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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kenya Eco-Safari with Snorkeling in Zanzibar

July is usually the time of year I start planning to lead my safari to Kenya and Tanzania. This year I will not be making the journey but I thought I would share with you some images and experiences from past expeditions. I first went to Kenya in 1987 as part of a School for Field Studies wildlife management program. It was on this program that i met one of my closest friends, Todd Palmer. Currently Dr. Todd is a professor at University of Florida, and his research focuses on ant - plant mutualisms, and more recently termite influence on ecosystem structure. I mention this only because it was with Todd that I returned to Kenya in 2002 to help teach field courses to undergraduate students. From 2002 through 2005 we led 5 separate 6-week fields programs, allowing students 3.5 weeks of experiential field based learning opportunity at the Mpala Research Center in Laikipia, 1-week of a community oriented service project, and 1.5-weeks of safari to the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, and on the coastal town of Watamu. It was through our experiences with these student groups that I began organizing custom safaris for Oceanic Society and private groups. Since 2004 I have been leading a variety of safaris to Kenya and Tanzania.

With our student groups we had the opportunity to participate in many interesting research projects, some specifically examining human/wildlife conflicts. In different years we have witnessed capture and radio collaring of various African predators, lions and leopards were two of the more exciting.  Now returning with ecotourists groups we have been able to have similar experiences. Unique, up close and personal encounters with nature, and at the same time efforts are made to support local and effective conservation programs in the countries we visit. Part of the fee the participants pay goes directly to a variety of conservancies that have been established to create an economic support system for conservation among local communities. Additionally groups visiting Mpala research center and Chumbe Island in Zanzibar, pay fees that directly support these research centers and their educational programs. These safaris allow the participant to connect through firsthand experiences, with conservation organizations on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania that are directly involved in community driven projects with conservation management objectives at the core of their research.

Along the way our groups share many amazing experiences. Wildlife is obviously what drew many, however it is frequently the people that we interact with along the way, who add a special intimacy to what we are lucky enough to experience. We start in Laikipia, where the largest concentrations of game in all of East Africa (outside of national parks) can be found. We visit Mpala, Ol Pejejeta, and Lewa Downs. From here we depart for Lake Nakuru and then fly to the Masai Mara arriving just in time for the height of the wildebeest migration. After a brief return to Nairobi we depart the following day to Chumbe Island Marine Reserve, off the coast of Zanzibar. After all the dust of safari, it is great to spend three days snorkeling along Chumbe's protected coral reefs and learning about the coastal ecology of Africa.
I hope you might join us on a future safari, please feel free to contact me for more information. In the meantime click on this link for a slide show from last years safari. I am planning two summer eco-safaris for 2011. In future posts I will include more details about specific parts mentioned above.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

World Oceans Day at The New England Aquarium with the "Green Team"

This past Saturday I spent the afternoon at the New England Aquarium with the Warren Prescott School 5th grade "Green Team" participating in a World Oceans Day event. I was joined by my collaborator Alisyn Johnson, and the students science teacher, Tina Champagne. Our group had been invited by the Aquarium education staff to participate in the Oceans Day family event. We were one of about 30 groups that set up tables to inform visitors to the aquarium about projects and things they could do to help the world's oceans. Tina and Alisyn organized the Green Team students to come to the event and talk to the folks there about the CO2 offset project that they had worked on this year, giving up red meat to offset CO2 produced by air travel related to marine research and ecotourism. This project started in September of 2009 and has continued throughout the year. It is a combined effort of the Warren Prescott School, Oceanic Society (a non-profit marine conservation organization) and Quen.ch (a non-profit formed by a group of Harvard Extension School graduate students). During the course of the year over 400 students and their family members from this Boston Public School have pledged to stop eating red meat for varying lengths of time. From this project over 15,000-lbs of CO2 has potentially been offset by their efforts. The tie in to the marine environment for the students has been facilitated by connecting this offset to the Oceanic Society's marine conservation projects and through lectures provided by Harvard professors and graduate students. Assisted by Alisyn and Tina's efforts the students have connected with me in the field via SKYPE from both, Belize and Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. During these audio/video calls students learned about sea turtle, seabird, and coral reef conservation efforts directly from the field location. The Midway call was especially exciting due to the background vocalizations of thousands of Laysan Albatross.
During the Aquarium event the students were able to take on the role of educators, talking to parents and other children about the environmental concepts they had become familiar with over the course of the year. Here they told all about the huge amount of CO2 generated by the factory farming of beef, what virtual water is and how red meat production consumes huge amounts of water relative to the production of other meats and vegetables. One of the many fun facts shared with the Aquarium visitors was that if a family substituted 2-lbs of chicken for 2-lbs of beef once a week for a year, over 200,000 gallons of water would be saved, enough to fill the aquarium's "Giant Ocean Tank."

It was a great day, many families participated, at our table many even made their own pledges to give up red meat for a week or more. 17 students from the Green Team assisted, and they also were able to visit with the other groups present, learning about different ways for them to continue to help conserve and teach others about the worlds Oceans.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Suriname, Leatherback & Green sea turtles and jaguars!

Now it is back to Suriname with a group of 13 people to continue Oceanic Society’s Leatherback sea turtle monitoring project. I have been going to Suriname since 2001, it is a wonderful country with vibrant wildlife populations. This research trip will take me back to the leatherback nesting beaches of Galibi Nature Reserve. Galibi is pretty remote, a 2-1/2 hour bus ride followed by another 2-1/2 hour boat ride gets you to one of the most productive leatherback nesting areas left in the world. Some nights we might see up to 40 leatherbacks nesting on the 3-km section of beach that we patrol. Green and olive ridley sea turtles also nest here.

We stay at the Warana Lodge, a modest shelter with 5 rooms that adjoin onto a large eating area. The building is right along the nesting beach and many nights while we are having dinner either nesting turtles or hatchlings are spotted. There are many other creatures around the area as it is basically a tropical forest right out to the beach. We see squirrel monkeys, parrots, hawks, lizards, snakes, and sloths regularly. Even the occasional capybara has appeared near camp.

One exciting visitor last year was a jaguar that was eating nesting green turtles. Each morning we would find jaguar tracks all along the beach where we had been out the night before monitoring nesting turtles. We never saw the actual jaguar but I am sure that it saw us. Every year individual jaguars in Galibi may take as many as 30 adult green turtles. I am looking forward to seeing what will be going on this year.

Our group of 13 is made up of primarily college students from the US and Suriname. The US students will be learning about field research and human wildlife conflicts related to the sea turtles nesting areas. The students from Suriname will be learning about ecotourism and how it may be an effective means to conserve their native ecosystems from unsustainable human activities. Oceanic’s has a long history working with the Suriname government and Galibi’s local villagers to promote sea turtle conservation and research in the area. In addition to exploring the topics above with the students our goals will be to resight previously PIT tagged leatherbacks from the nesters observed collecting size data on any resights, and determine hatching success for all hatched nests that we find.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Green Sea Turtle Tracking on Midway Atoll

Today I am headed back to Midway Atoll with an Oceanic Society group of 16 persons. Three of these volunteers will be part of our Green Sea turtle "Scoping" mission. I will be joined at Midway by Marc Rice, Director of the Science and Technology and Sea Turtle Research Programs from the Hawaii Preparatory Academy. We will be working closely with sea turtle guru George Balazs, senior sea turtle biologist from the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries science center. Marc and George have been researching sea turtles at Midway and in Hawaii for over 30 years. When I worked at Midway in 1998 to 2002 I was lucky enough on occasion, to get out in the field with George & Marc, and with FWS biologists to help tag and monitor sea turtles there. The last time either Marc or George have been able to get back to Midway was in 2001. We have proposed a Sea turtle scoping project through Oceanic Society to the Midway Atoll NWR in an effort to look at what might be possible in the way of population assessment and monitoring of the sea turtles residing at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Over the years about 180 sea turtles have been tagged at Midway with much interesting information coming from this effort. When Midway was closed to tourism in 2002 the main basking beach (Turtle Beach) utilized by the sea turtles there was afforded extra protections. This was also coincident to a reduction in overall human activity due to the reduced number of people accessing Midway. Over the intervening years the amount of turtles using the beach has increased. It is not uncommon these days to visit Turtle Beach and see 20 to 30 turtles out basking in the sun. In addition the first successful nesting activity ever recorded at Midway was observed in 2006. With a few more nests being sighted in the last few years. The efforts of FWS to manage the important resting areas for turtles and reduce overall disturbance events seems to be paying off in increased numbers of sea turtles basking and nesting events. As the numbers of turtles sighted on Turtle Beach has grown it may prove interesting to explore ways to monitor the activity and see if certain individuals are regularly sighted. By ID'ing individuals it may be possible to interpret whether sea turtle numbers are actually increasing at Midway or if simply more of the turtles that have always been at Midway have started to bask on the beach due to less regular disturbance.

During this week we will try and get a good assessment of basking activity, sex of animals basking, and whether animals are out on the beach at night, possibly an indication of predator avoidance rather than basking. Marc has worked on a project at big Island with the Hawaii Preparatory Academy using video cameras to remotely monitor the behavior and successfully identify (and re-identify) individual turtles over time at the monitored sites. Using facial scale patterns and descriptive keywords it has been shown by Marc and others that sea turtles can be monitored without causing any disturbance to their resting behavior.

Oceanic Society has a long history of helping in the research and protection of sea turtle populations with their volunteer projects. One of our longest projects has been working with leatherback sea turtles in Suriname. We also have partnered with a great researcher in Ulithi Atoll, Jennifer Cruce, who is working with local communities to protect and monitor green sea turtle populations there. Through this preliminary fieldwork with FWS and George and Marc on Midway, we hope to continue that tradition. Offering a way to learn from the wonderful turtle activity we are witness to each year during our visitor programs at Midway. It will be great to be back out in the field with Marc after a 9 year hiatus. Stay tuned for updates on what we see and other interesting flora and fauna observed on Midway over the next 3 weeks.