From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

The expedition is in full swing. We are checking live traps in the morning and rodent traps before the teams move on to their surveys. A Cheeseman’s gerbil was caught yesterday.

Cheeseman's gerbil
Cheeseman’s gerbil

Playing dead, we didn’t see or hear it hidden in wood shavings and there was no movement when we studied the closed trap for signs of life. Only when emptying the trap, did the creature reveal itself, frozen at our feet for only a second before disappearing at the speed of light. During the night a fox must have desperately tried to get to it, burying a deep hole all around the gerbil’s safe enclosure. From the tracks that were left behind we could read the whole story!

Trap & tracks
Trap & tracks

Other than that the surveys are going well. After a couple of days everyone is now familiar with the GPS and the road network. But also with using shovels and tow ropes for a full desert experience! 😉

A little stuck
A little stuck

Apart from surveying ‘cells’ – areas of 2 x 2 km – from two different survey points, which the teams have to reach on foot walking up and down sand dunes, Steve, the expedition scientist, has added the task of counting oryx at feeding points.

Survey point
Survey point

A great number of calves and juveniles are seen and counted, and it will be of great importance to ascertain the actual number of oryx within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve for further management decisions.

Oryx
Oryx

We have also come across a dead oryx indicated by about 15 lappet-faced vultures circling the sky above. Walking the dunes we also check fox den holes marked in our GPSs to categorise them active/inactive/abundant/not found, or we note GPS positions of new fox dens – all in an effort to update the existing database.

When the teams return back to base in the late afternoon lots of data are brought back from the field. Thanks to Lea, who has become the team’s data entry specialist, all data sheets  have been entered into the scientist’s computer.

Only two more days of rising with the sun in the morning and spending all day out in the field.

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Everyone arrived safely two days ago at base camp located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The convoy of four cars stopped at the DDCR’s brand-new office where Steven Bell, the expedition scientist, gave a presentation about the history of the reserve, study animals and conservation work before the convoy headed out into the desert. After setting up tents and lunch, the rest of Saturday was spent with talks, risk-assessment, training on research equipment, live- and camera traps, data sheets and expedition vehicles. More training on GPSs – a vital tool for all field work – was done the next morning as was the off-road driving training. So far so good.

The North (Sandra & Gary, Mary and Judith from the UK, Susanna & Lloyd from the US), Central (Margit and Sigrun from Germany) and South (Caroline and her two daughters Lea and Janna, U.A.E. residents and Tariq from Jordan) teams accompanied by Steve, David and I then went out to set all traps (10 camera, 12 live and 16 rodent traps). Designated areas stored in the GPSs must be found, as well as proper spots to place and bait the traps – a very busy day. The South group came across a lappet-faced vulture, the Central group found a small silver snake and everyone finally made it back to base in the late afternoon. Of course Arabian oryx and the smaller gazelles are all around, flitting through the dunes or majestically standing in the sand, reminiscent of Arabia as it once was or of Africa as it still is in some parts of the savannah wilderness. For the daily review we sat around the fireplace, had dinner straight after and went to bed early.

The weather has been very pleasant: sunny, 23 degrees C, with temperatures not dropping below 10 degrees at night. For dinner we are spoiled by a great variety of delicious food & salad plus dessert such as chocolate cake! 😉  Writing this I am at the DDCR office while everyone is out doing surveys. Soon I will be picked up to be taken back to base camp, away from any internet or phone connection. I’ll keep you updated.

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Only 36 hours have passed since we’ve arrived in Dubai. Stephen, our expedition scientist, David and I met up yesterday morning, picked up some supplies in town and then made our way to the desert. With two huge Ford off-road expedition vehicles, we drove to the storage room within the reserve to load up our camp equipment: tents, tables, chairs, carpets, cushions, gas cooker, cooler boxes  – just to name a few items. Thanks to the DDCR staff the main “big” and kitchen tents were already set up and in place for us to move in. We’ve been busy with organising camp, checking research equipment, going through data sheets and paperwork, etc., etc. It feels like we’ve been here for much longer than 36 hours 😉

We have been shopping a bit already, but tomorrow is going to be the big shopping day – we’ve put together a looong list – as always.

The weather is really pleasant. In the mid 20s C during the day, dropping to high 10s during the night, some scattered cloud, but otherwise blue skies.

That’s it for the moment, we’ll be in touch again soon.

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

This is the first (quick) diary entry for the Arabia desert expedition starting on 9 January. My name is Malika Fettak, I am a senior member of the Biosphere Expeditions staff and I will be leading the expedition. Also with us will be David Moore as an expedition leader in training.

Right now we are about to board our planes Dubai (David from France and I from Germany). David and I will meet up in Dubai tomorrow morning and then go straight into preparations. Quite a few things need to be organised before the team’s arrival: Food supplies, setting up the expedition base campsite, preparing the equipment, cars and paperwork, etc., etc. I’ll be in touch again once I have arrived on the ground and my local SIM card is confirmed as working still.

Meanwhile, our expedition scientists Stephen Bell of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is getting ready at his end too. He’s picked up some cars that cannot be missed in the desert – see below ;), kindly provided by Ford Middle East, who has also supported our expeditions in the region for many years via its Conservation and Environmental grants programme.

Ford

Further support, logistics and otherwise, comes from Platinum Heritage and Al Maha. Thank you to all three of them; their support is much appreciated.

Now all we need is the team. Safe travels and I’ll see you in the desert soon.

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Well that’s another Arabia expedition over and a lot of valuable data collected, which will be thoroughly analysed over the next few weeks and months to go into this year’s expedition report. The team finished surveying their quadrants yesterday and gathered up all the live traps (aimed at sand foxes and Gordon’s wildcats), rodent traps and camera traps from throughout the reserve on one final drive-around.

Unfortunately there were no more captures in the live traps, but there was a lot of evidence of fox activity around the traps and one team did see cat tracks on Thursday.

There were more captures of Cheesman’s gerbils in the rodent traps, which suggests that their population is at a good level, which is important as they are a major food source of the Gordon’s wildcat and eagle owls. We were certainly made aware of the eagle owls’ presence during the last two nights with incessant hooting in the nearby ghaf trees!

The camera traps photographed a lot of oryx and two Arabian red foxes, but no Gordon’s wildcat. This does not mean that there are no wildcats, but it reinforces the estimate of just how rare they are.

The initial summary of the sightings in the quadrant surveys indicates that the populations of Arabian gazelles and sand gazelles are good and the health of the oryx herd is really good, based on the fact that they are now breeding, which they have not really done over recent years. Each herd recorded had several calves and one herd had eight.

On Thursday afternoon (the hottest day of the week at 36°C), we were joined by the reserve’s botanist, Tamir, and Head of Conservation, Greg, to be shown the new drone. A flight was planned covering the area around our camp, which is being surveyed by air to assess the vegetation cover and type. We were all able to watch the drone being launched and fly transects backwards and forwards looking like a big bird and sounding like a very distant mosquito.The DDCR scientists are very excited about this new development in the technology that can be used to help them do their jobs with minimal impact on the habitat and wildlife.

So we said our thanks and farewells to the team this morning and hope to see them again on future expeditions. Many thanks also to the DDCR and the scientists for another great expedition and we look forward to 2016 by which time a few Arabian wolves will hopefully have been introduced into the reserve and we’ll have even more work to do…

Thanks to all our participants. Your work has become an integral part of conservation efforts in Dubai. You could have shopped, shopped, shopped, but instead you spent a week in the desert surverying, surveying and surveying. Well done and thank you so much.

Kate

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

The team have now settled into the daily routine, which is firstly checking the cat/fox traps and rodent traps that they set up on Sunday followed by surveying three 2 x 2 km quadrants of the reserve on foot with the help of binoculars, spotting scopes and range finders. In the evening the teams enter their data onto the acientist’s computer to be analysed at the end of the expedition.

After two full days of surveying we have sighted most of the study animals – oryx, Arabian gazelles, sand gazelles, Arabian red fox, Mcqueen’s bustard and lappet-faced vulture. The biggest difference we have noted, compared to last year’s expedition, is the presence of lots of oryx calves, some only a couple of weeks old, which is an indicator that the oryx population is thriving. The photo is of one herd’s young on top of a sand dune near one of the tracks we drive on to get around the reserve.

The northern team (Kate, Melanie, Neil and Andre) had a live capture yesterday morning of a black and white ferral cat (see picture). These are the biggest threat to the endangered Gordon’s wildcat due to interbreeding and competition, so this cat has now been taken outside the reserve.

Almost all of the team members have now had a rodent capture in the smaller traps. We are assessing the rodent population, because it is the food source of the Gordon’s wildcat and Pharoah’s eagle owl, but is also being hunted by the Arabian red foxes. In the pictures Jörg is about to handle a Cheesman’s gerbil (yes, that is it’s name) to discover its sex and body measurement and mark it before re-releasing. Well, this was the plan but the gerbil had a different idea and ran up Jörg’s arm and out of the trap before he could get a proper grip!

There are two and a half more days left to complete the survey of the reserve before we retrieve the live and camera traps and get an overview of the data we have collected. In the meantime we are enjoying our long sandy survey walks in the warm sunny weather and it seems too soon to be thinking about the end!

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Just a quick note to update a few things relating to the expedition. We now have confirmation from the local vet that he will come out on Sunday to assist our three groups to dart and radio collar three individual oryx.

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There will be a local photographer here while we are working (a friend of the scientist) who is going to make a short film of the expedition to put to music. He will use a GoPro camera and a drone to take action shots of us driving around the reserve and walking in the dunes in addition to filming the study animals in their natural habitat. He has offered to do this purely to support the conservation activities, so the film will be made available for Biosphere Expeditions to use.

Looking forward to meeting the team at 09:00 tomorrow morning for the start of the expedition!

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Last night Malika and I spent our first night sleeping under the stars at our base camp in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). We planned an early night and a lie-in after our long journeys and were woken by the loud dawn chorus at 6.30 – during the expedition this won’t happen because the expedition team will be the early birds!

Sunset

Early morning is the best time to start our research work as we are more likely to see the study animals and we will need to free any animals that may be caught in our live traps as soon as possible to minimise any (heat) stress to them.

This morning the workers of the DDCR came to prepare an area for our Bedu and then they erected it in record time while we were away from camp collecting all the food for the expedition.

P1070571 (2)

The car was so full of food I think we, like the oryx, will be well fed while we are in the reserve.

food car

This year there will be no body condition scoring of the oryx because the last survey carried out a few months ago by the local scientists showed that they are now all in good condition. Still, we will have plenty to do with the new tasks I mentioned in the last diary entry and if we get time during the expedition, we may even get a chance to fly a drone – the latest piece of equipment to arrive at the DDCR for use in their research work.

The rest of this week we will be busy preparing our equipment and datasheets and setting up camp ready for the arrival of the team on Saturday – no more lie-ins for us!

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From our desert expedition volunteering with oryx and wildcats in Arabia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia)

Hello everyone, happy new year and welcome to the first diary entry for Biosphere Expeditions’ fourth Arabia expedition taking place in January 2015. My name is Kate Fox and I will be your expedition leader for this project along with Malika Fettak. We were both in Arabia almost a year ago and are very much looking forward to returning to continue with this valuable research work.

At the moment I am in West Wales (cold and windy), preparing paperwork and equipment, but next Monday I will be flying to Dubai to meet up with Malika for more preparation work in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (currently 27°C and sunny).

On this expedition we will continue to survey and monitor the endangered Arabian oryx and other species in the reserve including sand fox and extremely elusive Gordon’s wildcat. Our survey techniques include setting live traps and camera traps and using GPS to navigate around the reserve by car and on foot – a good chance to burn off all those excess calories after Christmas, tramping up and down sand dunes for several hours a day! Live traps will be set up not only targeting sand foxes, but also a variety of smaller rodents since not much is known about their presence/absence in the DDCR and the behaviour of some of them. We will record everything we see, whether it is the study animals themselves or their tracks in the sand. For the first time during this expedition, we will also be darting Arabian oryx and attaching radio collars to monitor their movements. Three collars are waiting to do their job. The data delivered from the collars will help to build up a picture of their movements and behaviour, how far each herd ranges and what their preferred feeding places are.

Keep an eye out for our next diary entry from Arabia next week and in the meantime Happy New Year!

Kate

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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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