From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

We’ve had a few battles here on the inaugural Thailand elephant expedition – with the weather (unseasonal rain), terrain (try walking up a steep hillside after a foraging elephant, especially when it’s slippery from rain), the local language (Karen, which sounds very alien to Indo-European language speakers), guts (some people down with gastro problems; we’re not sure where this came from, but it’s here with a vengeance). So the team has shrunk, but those who could go out enjoyed up-close-and-personal encounters with our study elephants.

It’s Thursday and we’ve just finished our second elephant survey. We observed the elephants for four hours recording data every five minutes. The weather too has been kinder, with temperatures ranging between 24 and 29 degrees C and partly cloudy sky. Keep your fingers crossed that it stays that way!

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

The devil is the detail, when it comes to expeditions. This is true of the planning, organisation and execution of most of the fieldwork. The latter also requires a combination of hard work, flexibility, patience and luck. Particularly when you are trying to get data on Cape leopard and caracals.
We are all realistic that only the ‘lucky’ will encounter them face-to-face. However, we have technology on our side, in the form of camera traps. The ‘detail’ is picking where to locate them, so you have to think like a cat and site them where they will hopefully pass. These camera traps give us ‘eyes’ in the field in multiple locations, over a huge area and every hour of the day or night.

We also have the eyes of our team in the field every day, also looking for signs of these predators, which can range from tracks to scratched trees to scat. We have all been issued with ‘scat bags’, so potential leopard scat can be collected, verified by DNA analysis, and in turn help build a DNA database, to track movements of leopards – dead or alive. A powerful conservation tool from such small evidence.

Detail in scientific or conservation terms often equates to data. Whether this comes from our mammal mapping, small mammal trapping or camera trapping, it all helps to inform our understanding of how leopards, caracals and other species (often the prey base) use the fynbos environment. However, we shouldn’t become fixated on the predators, as we are also here to understand the wider biodiversity of this environment, which includes the ongoing work on the bird and vegetation. After all, we are not on safari, where we are spoon-fed the big five from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.

The weekend did give us a new understanding and a chance to get some historical perspective on the landscape. A morning walking to some rock art sites and viewing some stone artifacts (e.g. stone hand axes) from the wider area gave us alternative appreciation of how people and wildlife once used and survived in this landscape.

Our modern day ‘survival’ in terms of fieldwork at least, is often vehicle dependent. It’s a long walk over tough terrain to most of our field sites, so vehicles are vital, but things go wrong. And an afternoon fixing the rear shock absorbers on one of our field vehicles (thanks Steve) was another detail that needed addressing but means our fieldwork can continue into its last week.

So as we enter the home straight of this year’s expedition, we already know the team’s hard work and patience in the field has delivered some great data. The checks on the camera traps will now begin and fingers crossed we’ve got the detail of the set-up right. We just need a bit of luck on our side to reveal more data on our target species.

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From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Everyone has arrived safely at base. Our expedition team consists of Margot & Greg from Canada, Amy and Bridgette from the U.S., Maria from Russia and Maria and Marion from Germany. We started the expedition training today after lunch, with introductions & safety briefings and then went for an orientation walk around the village together. After everyone had moved into their rooms, Kerri gave a presentation about the background of both the elephant & community project she has set up together with her partner Sombat whose family is related to people from the village of Ban Naklang. She told us about the history of the elephants we are going to study, how the homestays help the  community, and how it all fits together.

Before dinner the village elders, a man and a woman dressed in traditional clothes came over to welcome the new guests with a Geeju ceremony, designed to keep bad spirits away. Everyone has white bands around their wrists now. Freshly cooked vegetarian Thai food was then delivered by two (out of several) young local women we have employed for the duration of the expedition – a welcome opportunity & source of extra income for them.

It was Talia’s turn after dinner to explain the background of the research, why we are here, what we will be doing and for what reason. And also, very practically, what data we are supposed to be collecting and how they are to be recorded in the datasheets. This was followed by lots of pictures of elephant behaviour and some elephant ID training.

Tomorrow we’ll spend half the day outside on an orientation walk, followed by more training in the afternoon. We’ll then have to pass a test after dinner before we are allowed to collect data. Wish us luck 😉

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

There is much good news to report. Firstly the weather has warmed again, with murmurs of it now being too warm for fieldwork….is that possible?

Despite the climatic yoyo, our fieldwork programme is now in full swing, with at least two more honey bush monitoring sites being established and data recorded. The mammal mapping programme continues to document the distribution of most mammal species across the Blue Hill Reserve. Both surveys benefit from the aid of technology, using bespoke Android Cybertracker apps for data entry. We always hope we have some Android users in the group – thank you Tobias and Elena.

But the mammal mapping doesn’t cover all species. For the bats, technology is again our friend, as high frequency microphones can be plugged into iPhones or iPads (who are we to not share stuff equally between the greedy corporate giants). Combine these with the magic of a Bluetooth GPS and a bat identification app, and we can detect and map that which we can’t even see! Finally, smartphones can live up to their name and be positive force for conservation research.

You still have to walk the walk tough – well, do the 2 km transect at night. But that just offers more opportunities to map nocturnal mammals. And who knows when you may bump into a cat! Despite this ‘incentive’, it is still a tough ask if your day in the field started at 06:30 (or earlier).

However, no amount of technology is substitute when it comes to small mammals, as live traps are still the default preference. Our trapping programme has continued, repeating the survey of 2016. The surprise is our capture rates have almost doubled, and again we are recording species not previously documented. Next week, we will trap completely new site, so have high hopes.

I will let our scientist (Alan) crunch the data to see if the results thus far are a function of the recent fire? There is still much to learn about how the fynbos functions and supports such a diverse fauna.

From our citizen science project volunteering with elephants in Thailand

I arrived at base on Thursday and was warmly welcomed by Kerri & Talia of KSES, our local partner on the ground. The small village of Ban Nakleng, where will be working from and living in over the next couple of weeks is about 180 km West of Chiang Mai, but the car journey takes around five hours. Please be prepared that about one third of the drive will be on narrow and windy mountain roads and the very last bit on gravel road is washed out from rain & bumpy.

Today, Friday, we went out together with the mahouts and some other people for a reccee survey walk. The terrain had to cover to get to the elephants was steep & muddy. Some of you might want to consider bringing rubber boots. You can these at very low cost in Chiang Mai if you wish. During this October it has been raining a lot more than usual at this time of the year (we observe these changes in weather patterns away from what people are used to on all our expeditions around the world) therefore the ground is wet and the forest is green – perfect feeding conditions for the elephants, but a bit more slippery and arduous than usual for us humans.

We have put a day-to-day plan together that includes four hours of staying with the elephants for the whole team each day. We can’t wait to get started and see how it all works out in the field. There are also other options of activities, of course, but it’s all very flexible and we’ll talk you through it all in detail on the ground.

Talia will meet & greet you at the meeting point in Chiang Mai, take over your luggage and put you on a minibus to base. She will do some food shopping on her way back, so your luggage will arrive about an hour or two after you at base, with Talia in another truck. Please make sure you pack accordingly.  Once you arrive at base, you won’t need much as we will have lunch and go straight into introductions & briefings, so you will be busy from the minute you arrive. Kerri & I will be waiting for you at base.

Safe travels & see you on Monday!

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

The ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition continues to evolve and expand, and for the first time we can extend a warm welcome our second group of citizen scientists. It’s great to be able to double our time in the field this year.

The team all arrived safely. With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we stretched our legs with a brief orientation around Blue Hill Escape – the team’s new home for the next 12 days.

Alan kicked off the initial scientific training with an overview of the mammal mapping work, where we are trying to build a spatial database of mammal sightings to compliment the results collected by the camera traps. The team were also introduced to a range of equipment that will become their tools of the trade. The day was rounded off with some mammal identification training, and a brief history of the work so far at Blue Hill.

Rested and recuperated from the travel and briefing exertions of the first day, the science training ‘on the job’ began in earnest on day 2 (Monday), with camera trapping deployment and setting up honey bush plots along the south road. This offered a chance for some practical exertions in the form of the off-road 4WD ‘commute to work’, and then a 2 hr hike back to base (for most). Steve was the lucky one, undertaking some 4WD training with the expedition leader, before driving home.

In the afternoon we were introduced to the work of our guest scientist Dr. Margaux Rat, part of the Hot Birds research team. We’ll be helping her project by assisting via video analysis – exploring the effects of temperature on the social networks of sociable weavers. It should give us an insight on how hot and bothered we will all be by climate change!

Tuesday morning brought yet more variety, this time in the form of the weather. Our field visit along the east road was cut to less than hour, by sub-zero temperatures, and the effects of unseasonal wind chill. Highlighting why hypothermia always gets mentioned in the safety briefing. Welcome to South Africa in the Spring!

Margaux was the ultimate beneficiary of the conditions, with all volunteers more than willing to sit in a fire-warmed kitchen, nursing cups of hot coffee whilst undertaking video analysis work on the weavers.

There will be a 20 degrees swing in temperature in the next 24 hr, so will all be out in the field again, and this time hopefully for a little longer…

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