From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Hello everyone and welcome to the expedition diary of our inaugural Thailand elephant expedition.

My name is Malika, I am an Operations Manager at Biosphere Expeditions and will be your expedition leader on our very first Thailand elephant expedition in collaboration with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary & Foundation (KSES).

Malika Fettak

Over the last four weeks Kerri (KSES’s manager & co-founder), Talia (KSES’s project assistant and research coordinator), Matthias (Biosphere Expeditions’ founder & executive director) and I have prepared the ground for this expedition. Now the time has come for me to pack up and get ready for the long journey to Chiang Mai. I will be on site a few days ahead of you setting the scene and getting everything ready in the village for when you arrive.

Packing up

I hope your preparations are going well. Here are some important last minute instructions before I head off:

Please be aware that the first anniversary of the previous King of Thailand’s death, and therefore his funeral following local tradition, will be on 26 October. All of Thailand will be in mourning and the king was truly revered. This means that for the next few weeks, when in Chiang Mai or especially Bangkok, everyone should wear black or dark clothes and dress respectfully. It’s not a huge deal when on site, as the local villagers won’t be offended by the colour of clothes (but of course we still must always dress respectfully regardless, as per the dossier).

One of you asked us recently what present she could bring for the host family, if any. Gifts are not compulsory, but if you would like to bring something, then any kind of toys/games for the kids to enjoy will be appreciated, as will be snacks/chocolates or even souvenirs from your home country (which our local hosts enjoy seeing).

That’s it for now. I’ll be in touch again when I’ve arrived at base with pictures, wheather news, etc.

Safe travels and see you soon

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

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

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and so we must say our farewells and extend our gratitude to group 1. And also say goodbye and thank you to one of our cooks, Gurli. You’ll be missed, but your efforts not forgotten.

You have all left your mark at Blue Hill, in terms of your contribution to advancing our knowledge of this area of the fynbos. Alan (our scientist) neatly summed this up in his science review on the last evening.

The team have: assisted in finding at least nine Cape rockjumper nests, thus supporting ongoing doctoral research; completed two sets of small mammal trapping, resulting in two new species records for Blue Hill; established 200 (!) honey bush monitoring plots; mapped multiple mammal species and collected several leopard samples for DNA analysis; completed 60 bird point counts across the Karoo (clocking up 1,500 km!); undertaken multiple nights of bat monitoring and 8 km of bat transect walks; and lastly, completed many hours of bat sonogram analysis.

You’ll note that I have glossed over the camera trapping, simply because it deserves its own mention. Four new camera trapping stations have been established, but the most exciting news comes from the camera traps established previously at Blue Hill. These existing camera traps were serviced by the expedition team and revealed that ‘Strider’, a known male, has recently been on the reserve, as well as a new, unknown female. In the last month the cameras have recorded leopards both on the east road saddle and along the south road. Great news for us, Blue Hill and the Cape leopards.

The team has made a big contribution to all of the scientific aims of the project, set out at the start of the expedition. Alan already has his scientific eyes set on at least one research paper. Not a bad achievement for eleven days work!

So we wish group 1 safe travels, and extend a warm welcome to our new cook, Barbara, who will be working with Melda. We can rest assured we will be well fed and the research will continue to be fuelled on excellent desserts!

So the bar has been set, and the research baton now passes to group 2. Your first challenge will be the weather, which looks like being cold and wet for the first couple of days. Hopefully you are prepared and we look forward to meeting you all.

 

Alan and Karin – bird surveys in the Karoo (c) John Munthe
Cape leopard
Floral delights
Heading home
Honey bush plot
Looking for rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
John and Lizzy working on Cape rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
Looking for honey bush
Measuring honey bush
More honey bush
Mountain view
Plotting honey bush locations
Puff adder
Rockjumper observation
More flowers
More flowers
Spot the rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
Strider – Cape leopard (c) Alan Lee
Sun shining
Mammal trapping
Group 1
Vegetation surveys
View over the east road

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

The collective efforts of the team are beginning to bear fruit.

Bat surveys have been going both using ‘static’ detectors – stationed in set locations – and using detectors connected mobile phones for night time transect surveys. This will allow us to compare and contrast species richness between different habitats and ultimately build a bat map for Blue Hill.

This has also meant many hours of data processing and sonogram analysis. Judy and John and have been leading the charge in labelling bat calls, and identifying the differences between a Cape horsehoe and a Cape serotine bat.

The second array of small mammal trapping has also been completed and the results are intriguing. The recent fires do not seem to have negatively impacted the small mammals. And we appear to have trapped two species not previously recorded at Blue Hill – which of course needs expert verification. But could indicate a potential response to fire.

Understanding how fire drives this ecosystem and species respond to it is important. And current literature seems scarce on small mammals (based on the searches of our resident professor – thank you Peter). Typically, our field research is generating more questions than answers.

We have also made progress with one of our main target species – the Cape leopard. On one of the bat transect surveys, a set of large eyes were spotted in the rocks on the south road. This was followed, by hearing a low growling noise, whilst visiting some rock art locations on Sunday afternoon, during our day off. This might sound more speculative than scientific, however, on Monday morning leopard tracks were located only metres along the same track, and less than 1 km from the base – so they are in the area!

We’ve somehow also managed to complete yet more surveys at Blue Hill and across the wider Karoo, set out yet more vegetation monitoring plots, and find time for a geology talk (from Chris Lee).

A great job by all so far.

Above the south road

Cape leopard tracks
Data entry andsonogram analysis
Exploring above the south road
Geology talk
Leopard tortoise
More leopard tracks
Rock art
Static bat detector

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

Our surveys are up and running. And our volunteer team have been deployed in all directions of the compass.

The first array of small mammal trapping has now been completed and all traps moved to a ‘new’ location. This is one we also surveyed in 2015, which too has recently been burnt. The charcoal-striped clothing at the end of each survey is a clear reminder. Hopefully the results will give further insight into how the small mammal responds to fire. These mammals are a vital component of a leopard’s diet!

Talking of which, additional camera traps have also been established at Blue Hill, Welbedacht and the Nuwekloof pass, in the Baviaanskloof. The latter took Peter and yours truly, twice as long as expected to deploy – taking a whole day to deploy four cameras. I think we only got lost three times, pushed the 4WD to its limits and managed to scale one dry waterfall. All worth the effort as the cameras will be left in situ for 45 days. Hopefully they will be less effort to retrieve!

Completing any survey in this part of the world requires some level of effort. Alan, Karin and John managed to cover some 600kms (with just one puncture) in one day, in order to complete bird surveys in the Karoo – supporting a wider study with BirdLife South Africa.

Closer to home, the team have also been establishing vegetation monitoring plots at Blue Hill. These will assist an ongoing study on the Honey Bush – indigenous and endemic plants of the Fynbos biome in South Africa, cultivated and harvested for tea production. Most tea currently comes from wild harvested populations. The plots (which will receive different harvest treatments) will hopefully improve our understanding the impact of wild harvesting.

The plots (marked with metal stakes) all need to be labelled – metal tags are the best option to survive the harsh conditions. Turns out aluminium drinks cans (e.g. beer) provide ideal raw material for the required tags. Our Australian and Swedish citizen scientists were more than happy to drink for conservation – obviously in moderation – well enough to make 300 tags!

In amongst all of this we have also been assisting surveys of Cape Rockjumpers – a passerine bird restricted to the Fynbos biome, and advancing our bats surveys. We’ll save the details on those until the next blog…

Burnt Protea flowers
Burnt Protea flowers
Burnt vs unburnt
Camera traps installed for leopards
Cape weaver
Installing small mammal traps
Installing traps on both sides of the valley
Mammal trapping team
Mammal trapping
Spot the expedition base
Vegetation tag production

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

After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we were finally able to welcome our first group of citizen scientists for 2017 to the ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition.

The team all arrived safely, and if anything, slightly earlier than expected. We have a great mix in our team in terms age and experience; including a couple of Biosphere Expeditions newcomers (welcome Libby and Sandy) and several veterans.

After a little time to settle in and with initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we headed straight into the field. It was time for a crash course in mammal mapping and camera trapping. Alan (our scientist) was keen to get some additional cameras deployed – to monitor our target carnivore species – whilst also getting the team used to mammal mapping.

The mapping was completed from the back of the 4x4s whilst others in the team also got used to driving the 4x4s. Our two transport options on the project are either ‘by foot’ or ‘by 4WD’. All vehicles, drivers, and mammal mappers returned to base in one piece. And our top spotter was one of our newcomers – great work Libby.

Day two involved a lot of preparation work for the vegetation monitoring and mammal trapping. Large area of the research area was burnt earlier in the year, so our small mammal traps now need insulating from the cold and the heat – cue a morning of trap shade construction. The rest of the day was spent deploying the traps.

The burnt areas of the reserve (there was a large bush fire earlier in the year) offer a unique opportunity to compare this year’s data to previous (unburnt) years and hopefully better understand how the fynbos responds to, and recovers from, fire – after all it is a fire-driven ecosystem with many plants needing fire to germinate. Over the coming days we’ll all be breaking new ground in terms of understanding the ecology of this mountain fynbos environment.

4WD training
Burnt protea
Camera trapping
Deploying mammal traps
Double collared sunbird
Double collared sunbird
Heading back to base
Learning to camera trap
Making trap shades
Preparing stakes for vegetation plots
Small mammal traping

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

Like the swallows who departed from my fields in Scotland last month, I too have completed my annual migration. I have arrived in South Africa.

The joy of travel is apparently in the journey, not just the destination. However, delays at 06:00 on my first flight quickly eroded some of that enjoyment. But, four flights later and I’ve finally made it to George. It is great to be back.

I’ve met up with Alan, we picked up our cooks (Melda and Gurli – great to have them back) and we completed the supply run – though Alan did most of the work before we all arrived in town.

The joy of the journey quickly returns when you take the two hour drive north to Blue Hill; our expedition base for the next two weeks. As George disappears into the distance, the roads narrow, the vistas widen and the mountains rise.

We are all heading on a ‘journey with a purpose’ – well, that is how the dictionary defines an expedition. And talking of that purpose, Alan suggested I might want to set the scene for our forthcoming activities…. these will include:

– Deploying camera traps to new positions, service existing camera traps;

– Assisting with bird and biodiversity surveys in the Karoo with BirdLife South Africa’s Dale Wright (Western Cape regional manager);

– Assisting with a PhD project looking for Cape Rockjumper nests (working with John and Lizzy from the USA), and possibly some trapping;

– Establishing permanent monitoring plots for endemic plants used to make tea;

– Mammal mapping, and;

– Of course looking for leopards!

We’ll also squeeze in some bat work and data entry. Should keep us all busy.

Your journey is almost complete, the purpose is about to begin and on arriving at Blue Hill you may realise that this expedition is very much about the destination.

Safe travels, group 1. You will be picked up at the assembly point by a bus from Zeelie Taxis (same procedure for group 2). They will make sure you get here and Alan, I and the rest of the team at Blue Hill look forward to seeing you soon.

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

Hello everyone

With a week to go before the expeditions starts, it’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader in South Africa this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this project.

I am not on route yet, but I am in the midst of preparations. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, and Dr. Alan Lee, our project scientist for the duration of the expedition. It’s great to be returning to work with Alan (and his family) for a third year. I’ll save the rest of the introductions until later next week, so they are fresh in your memory.

Craig (front) and Alan (back)

I am guessing many of you, like me, are in a whirl of preparation and beginning to think about packing your bags. So I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in my adopted home – Scotland!

Hopefully you have also seen the recently published 2016 South Africa expedition report, so will have an idea of some of the planned activities. This also is my opportunity to flag up our expanding bat survey work. As this year, in the spirit of citizen science, we are hoping to turn your iPad or iPhone (if you are travelling with them) into a bat detector.

I’ll leave you to continue your preparations and will be in touch later this week from South Africa. I look forward to meeting group 1 next weekend.

Safe travels…

Craig
Expedition leader

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The last week of the Sumatran tiger expedition has been very busy. The team took part in a village ceremony the day after the buffalo sacrifice. It was a festive affair with traditional music, dance and song. The whole team also went on an overnight camping trip to survey cells far up the river. One of the survey teams had quite a fright when two sun bears ran out in front of them! “Febri had to sound the air horn to scare them away from the area before we could safely continue the survey” explains Paul from the UK. In the same survey cell scat from a leopard cat was also found, a rather rare find. The other team did not encounter any bears, but they did get a birds-eye view of the reserve after a very steep climb to a clear summit.

We also visited the school in Batu Sanggan village. This is one of the eight villages that lie inside the reserve. About 40 children attend the elementary school there and they were all eager to learn about the rainforest and its animal inhabitants. One of the five rangers that work in the Rimbang Bailing wildlife reserve accompanied us to the school visit, and in the evening back at the research station we had the chance to ask him questions and he told us about his work in the reserve, “We work closely with WWF and one of the most important parts of my work is education. Through education and local empowerment we have managed to turn 60 hectares of palm oil plantation back to the reserve and we are currently working on reforestation of that area.” This is good news indeed, considering the rangers here have no power actually to enforce the rules of the reserve, and lacking any boats to patrol the reserve themselves the partnership with WWF is of utmost importance.

During the second slot of the expedition, we successfully collected all of the eleven camera traps that were placed by the first team and surveyed the same amount of cells. One extra camera was placed behind the research station, making it twelve camera traps in total. We conducted four interviews with local villagers, hosted one school group at the station, and visited one school inside the reserve. The camera traps recorded banded palm civet, pig-tailed macaque, long-tailed macaques, barking deer, mouse deer, porcupine and wild pig. We also recorded signs of agile gibbon, siamang, sun bear, water buffalo, leopard cat, wild pig, porcupine and long-tailed macaque during our surveys. This is good news as it means there are plenty of potential prey for tigers. More good news is that Febri’s tiger team who work deep inside the reserve caught tigers mating on one of their camera traps this year. Hopefully there will soon be more tigers inside the reserve.

A big thank you to everyone who has helped out this year. Thanks to your tireless effort we have successfully been able to survey the northern buffer zone of the Rimbang Bailing Reserve, an area where data was seriously lacking. Because our focus this year was there, no tiger signs were recorded, but closing this gap of knowledge was very important for the overall picture that WWF is building of Rimbang Baling and tiger survival there. The outlook for tigers is much better at Rimbang Baling than many other places in the world – and you have contributed to making it so. Thank you from me, from Biosphere Expeditions and WWF for giving up your time and money to do this. You also helped educate local communities about the importance of preserving the forest. This is also vital if tigers are to have a future, because their future is tied intimately to that of their human neighbours in remote areas such as Rimbang Baling. So thank you again for your contribution and I hope to see you again sometime, somewhere on this beautiful blue-green planet of ours.

Ida Vincent
Expedition leader

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The past few days have been busy. We had one overnight trip camping out in the jungle and surveying cells further upriver, as well as surveys in cells closer to the station. There has been a lot of rain upriver and the Subayang River rose as high as it does during the wet season, making it impossible for us to reach the furthest upstream survey cell. Giant logs were coming down the now rapid river and the illegal logging activities were sent into a flurry, with people trying to utilise the high water levels to transport their booty. “It is heartbreaking to see how much illegal logging is taking place, right out in the open” says Claire Howell from the UK. The buffer zone is a beehive of activity with the constant noise of chainsaws going, trees falling, men dragging logs down towards the river, and boats transporting long trains of logs. “We are currently lobbying the government in Jakarta to upgrade the Rimbang Bailing Wildlife Reserve to National Park status” explains Febri, the WWF tiger scientist, “if it gets National Park status, there will be a lot more resources available and the illegal activities in both the buffer zone and inside the reserve can be better policed.”

The team also attended a local ceremony. The community in Tanjug Belit village believes a bad spirit is residing at the local waterfall and that this spirit is responsible for a recent accident there. To appease the spirit, a water buffalo was sacrificed followed by the biannual opening of one of the sacred ponds. The scared ponds are a part of the river, which is closed to fishing apart from twice a year when fishing is allowed for one day only. We watched as men pulled up large catfish much to the delight of the surrounding boats. In the afternoon after the fishing had concluded, we hosted a group of eleven children at the research station, educating them about conservation and playing games. “Today was a game changer for me“ says expeditioner Matt from the USA. “Seeing how welcoming the community is, them wanting us to be part of their ceremonies, and meeting the kids who all seem to care a great deal about the environment really gave me a lot of hope for the future of Rimbang Bailing.”

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

What an end to the 2017 Tian Shan expedition! Group 4 was fantastic and we were able to cover a lot of ground during the second week, even with frozen mornings every day.

When I last wrote, we were in Dong Alysh enjoying the zoological museum. On our return to base we found out that it had been snowing all morning, but the afternoon sun had melted everything. So we all got ready the next day for our first full day out in the valley across the river from base camp, Kashka Tor. We split into three groups to cover lots of ground and pushed ourselves hard – and did not stop for the next few days of surveys either.

Our by then well-earnt day off was spent at Kolya’s yurt. This is just a bit to the west of base camp and we spent a good amount of time riding horses and even learning some fun horse tricks.

Monday was next and we meant business. We started cranking through cells one by one really quickly. One of our groups also had two community camera trapping members come up from the village of Dong Alysh for training on camera trapping. They were able to set four camera traps that day on a ridge line near base camp.


‌And then, right towards the end of the expedition, one of the valleys in which we have surveyed in each group came up aces. The east side of Chong Chikan held four separate places with snow leopard tracks and some very fresh wolf scat and tracks. What a way to end the season! Volodya was of course very excited to have seen both species co-inhabiting and competing for resources in the same place where we knew it was happening.

‌Friday was spent packing up base camp and then having a super last evening together with local neighbours joining us for a bonfire.

‌So in the end, group 4 covered 56 cells and had two ibex sightings, a snowcock sighting, and then most amazingly, wolf and snow leopard sign in the same place.

I would like to end this expedition diary by saying thank you to everyone. You expeditioners could have spent your summer lying on a beach somewhere. Instead you chose to help us – and Kyrgyzstan and snow leopard / nature conservation. Thank you so much for this and for all the effort and resources you put in – it really is very much appreciated by all involved, whether it’s Biosphere Expeditions, NABU or the local people. Thank you also to NABU and of course the Grupa Bars representatives Aman and Shiloo. Gulya – you have been an amazing cook and really made the expedition complete. Volodya – thank you for being our superb scientist answering all our questions. And thank you to all the local people who have helped, hosted us, talked to us and shown an interest in our work. And last but not least, thank you Biosphere Expeditions for being the NGO you are and making it all possible for all of us.

I hope to see many of you again, somewhere, sometime on this beautiful planet of ours.

Best wishes

Amadeus
Expedition leader