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Biosphere Expeditions: blogs from the wildlife conservation frontline

Advancing wildlife conservation – for nature, not profit | Artenschutz fördern – damit Natur profitiert | Promouvoir la conservation de la vie sauvage – pour la nature, pas le profit

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

 

We have completed the week with six full Reef Check surveys under our belt and some fascinating variations in what we are seeing underwater. Jean-Luc, our expedition scientist, formed a theory early on in the week that it was the corals on the outer reefs that were doing better than the more sheltered inner-reef corals, and it is a theory that has held true in the areas that we have been surveying.

Jean-Luc getting ready to dive
Jean-Luc getting ready to dive

We have gone from Rasdhoo at the north end of the North Ari Atoll, we have dived Bathalaa, Kuda Falhu, Dega Giri and all the way to Holiday Thila in the South Ari Atoll. Quite a journey involving a lot of travelling between sites in some lumpy seas, but with a great group of divers as company and some really lovely food to eat, it has not felt like that much of a journey.

Our week ended with a whale shark survey, led by Iru who is one of the local placements on the boat who works for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.

Iru explaining whale sharks
Iru explaining whale sharks

She talked us through the work that she does and how we could help with the survey, but unfortunately we didn’t see a whale shark this year. Instead we added in a lazy drift dive on the outer reef, which looked really healthy and Jean-Luc managed to throw in an extra substrate survey as he could not resist adding to his data (he thinks of little else)!!

The week was completed by a visit to Dhigurah Island with Aru (another of our local placements) leading the group, showing us his home.  What a beautiful island! We had a fascinating visit, seeing the school and meeting Aru’s biology teacher, seeing the dive base where Aru (aged only 19) is completing his diving instructor training, and seeing how the local Maldivians live. Thank you Aru (and Iru, who is is based there as part of her whale shark work) for showing us your home!

Dhigurah Island
Dhigurah Island

All that was left on Friday was to take the boat back up to the north where we began. The captain set the boat off early for what should have been a five-hour journey, but with force 7 winds picking up, it took a lot longer (some vessels could not get to Male’ that morning).  Thanks to our captain for getting us safely back with everyone leaving on time for their flights. And thanks to all the team for a great week.  We achieved a lot in a week, with everyone working hard, but we also had a lot of fun – the night time chair fishing will stick in my memory! Final thanks go to Shaha for her dedicated contribution to the science tuition, to Jean-Luc for doing an amazing job working far too hard throughout the week, and to our two dive masters, Chakku and Atho, for helping out with the survey dives and contributing their wealth of local knowledge. And finally the team, who could have just gone on an ordinary dive holiday, but instead chose to go diving with a purpose, giving their time and money for reef conservation in the Maldives, where it is badly needed.

The team
The team

All the best to everyone and hope to see you all again.

Continue reading “From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)”

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Everyone arrived safely at base on Sunday. After a couple of days of training, we’ve had our first field surveys, all successful and good fun. We’ve had sunshine, evidence of animals, torrential rain, amazing swims in the river and much more. Everyone is well and enjoying their time. A sample survey result is below. More in 10 days or so, or earlier, if I can get a message through😉

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CELL AND SURVEY SUMMARY

AB130 (village cell) 

Surveyors: Giovanni, Irfan, John, Steve, Matthias

Survey date: 19 July 2016

Cell description:

This cell is east of the village of Tanjung Belit with some parts of the village extending into the western edge of the cell. The border of the Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary runs through the cell and the sanctuary starts just east of the village. There are good rubber plantation paths that lead into and across the cell, which is not overly hilly. There was also a relatively wide river with good sand or rubble banks to walk on.

Survey description and access:

Our survey was for about 3.5 km, along rubber paths and the river, which took us about 3 hours to cover. This was an easy cell to survey with flat ground and good paths or rivers to walk along. Access to the cell is simply via Tanjung Belit and then walking into the direction of the cell along a concreted path until the cell starts and then onwards on rubber paths and along the river.

Human impact:

There where rubber plantations everywhere we went and some evidence of logging, such as stumps of large trees and an abandoned logger’s camp. We also heard some chainsaw noise. Once the concreted village path ended, so did the litter and humans, and we only encountered one rubber worker, as well as a couple collecting tree bark for drying and selling onto a factory to produce insect repellent.

Animal evidence:

Evidence of wild pigs is common, particularly rootings. We discovered one mineral lick in the cell with evidence of good use, which we set a camera trap at. We also encountered a local breed of cattle, the sepi cow, which was domesticated in Java from a forest bovine only 50 or so years ago, according to Febri. These roam freely in the forest and are periodically claimed by their owners. We encountered two of them, about 2 km as the crow flies from the village, wearing bells and running from us as soon as they became aware of our presence. Other than widespread evidence of wild boar and the sepi cows, we saw water buffalo, macaques, goats and chicken, the latter three all close to or in the village.

Human/tiger dimension (interviews): 

The above suggests that the villagers do not fear tiger attacks in this cell. This was corroborated by an older man we met when walking into the cell. He did not want to do a formal interview, but he told us that when he was a child, villagers used to send tiger hunting parties into the forest once a week. He never saw a tiger himself and we estimated him to be around 60, so the tiger hunting parties would have happened in the 1960s.

 

 


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

We have arrived at Subayang Field Station and started some initial surveys to get the lay of the land. It is tough going through the jungle and despite following a creek bed it took us one hour to cover only one kilometer. We encountered armies of leeches and we all donated some blood today, luckily the little buggers are harmless. WWF is building a water-lab next to the station, so there is some construction going on at the moment, but disturbance should be minimal as they will only work the heavy machinery when we are out in the field – or so we hope and have been told. Two girls from Tanjung Belit, the closest village and jump-off point for the station, Elsi and Ari are cooking us our food. It has been absolutely delightful so far, you are in for a treat. Now I look forward to meeting the first group in Pekanbaru on Sunday morning.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

Everyone passed all the tests, both land-based and the in-water ‘pointy’ tests, where the trainers do indeed point at things and ask people to write on their slates what they think they are. We also completed our first Reef Check survey at Rasdoo, an exposed outer reef site, and encouragingly reefs were less affected by bleaching – the first reef check survey dive acts as a kind of final dress rehearsal, but if all goes well we use the data. It all went well.

One of our fish teams, however, did look a bit distressed when they came up from the dive. Rajiv had a wide-eyed stare and blank expression and when asked what happened, he just said that everything was ok until near the end and then ‘I was overwhelmed’.  ‘What do you mean?’. ‘I was overwhelmed by fish!!’. It seems that the abundance was a bit of an issue. So we’ve done a bit more work on estimating schools of fish in case it happens again…

Lots of fish...
Lots of fish…

The dive itself was a really nice one, with a relatively flat reef down to about 4 m and then a wall going down below our survey teams. With low current and good visibility in our favour, the work was done very efficiently by all and several teams managed to see the eagle rays, turtles and sharks that cruised past and even lay undisturbed (in the case of one of the turtles), right next to our transect line.

Diver
Diver

It seems the faster-growing species have been more severely affected than slower-growing massive species. It appears that even within the same massive species (e.g. porites), some are much more affected than others, at the same depth, side by side. Is this because some have bleaching resistant zooxanthellae (their symbiotic algae) and some don’t? We don’t know the answer, but we are trying to find out…

Bleached and unbleached side by side
Bleached and unbleached side by side
Shaha and Atho
Shaha and Atho

Continue reading “From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)”

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

So today was the usual whirlwind of checking equipment, shopping, repacking, reviewing datasheets and the research, safety, evacuation and all sorts of other plans A, B, C and D.

Ida, equipment and to do board
Ida, equipment and to do board

We are mostly done – perhaps just another morning tomorrow – and then off into the field. Our research plan for the expedition is:

1. Conduct wildlife survey (tiger and other species) in the following cells. Surveys include visual transect surveys as well as camera-trapping. Cells include those with and without villages for comparative analysis of the areas of tigers and their prey animals prefer.

Cells with villages in them: W137 or X136, Y131, Y132, Y135, Y136, Z131, AA130, AB130

Cells without villages*: X131, X132, X133, X134, Z134, AA132, AA135, AB135

*surveying these cells is likely to involve multi-day trips, carrying tents, hammocks and food, and staying with a local community. Participants can volunteer for these multi-day trips.

2. Conduct interviews with local people in the area (not necessarily in cells above) to ascertain human-tiger encounters and conflicts, as well as attitudes of local people towards the tiger.

3. Visit schools in the area (not necessarily in cells above) and conduct tiger educational activities, including distribution of tiger educational materials.

4. Document illegal logging and poaching activities (such as snares, traps, gun cartridges, etc.) for analysis by WWF and to be passed on to the national park authorities and rangers.

5. Work with local village headmen and communities to establish community bases for multi-day surveys. Also work with headmen and villagers to identify community members who can be trained to help with community-based tiger surveys using camera traps and other survey methods. The aim is to train and establish teams of community surveyors to assist in year-round tiger surveying and anti-poaching activities.

6. Opportunistically survey for birds, using existing skills amongst participants, and create a bird list as another indicator of local biodiversity.

And finally, for good measure, some pictures from the Red Planet breakfast room. Given this is a fairly religious Muslim country, where talking about sex and alcohol is not very high on the agenda, we are guessing that not many people realise at all what’s hanging up on the walls.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Greetings from Pekanbaru. Ida has landed, suitably zombified after a 42 hour trip and three flights from Seattle via China and Jakarta. She’s checked into the Red Planet hotel and tomorrow will go to the WWF offices to prepare the expedition, then go shopping (amongst other things for a SIM card, the number of which we will give you) and do all the little things that need to be done.

20160711_184753
Ida barely checking in…😉

It’s 30 deg C in Pekanbaru and humid, as expected. We’ll be back with more news tomorrow, but before we go we wanted to share this gem with you: A new pizza place has sprung up opposite the Red Planet.

Yes, you read right, it’s “Panties Pizza”. And it gets better when you read the tag line…

…”I love Panties, as I love U”?!? Perhaps they slipped in the dictionary from “pasta” to “panties”?!….


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

We’ve completed the second day of training and everyone has passed the first Reef Check test. The test was about identifying particular types of fish that are good indicators of reef health – and is generally considered to be the hardest test that we’ll do – so well done to all the team!

Our training has so far all been done at Baros, where the resort is a partner in our work on reefs. During the training we have found, unfortunately, what we expected – a great deal of bleaching. Bleaching is extensive down to at least 20 m. Particularly hard hit are the more ephemeral branching corals, with significant (more than 50%) bleaching of most of the older, slower-growing massive corals as well. Total coral cover used to be 45% at the Baros house reef.

Baros and its house reef
Baros and its house reef

That fell to only 10% in mid-May. Hopefully we’ll see less severe effects in our other survey sites from tomorrow onwards, but this is all we can do at this stage – hope. In the meantime, the life on the reef is still abundant.

Survey divers with bleaching
Survey divers with bleaching
Reef life
Reef life

The team is having a great time, with some glorious veggie food being provided on board our very comfortable live-aboard. We’ll be doing more tests tomorrow and a full mock/practice Reef Check survey in final preparation for doing the real thing from Tuesday onwards.

Continue reading “From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)”

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

It was after midnight when we arrived back in Bishkek this Sunday morning.

When we left on Friday, we did not expect the unexpected when driving up the mountain pass road well in time according to the timetable set for preparing base camp. Road construction work was going on in the darkness of the tunnel, so it was closed for trucks, including ours!

Loaded truck
Loaded truck
Roadworks
Roadworks

Phil, Volodya, Emma, Isma & I passed in one of the expedition cars while Aman and Bekbolot stayed back in the truck on the other side. No information could be gained about how long the temporarily closure would last. So we just sat and waited, and waited, and waited, watching dozens of trucks piling up in front of us probably half way down the pass road. Four hours later, at 18:00, the worker’s finishing time, finally the orange & white NABU truck appeared out of the dark of the tunnel!

We drove on in convoy until about half past eight until we reached the place of a herder friend of ours, where we pitched a few tents for spending the night in.

In convoy
In convoy
Fuelling up
Fuelling up
Traffic jam
Traffic jam
Stopping overnight by the herder's yurt
Stopping overnight by the herder’s yurt

But we did not go to sleep before having a very basic but good dinner.

Dinner
Dinner

After another three-hour drive on Saturday, we reached last year’s base camp location and finally we scouted out a beautiful location close to Talant’s (another herder friend) yurt, about two km further up the Karakol Pass. The spot is at an altitude of 2,950 m and beside a stream supplying us with water and the opportunity for a very refreshing bath for the very brave. You may feel some shortness of breath when arriving, but don’t worry, we will take it slowly, and although altitude sickness can occur from 2,400 m onwards, medical evidence shows that it is not usually a problem below 3,500 m.

Base camp
Base camp
Unpacking at base
Unpacking at base

Talant and his family are good friends with the NABU staff and they have also been hosting expedition teams every year in their yurt for a traditional Kyrgyzs meal on the day off. Talant’s sons will also look after the camp during the week between slot 1 & 2, when everyone will go back to Bishkek.

I would not call base camp set-up a routine, but now in our third year, we are a well-oiled team. So the truck was quickly unloaded and the kitchen tent & cooker were set up first, so that Emma start weaving her magic in the kitchen. Because of the delay, we only had part of the day to set up and did so without allowing ourselves a break. By 18:00 base was set up sufficiently so that Phil, Aman, Emma & I could leave for another six hour drive back to Bishkek. Volodya, Bekbolot and Isma stayed back to finish setting up for our return on Monday. Team 1: We need lots of people to set up the yurt, so this will be our first activity after the long journey from Bishkek and before I’ll talk everyone through the risk assessment.

Whilst I write this, Phil has gone for some last minute shopping with Emma. It is sunny and warm in Bishkek and the 14 day weather forecast looks promising. The second expedition vehicle has just been delivered, I have printed some more paperwork such as a Russian translation of the interview datasheet, etc. and will finish up with office work today.

I hope you are as excited as we are, now that preparation is over and we are all ready to go! We are looking forward to meeting the first team tomorrow (Monday) morning at 08:00 at Futuro hotel.


From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

 

We’re leaving Bishkek tomorrow morning to set up base camp. The truck is loaded with equipment such as the yurt, stove & wood, kitchen, mess, toilet & shower tents, cooking gear, gas bottles, fuel canisters, tables & benches and a great variety of other farily useful things. Today Emma, Volodya & Phil spent most of day shopping. An infinite loop of filling basket after basket, passing the cashier, loading the car and going straight back in for the next run. I stayed back at the NABU offices preparing paperwork and equipment.

Shopping
Shopping

The datasheets are printed, the GPSs set up and the scat collection kits made up (you will learn what that is during the training days).

Emma & Volodya loading up
Emma & Volodya loading up

Keep your fingers crossed that the truck won’t get stuck or drive into the ditch as it did last year! Aman, Phil & I will return to Bishkek on Saturday. I will let you have the latest news before the first team meets on Monday morning.

And finally, a word on the weather: It has been raining in Bishkek almost every day, but when the sun comes out it is pretty hot in the city. The south side of Ala-Too range, where our study site is, is less cloudy, but the temperatures will be much lower. Please be

prepared for both rain and sunshine (and snow can fall even in summer). Temperatures in the mountains can be anything from 5 to 25 degrees C, sometimes even dropping to freezing overnight. More first hand info when we are back from setting up.


From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan 

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