Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Citizen scientists help for the sixth year in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve

Biosphere Expeditions, the international award-winning non-profit conservation organisation, has just finished its sixth annual survey expedition in the wildlife haven of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR).

Seventeen citizen scientists and conservation professionals from nine nations in Europe, Africa, North America and the Middle East joined forces to survey the biodiversity of the sand dunes not far from the glittering metropolis of Dubai. Together they counted 31 bird, 11 mammal & reptile, 11 insect and 15 plant species. Amongst them 104 Arabian oryx, 77 Arabian gazelle, 4 sand gazelle, 140 palm trees, 843 ghaf trees, 28 acacia, 12 Sodom’s apples and a whopping 8,000 or so broom bushes.

Greg Simkins, Conservation Manager of the DDCR, says: “The annual survey with Biosphere Expeditions this year was the most productive we’ve ever had. This joint effort by people from across the globe is important for us. The data that the citizen scientists collect help us to manage the reserve more effectively. For example, by adjusting oryx feed or working out how many gazelles the reserve can support. And on top of this it is both rewarding and humbling to have so much interest and support from so many places around our planet.”

Expedition leader Dr. Matthias Hammer, who is also the founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, adds: “We have wildlife conservation projects all over the world. This one really stands out because of our excellent working relationship with the DCCR. It is a pleasure to work with Greg and to see how our survey efforts translate into direct and immediate conservation and management solutions.”

The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, are well known for its rapid development over the past 50 years as well as for mega-construction projects such as the Palm Islands and the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building). Less well known is the diversity and beauty of the natural environment, from the dugongs and corals in the Arabian Sea to the serene splendour of the sandy dune inland desert. Also little known is that the largest piece of land given to any single project in Dubai was for the establishment of the DDCR in 200; at 225 km², 4.7% of Dubai’s total land area, and the expedition’s study site.

“Stepping into the DDCR is like stepping back in time”, says expedition participant Tessa Merrie. “You see the Dubai desert as it must have been before lots of camels and guns killed off the native wildlife. You can see oryx standing majestically on the dunes and gazelles flitting across the sands. It was also a joy to live out in the desert for a week in a beautiful ghaf tree grove, surrounded by rose-coloured sand dunes.”

The Arabian oryx is the largest of the antelopes in the region and it is very well adapted to the extremely arid environment. Oryx once roamed all across Arabia, but the advent of firearms saw their rapid decline. The Arabian oryx is classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Re-introduced into the DDCR in 1999, the population has steadily grown from the original 100 individuals to over 400 today. For the next phase of the oryx project, local scientists need a greater understanding of how oryx fit into the DDCR’s natural environment, which habitats and plants they prefer, what the social structure of the herd is and how this is affected by the environment. “This can only be achieved through monitoring, for which Biosphere Expeditions provides the manpower”, says Simkins.

Other species seen by the expedition included a very rare Gordon’s wildcat, as well as Arabian hares and Macqueen’s bustards. There was also an exciting sighting of four short-eared owls, a first for the DDCR. The expedition also surveyed vegetation such as the beautiful ghaf tree.

Biosphere Expeditions is an award-winning not-for-profit conservation organisation, and a member of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council & Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Achievements include the creation of protected areas on four continents, scientific and lay publications, as well as capacity-building, training and education all over the world. Biosphere Expeditions conducts citizen science projects in wildlife conservation and research. Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Formally, citizen science has been defined as “the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily a vocational basis.”

A journalist from National Geographic also took part in the expedition, as well as an assessor from the World Tourism Council, as Biosphere Expeditions has been shortlisted for the very prestigious “Tourism for Tomorrow” Award.

The 2017 expedition was kindly supported by Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, as well as Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris. The next annual expedition will run from 20 – 27 January 2018 and “anyone is welcome to join”, says Dr. Hammer. “The more citizen scientist we have helping us, the more we can achieve”, concludes Simkins.

More information about the expedition can be found on www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia.

 

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Here’s a selection of images of the expedition:

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

So the expedition is over. Our scientist Greg summarised the results for us this morning.

We found 168 known fox dens and discovered 19 new ones. On our circular observations we counted 104 oryx, 77 Arabian gazelle, 4 sand gazelle, 140 palm trees, 843 ghaf trees, 28 acacia, 12 Sodom’s apples and a whopping 8000 or so broom bushes. The random observations yielded 31 bird, 11 mammal & reptile, 11 insect and 15 plant species. The 18 camera traps took 16247 (!) pictures, 13000 from one camera photographing moving tree branches or something similarly exciting :), but also of course a variety of species.

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Our live trapping was unsuccessful this year, but if you don’t try, you don’t get. Who knows when we will get the next sand fox or Gordon’s wildcat. We’ll keep at it.

So all that remains is for me to thank the team again for all its efforts. Thank you Jörn, Karin, Jörg, Sigi, Kathie, Albert, Jim, Martina, Yvonne, Samar & Laura. You could have gone to the beach for your holiday, but you chose to help Greg here in his beautiful office. I take my hat off to you for this and I hope you will come and join us again. Thank you Amadeus & Tessa for being the kind of staff that makes Biosphere Expeditions what it is. And thank you Al Maha and Platinum Heritage for your support. And thank you Greg for letting us share your office and vision.

Farewell everyone, safe travels home and I hope to see you again someday, somewhere on this beautiful planet of ours.

Matthias

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s already Friday and the team have worked really hard. For the first time ever we will manage to cover all cells of the reserve this year. That means 63 circular observations, some of which require quite some trekking through the beautiful dunes to get to. As you walk through this amazing landscape, you often wonder how anything can survive, let alone thrive here. But it does, thanks to the hard work of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve staff, and especially Greg and Tamer, who we have the pleasure and privilege to support here. So as you walk, you come across fox dens, sand fish, gazelles flitting about between the dunes, oryx standing majestic on their crests, old date palm plantation swaying in the wind and the sun painting the dunes in a million hues of red, yellow and gold.

It also means six live and 18 camera traps out between the dunes, vegetation surveyed and dens accounted for.

Our days are full and the nights are now colder. The cloud has passed and the wind has lessened, so for the past two days we have experienced the desert as we expected it in our heads. Hot and with blue skies over a sea of sand.

On Wednesday night our routine was broken courtesy of Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris who took us out on a beautiful sunset drive in some vintage Land Rovers and then treated us to some Arabian hospitality, food and an astronomy lesson under the night sky. Thank you for this!

As I write this, teams are coming in from the field with SD cards from the camera traps, live traps and the last lot of data for Greg. I will write more once the preliminary results are in tomorrow

 

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s Wednesday and the expedition is in full swing. All camera traps are out, as are the live traps. We have four teams in the field, working for around six hours each day. We’ve had wind blowing the sand in our faces, overcast days and sunshine, even some rain at night at base camp. The team is doing well and we are on target to cover all our research cells by the end of the week and finish all the tasks that Greg has set us.

We’ve counted hundreds of oryx and gazelles, thousands of ghaf trees and broom bushes, seen beautiful Pharao eagle owls swoop up in the air on their silent wings, a red fox flitting across the dunes, a red streak against the wavy ocre of the desert, agamas burying themselves in the sand, gerbils racing for their lives in a white dash across the tracks, and the sun set and rise in all its fiery beauty as we get on with our jobs.

We have covered countless kilometres all across this beautiful reserve, crunching sand and gravel under our tires, without getting stuck yet, due to some very good driving skills. Two more days to go. Thank you to the team for working so hard!

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

It’s the morning of day four of the expedition. After a day and a half of training, the team did well to start collecting data on day two. By now all camera and live traps have been set and we are working our way around the 63 circular observation points (15 done already), filling in the random observations sheets (sightings thus far include Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelle, Arabian hare, Arabian toad-headed agama, eagle owls, francolins, larks, shrikes, wheatears and more) and counting vegetation (lots of broom bushes, Sodom’s apples and ghaf trees) and fox dens.

We get up before sunrise, are out as the day dawns and back as the sun sets in an orange orb over the desert. Our camp in a ghaf tree grove echoes to the sounds of turtle doves who call this little oasis their home too. Yesterday we braved the winds and sand to push on with our work despite the stony grains crunching between our teeth. Last night it rained, but this morning looks calm and rosy as the morning rays bathe the sky in a pink hue over this beautiful, calm desert bubble, not far from the bustling machinations of commerce and development in Dubai. The food al Al Maha is great and since an army marches on its stomach, this army of citizen scientists is marching well.

Starting today, we will be checking our live traps daily (and the camera traps at the end of the week), continue to tick off circular observations (basically sitting on a dune and counting animals and vegetation for 30 minutes), check more fox dens and count other species of interest as we criss-cross the reserve in four teams all day.

More soon.

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

We’ve arrived and we’re unpacking, shopping, setting things up. The food that Al Maha kindly provide for us is great. The sun is shining, it’s warm during the day and not too cold during the night to sleep under the stars (but there are plenty of tents too).

Today we are working with Greg on the research side (I hope you’ve read the 2016 expedition report to set the scene for you) and tomorrow we are tying up loose ends. And then we’ll see you at the right place and time on Saturday morning. Safe travels to get you there.

In another piece of excellent news, we’re a finalist for the 2017 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards! That in itself is another great feather in our cap. Now wish us luck for the final round, which entails an assessor joining our team for the week, who will take part in the expedition as normal, as will a journalist from National Geographic, and they will both want to talk to the rest of the team, so be nice to them please 😉

See you soon!

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Hello and welcome to the first expedition diary entry of 2017, for our Arabia expedition to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). I am Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, and also your expedition leader for this expedition. Other key people are Greg Simkins, head of the DDCR and also our expedition scientists, as well as expedition leaders in training Tessa Merrie and Amadeus DeKastle.

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And then of course there’s you, the expedition team. There will be a full complement of 12 of you from the UAE, UK, USA, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as a journalist for National Geographic Traveller and an assessor from a major travel award, which I can’t tell you about yet, since there’s a news embargo until the shortlists are officially announced on 16 Jan. But suffice it to say that it’s great just to make it onto the shortlist, which in itself is a major feather in our awards cap.

But enough of this for now. Let’s focus on you all getting there and the work ahead.

I hope your preparations are going well and you are starting to get excited. Tessa and I will fly from Norwich in the UK via Amsterdam to Dubai on Tuesday and set things up with Greg, Tessa & Amadeus. Amadeus will be coming from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and you will all be coming from Europe, the USA and the Middle East.

Once we are all together, we will follow the recommendations of the 2016 expedition report, which was published at the end of December. Do have a look at this to be prepared. The methodology we will use and the skills you will need are explained in the report and there is also a YouTube playlist with it. We will follow the cell methodology, use camera traps and GPSs, as well as binoculars and spotting scopes. You might also want to watch some sand driving technique videos on YouTube; there’s plenty of them and this is a good skill to have too.

I’ll be in touch again from Dubai (then also with my contact number there). Good preparations and safe travels. I look forward to meeting you all.

Regards

Matthias Hammer

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

We have now added a selection of pictures below. Enjoy and we hope to see you again some day, somewhere on this beautiful planet of ours.

Best wishes

Biosphere Expeditions

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Update from our Arabian desert expedition / working holiday volunteering with oryx and wildcats in the United Arab Emirates (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Overall we have had a very successful week in the desert and Steve the scientist is really happy with the data we have collected; particularly gazing at oryx bottoms to score their body condition while they are feeding – and of course the fox jackpot. Each individual oryx of twelve herds has been scored and the team members will all bring back hundreds of photos of oryx backsides! Six months ago the feed was increased due to the poor condition of the oryx. Our preliminary results of the expedition show that they are now generally very healthy and well fed.

Health oryx (and their bottoms)
Health oryx (and their bottoms)

Last night we enjoyed dressing up for an evening at the bar of the Al Maha Resort with drinks (and desserts!) It was well after bedtime by the time we returned to camp (at 22:15), so we had an extra long lie-in until 07:00 this morning : ) It seems like we had only just set up camp when it was time to break it down again.

A big thank to everyone on the team – so much can be achieved in such a short time with so many eyes and ears. Research like this would not be possible without your contribution!

Eyes & ears
Eyes & ears

Another thank you goes to Starwood Group for supporting conservation by making sure we were well fed (like the oryx).

Safe travels to everyone for their onward journeys, we will be on our way back home on Monday and will be in touch with a link for everyone to share their photos. Hope to see you again some time somewhere!

Malika and Kate

Team 2014
Team 2014

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