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.