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

More oryx, fewer rodents and efforts for wolves in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve

Twelve expedition team members from four different countries in January 2016 participated in a Biosphere Expeditions conservation project to evaluate the oryx and gazelle population in the Dubai Desert Conservation reserve in the United Arab Emirates. The research work also involved setting live traps to capture the endangered sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat. Rodents were also captured in small mammal traps.

The data gleaned in this way will now be analysed by the local scientist, Stephen Bell, who will soon be releasing a report detailing the outcome of the 2016 expedition. He explains that “we captured only few rodents and this could be a reason for the absence of the desert eagle owl, which was not spotted over the week, as well as the wildcat.”

130 fox dens were also checked and several new dens logged. This high number of Arabian red fox could be “detrimental to the balance of the reserve’s ecosystem”, according to Bell.

39 of 42 observation cells (an area of 2 by 2 kilometres) were surveyed in the course of the week throughout the 227 km² reserve. Expeditioners navigated to their cells in the desert by 4×4 and then walked to elevated points to count the animals they could sport with binoculars and spotting scopes. That way over 400 oryx, almost 140 mountain gazelle, around 50 sand gazelle and two hares were counted over the course of the week. The rare lappet-faced vulture was spotted on several occasions and in great numbers when a fresh carcass was found.

Since starting its partnership with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) in 2012, Biosphere Expeditions has made several important contributions to the management of the reserve and its rare species. Initially expedition work prompted the DDCR to change oryx feeding patterns, resulting in a much healthier population. Rare Gordon’s wildcats and a very rare and elusive sand fox were captured by the expeditions over the years, prompting the reserve to increase research and conservation efforts for these threatened species. Finally, data gathered by the expeditions showed that the introduction of the Arabian wolf would be beneficial. The UAE government accepted these arguments and the DDCR is now investigating processes and options to make what will be a major showcase conservation success story for Arabia become reality.

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

We’ve walked many more kilometres on the sand and dunes over the last two days with all teams determined to complete their surveys. By Friday afternoon we had surveyed 39 out of a total of 42 cells, making the scientist very happy. Heavy wind and downpours stopped us from surveying on Wednesday afternoon. Fortunately all tents were still in place when we returned to base.

Instead of sitting around the fireplace, that evening was spent in the main tent with some of us playing games after the daily review. On Thursday a broken cooker forced us to cook on the fire. Having a hot tea or coffee in the morning around the fireplace truly felt like being on expedition.

The week was over too soon. Before we went out to a special event on the last evening, Steve summed up the results after six days of working in the field. Not including Friday’s results, 399 oryx were counted at feeding spots, 126 mountain and 49 sand gazelles were encountered as well as two hares. The new method of visiting two predefined observation points in each cell to survey the area for 15 minutes will definitely result in more accurate/comparable results. We caught only three rodents during the week using 16 traps, leading to the conclusion that the number of rodents is down. This could influence the number of desert eagle owl – a bird target species that was not recorded on the surveys – but also on the cat population. 130 fox dens were observed and quite a few new dens were recorded. All of this will go into the expedition report.

We left camp after the obligatory team picture session to go out for a night dune drive. Sponsored by Platinum Heritage the team was invited to spend the evening at traditional Arabian dune camp. We learnt about Arabic coffee, cuisine, dance, henna painting, smoking shisa, etc. The dinner was delicious! It was far beyond our usual bed time (22:00 ;)) when we were dopped back off at base. Still everyone had enough sleep since we decided to have breakfast late today, our last day.

Thank you so much, again for joining this project, putting sweat, time and money into research & conservation. I hope you’ve enjoyed the week as much as David, Steve and I did and I hope to see you again sometime somewhere.

Malika

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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