From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

We’d given the traps at the lodge a “night off” (really an opportunity for the mother and cub leopard not to be bothered if they were still in the area recovering), and Sunday morning Team 2 reset the lodge box trap. John, Valerie, Lesley and Jesaja had quite some work because of the leopard caputre, and we’d actually split into two box trap teams for the task. The trap that caught the mother leopard was brought to Vera’s base for repairs, and we collected the release box out of the field as well. That leaves us three box traps still set (Frankposten, behind the farm owner’s house and the one at the lodge).

John and Lesley set out to (not) find the elephants, frustrating because once again the team knew where they were, but there was no track close enough to view them. Lynne and Valerie checked box traps in the afternoon (empty), while Glenn stayed at base to do data entry.

Thursday’s “Black Mamba” vehicle game count team re-encountered a monitor lizard on their route (thanks Valerie for several nice pictures added to this diary). Lynne had a “magical” encounter with the elephants at Boma, when she single-handedly recorded elephant behaviour. Other pictures are of Team 2 working in the field.

We’re having some maddening problems with the Bushnell cameras. One, the display stopped working. Another, it seems to like to spit out the batteries right after the volunteers set it, so we don’t get any pictures. Super frustrating since these cameras were installed in the mountainous area of Okambara, so that means furtherst away from base camp.

The good camera news is that our Tracks and Scats team found a leopard “marking” place (it’s a place with a lot of defecation, so marking is not the proper term but that’s what we’ve nicknamed it). We set a camera trap up there and once we get the cameras working properly, then we’ll see who’s coming around.

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Other good news is that our partner scientists have flown over the study site, collecting data from the collars of several animals, and our female leopard L074 from Monday was on the download. We were able to see her movements after her immobilisation, and as predicted she laid low until her immobilisation drugs wore off, then climbed the ridge behind and walked off down the ridge.

Team 2 leaves today and it’s hard to believe it’s already been two weeks. It’s been a very productive and interesting two weeks. Thanks for your flexibility and eagerness to get out into the field and do whatever is necessary, including Valerie and Lesley taking a bag of intestines up into the mountains and dragging them towards a trap in order to entice a leopard. Not all of our work is pretty or “nice”, but thanks to all of you for tucking in and getting it done. My favorite Vera quote this week: “Is it my imagination or is everyone getting out into the field freakishly early?”

Team 3? See you on 7 September after the week’s break. We have a box trap that’s ready to be placed back into the field, lots of animals to be counted and elephants whose feeding behaviour we need to record, so pack your sunscreens, water bottles and get ready to roll up your sleeves and get down to the business of catching more leopards!

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

Welcome to the Maldives diary.

My name is Catherine Edsell and I will be your expedition leader for the Maldives; also coming along from Biosphere Expeditions will be Dr. Matthias Hammer, our executive director.

I will arrive a couple of days in advance with Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, our scientist from the Marine Conservation Society and Reef Check’s Maldives co-ordinator, to set up and meet our local partners. As soon as I get my mobile phone connected in the Maldives, I will email you my Maldivian number (to be used for emergency purposes only, such as missing assembly).

I hope all your preparations are going well and that you’ve had a chance to study all the Reef Check material and whale shark info available on the website. We have a packed schedule planned, so please arrive rested and ready to go. And talking about schedules, our expedition route is below.

All subject to change, of course. So anyone thinking they are coming on a cushy dive “holiday” to go deep, please wake up 😉 After our week with us, you’ll never look at a reef the same way again.

My next missive will be from the Maldives. Until there and then!

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Glenn dubbed yesterday “Double Leopard Monday” because we had an historic event on Okambara: yes, we caught two separate leopards in one go and collared one. Here’s how it happened: Saturday we’d just had a team meeting, brainstorming about why very few animals were going into the traps. We are following all the protocols from last year – changing the meat every 3-4 days, leaving as little human scent as possible around the traps and applying all the good housekeeping methods of attracting leopards.

Sunday morning Glenn and Valerie were the box trap team, and they called in a leopard at the lodge box trap. Excitement! Vera called around for a veterinarian while she and I drove to place a shade net and water for the animal. Sunday was part of a long holiday weekend, and the veterinarian could not come until the following morning. (This is completely okay for the animal to spend one night in the trap—we made sure he was comfortable and safe from other predators.)

The leopard was a young animal about a year old, and since he had to spend the night in the box trap anyways, Vera decided to set another trap next to the cub to see if we could catch the mother.

We met the veterinarian at dawn on Monday, and the anticipation was keen while we waited for Vera to check the trap the next morning to see if we had one or two animals to collar. The beaming smile on Vera’s face gave it away—success! We’d caught the mother as well.

We had a long morning of setting up the field hospital, immobilising the animals one at a time, taking samples of the cub and placing a rice-sized chip in him (the same kind that veterinarians place in pets that can be scanned and read if an animal goes missing, in this case for if he ever gets caught again we’ll know when and where he was first caught.) Too young to collar, we filled him with fluids to ease his immobilisation hangover, and Lynne, our resident (retired) nurse, helped the veterinarian look after him.

Afterwards we placed the cub in the shade in a transfer box so he’d be safe while we immobilised and worked on his mother. In the prime of her life and recently very well fed, the mother was fierce and protective of her cub and took longer to immobilise than her cub. By the time she was collared and placed in the shade with a shot of sedation reversal, it was 13:00 before the team left Vera and the veterinarian watching over the waking up and releasing of the cub and mother together.

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Team 2 stood in the hot sun watching and helping with the immobilisations for hours, but they were wired when we got back to camp for “breakfast” at nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. We’d left bush camp at 5:30 in order to check box traps and meet the vet at first light, but believe it or not they ate a few bites and eagerly jumped into the afternoon tasks that needed to be done. Team 2 you are really terrific. Thanks for all of your helpfulness, good humour and team spirit. You rock!

Vera is extremely excited at having caught and collared her first female leopard on Okambara. Collaring females within the ranges of male leopards has been a goal of hers for the past year, so it’s thanks to you –  all of you – for making that happen. Shall we try for another two next Monday?

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Well, we have a new record for the number of camera trap pictures the data entry team has to look through. Team 1 was shocked by the 3000+ pictures on the SD card, yet John from Team 2 suffered, er, poured over 9,569 pictures taken at Bergposten. He is now a self-proclaimed expert in baboon behaviour. (John also points out that the card was only half full, so the potential exists for 20,000 pictures for the next unsuspecting citizen scientists to pour through.)

Thursday was our vehicle game count, and the team reported slightly more early morning game activity. Also with the time change we started fifteen minutes earlier than Team 1. My team for that activity is now dubbed the “Black Mamba Team” for reasons of which I cannot discuss in the diary. (Some tall tales need to stay on Okambara.)

Saturday was our day off, yet once again this team wanted to work and volunteered for tasks that normally Vera and I are left to do on the day off. John, Glenn and Mei were rewarded for their efforts by being the team that found and released a beautiful genet. John did the proper thing and stayed far away from the release, yet with his telephoto lens caught the animal at the perfect time in its release for the attached picture.

MDamGenet-1000

Saturday was a sad day for us because Mei left in the morning. She was an integral part of the team the first week and a great volunteer, but unfortunately her work schedule sent her off to South America mid-slot. Mei you are missed!

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

The final group of the 2014 Tien Shan snow leopard expedition to Kyrgyzstan has just made the long journey to Bishkek from the Tien Shan mountains, which ends the first Biosphere Expedition foray into this amazing country.

Whilst we did not directly see the aptly named “mountain ghost”, we have fairly convincingly determined its presence in these hills through multiple reports of livestock loss amongst the local herders including a survivor whose scars are very suggestive of big cat. The distinct cough-like call of a cat was heard by myself as well, and the fact of there being good amounts of leopard food, such as ibex and argali, in this valley system speaks strongly of a habitat, which could be expected to support the animal.

As many of us observed, many lower areas are heavily overgrazed and this is driving wildlife into the rugged upper reaches of the range. This pressure is only growing, so the time is now to start working to improve the relationship between the landscape’s managers and the wildlife, which makes this delicate biota tick.

This expedition was by definition a reconnaissance operation. We were here to assess the status of the landscape through the lens of its capacity to support apex predators such as the snow leopard, a fundamental measure of an ecosystems health. We found a good number of predators including wolves and the above mentioned evidence of our cat. The next step is to attempt to identify the numbers and distribution of these predators and how their population relates to their wider known distribution. These questions will yield the answers needed to plan adequately for the sustainable coexistence of all of the players in this dramatic, but fragile place.

Thanks to all of the teams, without whom this sort of research would be impossible. Each participant brought their own invaluable perspective to the effort. The data you collected may seem vague and even trivial… Oh look, more pooh!… but taken together, all that shit and all those footprints paint a detailed picture of a complex puzzle, which Volodya will now begin to interpret, as he has with great skill and to great effect for many years in other places, for other creatures.

Thanks especially to Volodya for sharing his expertise with this effort and to Emma for keeping this army marching on its stomach. Thanks also to the guys from NABU, Amman and Shilo, Kurmanbek and Joeldosh, and Tolkunbek. These local experts made this possible and will continue to work hard for Kyrgyzstan’s faunal emblem in our absence. A special thanks to the local volunteers Aliaskar and Ulan, whose assistance was hugely valuable in many ways beginning with translation and turning into a list that would run off the page. Very importantly, thanks again and again to Almaz, who provided the vehicles and the ground support and much logistical management from his base in Bishkek. There are many others too; you know who you are.

That’s it from me. It was a pleasure working with you all. Keep this up and we might just make a difference.

Paul

P.S. We’ve updated our albums on https://biosphereexpeditions.wordpress.com/ and www.facebook.com/biosphere.expeditions1 with our photos and a “best of” the ones submitted to the Picture Share site.

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

Well, the last traps are in and as of this year in Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan, despite three reliable and recent instances of horses being attacked and the clear sound of a leopard’s cough, we have not managed to bag a photograph. The last traps were from the Kashka Tor valley in which two horses had run-ins with our big cat. The first, you may remember from a few weeks ago, was killed, leading to an overnighter in that valley a few days after the camera traps were placed. The second, very recent attack was on a foal whose mother apparently drove off the leopard leading to a survivor with fresh and quite dramatic wounds, which we have photographed. The feeling amongst those with a perspective to speak from are that the most likely cause of such damage is in fact a snow leopard.
Today is the last day on the ground here and it was spent by some on an interview run into the East Karakol valley system. This time the team sought to focus on the relationship between the women of the Kyrgyz herder culture and the leopard, because in the small glimpses of such that we had obtained thus far, it appears that they have a more ambivalent attitude to the animal than the men, who speak in very patriotic terms about the Kyrgyzstan national symbol. It will be interesting to hear what the interviews yield.

The rest of us went about preparing the base camp for tomorrow’s hectic pack-down. We have quite a lot of stuff to load into the trucks in the morning, but the work we did today will make it much easier.

This afternoon, Volodia will sum up the expedition science achievements and discuss the likely evolution of the project. I understand that there is some interest in a night of vodka on the part of some team members who have been sitting on a stash for this occasion. I better pack my stuff up now then…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Team 2 hit the ground running. We’re a small group, but full of enthusiasm and have already been trained up on all the equipment. Glenn, Lynne, Lesley and Mei came out with me on the first day and learned how to use the telemetry equipment to track the elephants. They also learned how well the elephants can blend into the savannah and how frustrating it can be when the entire herd is in the exact middle between tracks and we know where they are, but we cannot see them.

John and Valerie walked with Jesaja on the first day on the tracks and scats route #9. The surface was hard for them to read with the pockmarks of the light rain that came down. Yes, rain. We woke up to the unusual sound of the patter of rain on the thatched roofs. This was big and most-welcome news for us since we are now in the heart of the dry season.

Yesterday we caught our first rock dassie (rock hyrax) by-catch. Normally hiding in the rocks, this fellow was found hiding under the trigger plate of the trap. Evidently the animal gave Ligeus, Lynne and Leslie quite a scare when it stopped playing “dead” and raced out of the trap as soon as they opened the door to investigate.

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

As I signed off on the last diary entry, I could see the first lot of team members cresting the ridge that separates us from their target valley for that day. As I packed up the satellite coms, they were close enough for me to see that there was a spring in their step. Although it was really just a training run with Volodya, they found quite a lot, amongst which was clear footprints of a Palas’ cat or manul. The next day was also productive, with the first real survey yielding access into Issyk Attar’s upper reaches where a fantastic high traffic pass was discovered. Tracks and scats of all kinds and so fresh that the urine patches of many argali were still clearly visible amongst the still wet droppings. There are two platforms below the pass and each has a wide mud flat, which has captured the comings and goings of herds of beasts as they negotiate the pass into the valley systems to the north. This will surely be a big focus of next year’s explorations.

This morning the heat of yesterday’s excitement was significantly cooled off by the fact that we all awoke in igloos. As our tents bowed in under the weight of a good layer of snow, we were woken by the freezing sides of the inner tent settling on our heads. The drumming of tent walls being pounded from within to dislodge the heavy snow blanket woke those not already up, and when we opened the zips and stepped outside, we were in another land from that which had seen us off to bed the previous night.The entire valley was covered in snow.

The day’s plans now out of the window, we fixed a couple of tents before the first snowball hit its mark. Thomas and Robert started it, but Katie and then Susanna quickly returned fire, and pretty soon it was on for young and old. When Shiloh emerged from his tent, he was imediately pelted, but, as an ex riot cop, he just stood there and only moved a little when the trajectory of a snowball included him. No-one hit him despite the flurry of projectiles he was simultaneously monitoring.

The newest member of the team, named Matthias by his creator Gary, can be found front and centre of the team photo below.

The snowman

An addendum. It is now a few days since I prepared the above. Some technical issues have prevented me from sending the August 15 diary and we have more news. The cold weather is intensifying and snow is now a feature of our days and nights. The cold has caused havoc with some of our equipment and is making sending diaries difficult. The traditional Sunday off saw most of the team pay a visit to our neighbours down the road who live in a very beautiful yurt and display fantastic traditional Kyrgyz hospitality. On their way back to base camp, our people stopped at another yurt and learned that only three days previously a horse was attacked by what the herders say was a leopard in a valley close to base refered to as No Name Valley. This has led to a revision of our plans for the day and a team has been sent to the herder to find out the precise details. The urgency is warrented by the fact that the horse survived the attack and is sporting the wounds which, if leopard, will be highly characteristic of such and need to be photographed as soon as possible. We have a vet on the team as well, who may be pressed into action if we find the horse’s condition requires her attention. Stay tuned.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

We thought we’d share some of our “Best of” camera trap pictures and team photos while we’re busy training Team 2…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

It’s been a whirlwind week of checking box traps (liberated: one rock monitor lizard, one hare and one porcupine), setting up camera traps, trouble-shooting camera traps (re-aligned by baboons, some not taking pictures, some taking too many pictures), fixing up waterholes (Emil the bull rhino used the one at Gustavposten as a scratching post), doing water hole observations, early morning vehicle game counts (1 cold and one not-so-cold-but-windy), observing elephants, walking around the bush looking for tracks (lots!) and picking up scats (lots!).

We did two evening observation drives and while we did not see any aardvarks, which were my original idea because of the plethora of new holes dug in the farm tracks, the teams reported seeing an aardwolf, bat eared foxes, “loads of springhares” and jackals. Evening entertainment included “Banana Grams”, a simple word game made very confusing by each participant making words in their own language (English, French, German and Italian). Verification was next to impossible. Evening briefings were made more artful by Marco’s pictogram explanations of the day’s activities. Thanks Heinz for letting me post some of your pictures with this diary!

Team 1 has just left for the Josephine Gate and it’s very sad to see them go. They formed a solid working team quite quickly, and really impressed Vera and I with their work ethic and willingness to spend long hours in the field making sure everything got done. Up and out at times before the “regular” departure time, their willingness to go out in the cold and count game animals was remarkable, and their willingness to go out into the field all day working on a smorgasbord of activities got us off to a great start. A big thank-you to all of you for your ability to make hard work fun, and for your contributions to the leopard project. Safe travels home.

Team 2? See you Sunday!

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