proven so far by tracks only; we’ll keep you updated on the results of the remaining camera traps.

As to the oryx survey, data of 24 oryx herds were recorded all over the DDCR, eighteen herds were sighted in the north, two in the central area and four in the south. Within a range between 0 to 5, the average condition scoring of individuals is 2, corroborating the DDCR scientists’ hunch that the majority of animals are malnourished. Steve is not surprised by this, because the whole desert ecosystem has been suffering from a drought over the last two years, but emphasises how useful it is to have so many oryx surveyed by us volunteers in a short, concerted survey effort.

We would therefore all like to thank everyone involved in the project – first of all all the team members that have put in a lot of sweat and hard work in the field, but also our partners, sponsors and supporters. This conservation project wouldn’t be possible without you! We are looking forward to continue working in desert conservation and hope you’ll all stay involved. A comprehensive report will be published in due course.

Expedition team 2013
Expedition team 2013

I’ve thouroughly enjoyed our time in the desert and hope to see some of you again some time!

Malika

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

Today is the last day of our one week in the field… already! As I write this, the North, Central and South groups are collecting live and camera traps and later on will survey two last 2 x 2 km quadrants within their areas. By this afternoon every team will have surveyed 56 sq km of varied habitats within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR): sand dunes, vegetated sand dunes and gravel plains. This one week tour de force by our survey teams is an important annual survey benchmark for the DDCR that can only be produced through your hard work and dedication. Thank you everyone and long may it continue!

During this year’s live capture week, no animals went into the live traps. More: not a single one of our twelve live traps was triggered druing their six nights out in the field. Was it bad placement, bad luck or, more worryingly a decline in species. Our camera traps will have to shed more light on the  presence of nocturnal species such as Gordon’s wildcat, foxes, hares, etc.. Watch this space for more news and of course the full expedition report in due course.

To bring things to a close today, Steve gave us all a review of the work done before we had our last dinner around the camp fire. We’ll end this year’s desert expedition by having a drink at the Al Maha Resort later tonight….

Thanks again for all your help. I’ll send through any interesting camera pictures we get, as well as more pictures of the expedition soon.

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

All is well in the desert!

After assembly on Sunday, Monday saw the team being trained up on the use of research equipment, live and camera traps, datasheets, animal identification and oryx scoring (health status of individuals) as well as on GPS navigation… intensively ;).

Training how to use the Swarovski Optik spotting scopes and laser distance measurers to assess Arabian oryx health in the desert.
Training how to use the Swarovski Optik binoculars, spotting scopes and laser distance measurers to assess Arabian oryx health in the desert.

Ben, Lizzy, Liz and Hildegard went on their 4×4 desert driving course, whilst everyone else prepared and set up the camera traps supervised with Greg, the expedition’s chief scientist. Three groups went out to set a total number of 12 live and 12 camera traps in the field, each within their assigned survey area for the week (North, Central and South). From Tuesday onwards, the teams have checked the live traps every morning but unfortunately no capture… yet.

Setting up a camera trap
Setting up a camera trap

After the trap checking, we go on desert survey walks up and down the sand dunes. Three quadrants of 2 x 2 km are surveyed per day per team. This may not sound much, but is actually hard work and we suffer for science here 😉 The South group (Bernhad, Hildegard and Liz) encountered gazelles and a few oryx and were lucky to spot an eagle owl. More oryx herds were found in the Northern parts of the reserve, with Lizzy and Sokolov assessing the health status of a lot of oryx individuals and also spotting a ringed Maqueens bustard. Alex, Irmtraut and Ben and I (Central group) did not spot a single oryx within our quadrant despite scouring the beautiful landscape for hours. We did, however, come across mountain and sand gazelles on our trek through the desert.

Desert sruvey trek
Desert survey trek

We’ve hit the groove and research routine now: breakfast at 6:00, followed by route planning and packing up, leaving base at 7:00 – just after sunrise. The early morning desert scenery is amazing, as is the sunset. It’s pitch dark by the time we have dinner at 19:00, so we all sit around the fireplace reviewing the day and chatting about each group’s adventures. And only a short while after having another great meal prepared by our chef Thaya, it suddenly gets really quiet at camp. I wonder why 😉

Thaya in action with vegetarian food kindly provided by  www.ripeme.com. Picture courtesy of www.wouterkingma.com
Thaya in action with vegetarian food kindly provided by http://www.ripeme.com. Picture courtesy of http://www.wouterkingma.com
Dinner time. Picture courtesy of www.wouterkingma.com
Dinner time. Picture courtesy of http://www.wouterkingma.com

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

The camp’s up, the shopping (mostly) done, we have one 4×4 (picking up the other one tonight), we have a cook (crucial) and we have our datasheets and work plan (crucial too).

It’s been really cold at night (about 5 degrees Centigrade), so make sure you bring a fleece, hat, gloves, etc. The hardy can have a freezing shower in the morning; for the rest I recommend waiting until it heats up during the day, which it does quite quickly once the sun is up. It’s the desert, you know 😉

Cold morning at base
Cold morning at base

Our cook Thaya has scrubbed all the pots and pans and is ready to work his magic. We went shopping yesterday and I am glad he was with me as I would have been lost in town without him. As you should know from the dossier, we only serve vegetarian food (see http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/policies > tab “Food” for the reasons) and we’ve recently had support from ethical food provider http://www.ripeme.com, so going to their store with Thaya (second from right) and selecting food was fun. The guy on the right, by the way, is your fellow team member Ben who was here early, kindly helped out and can smile if he wants to ;). The two on the left are Pamela and Carol (sp!) from Ripe (thank you Ripe!). No points for guessing who is behind the camera.

Food shopping
Food shopping

See you all tomorrow at the Permier Inn!