The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2016 (according to our volunteers)!

What were the best expeditions of 2016 according to our volunteers? To find out, we tallied the evaluation scores submitted by each volunteer after his or her expedition—a measurement of training, safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, overall satisfaction, and many other factors. Knowledgeable, tireless, and inspiring research staff; the ability and experience of interacting with and connecting with wildlife and ecosystems untouched by tourists; the knowledge that one person can make a difference in the world—these are just a few examples of volunteers’ expedition highlights.

  1. Uncovering the Mysteries of Ancient Colorado

ryan-credit-unknown-5-copyAround the globe, humans made a critical transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The Mesa Verde region in southwest Colorado is ideal for studying this transition. Volunteers are digging into the ancient past of this region to search for clues to the biggest shift in human history.

“This was my first expedition with Earthwatch. Getting to participate in an actual dig alongside professionals and sharing in their excitement of discovery is an experience I’ll long remember. I appreciated how the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center took good care of its Earthwatch volunteers, and also how they provided information and context prior to our field experience. At the end of my week, I was wishing I had signed up for the two-week program, which I am hoping I will be able to do next year!”Debra Berliner

 

  1. Amazon Riverboat Exploration

bodmer-maire-kirkland-196-copyAboard a riverboat deep in the heart of Peru’s flooded Amazon region, volunteers are helping to conserve the wildlife within this biodiverse area filled with pink river dolphins, many species of primates, macaws, caiman, giant river otters, and exotic fish.

“I’m an animal lover, and awakening to dolphins playing outside my door still gives me chills. I loved getting to meet the local people and see how they live. Traveling on the boats, taking our censuses, learning, looking at our amazing surroundings . . . There just aren’t words.”Deborah Fohringer

 

  1. Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa

Rhino populations are in crises due to the high value of rhino horn combined with scott-credit-kristen-lalumiere-7-copy
widespread poaching. Volunteers are helping scientists in understanding the impact rhinos have on the environment to better help conserve and manage their populations in South Africa.

“If you’ve only seen animals in a zoo, prepare to have your mind blown!  In the rhino expedition, you enter the animals’ world and spend hours watching them in their own habitat, interacting with their babies or their pals…This expedition truly takes you to another world, a world that is refreshing to know still exists apart from our fast-paced human world.”
– Marcia Hanlon

 

  1. Trailing Penguins in Patagonia 

quintana-credit-agustina-gomez-laich-5-copyHow exactly do penguins forage for food at sea and how does this impact their young? Volunteers in Patagonia, Argentina, are helping researchers find the answers to these questions by tagging penguins and mapping the location of each nest in the colony.

“I learned a great deal about Magellanic Penguins, their nesting behaviors, and the threats that they face. I also gained a better perspective on the research being conducted in Argentina and the researchers conducting it. This was also my first introduction to Argentina, which made the expedition even more educational.”Doug DeNeve

 

  1. Costa Rican Sea Turtles

The leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific, once the stronghold of the species, robinson-credit-nathan-robinson-30-copyhas declined by over 90% since 1980. To truly understand why this ancient species has declined so rapidly, volunteers are helping to observe and monitor nesting turtles, relocate eggs from nests in dangerous spots, and release hatchlings born in the hatchery into the ocean.

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had working as a team on a project. The researchers and field staff made the volunteers feel as though we were actually contributing something to this research, and in some small ways, helping to protect and preserve the mighty leatherback!”
Kathryn Bonn

 

  1. Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua 

The Masaya Valcano is persistently active – it erupts constantly, but it does not spew out rymer-volunteers-dscn7219-copymolten rock. Instead, it releases a steady plume of gas. To understand how the volcano’s plume shapes the surrounding environment, volunteers are studying pollinating insects, collecting plant, water and soil samples, and setting up scientific instruments to monitor the Masaya’s crater.

“Exploring an active volcano in Nicaragua was a once in a lifetime experience. Being able to work with scientists on their research, climb around on an active volcano, and then share what I learned with my K-8 students was an enriching and valuable experience. I was able to check in with my students daily and work with the scientists and other volunteers to answer their questions. I really believe this was a once in a lifetime and unique travel experience.”
Jennifer Fenner

 

  1. Unearthing Ancient History in Tuscany

megale-credit-unknown-59-copyThe ancient seaside city of Populonia was once a center of metalworking and trade. Volunteers are helping archaeologists reconstruct the complex past of this region to better understand the lives of the people who lived in the city between the 7th and 1st century BCE.

“[This expedition] made me more keen than ever to study anthropology and it was fascinating to see what life as an anthropologist involves. It also made me understand how archaeology, history, anthropology, and geology all have to link to fully understand the lives of people in ancient times.”Lucia Simmen

 

  1. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

nita-losoponkul-daffodils-and-snowIn the high slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees, as in other mountain regions, climate change has already begun to alter the landscape. Some species are moving to higher latitudes and some have begun to decline. How have humans impacted this ecosystem? Volunteers are hiking through forests and meadows, studying alpine flora and surveying snowbed vegetation, to help researchers find out how animals are faring and how best to protect key species.

“Going on the Earthwatch expedition to Andorra gave me the chance to explore a region I never would have thought of when planning a normal vacation. If you have a sense of adventure and want to better understand a culture very different from your own, I strongly urge you to consider going on this expedition.”Ryan Filer

 

  1. Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve

How can we best help African wildlife return to and thrive in their native habitat? leslie-credit-dr-allison-case-3-copyVolunteers are helping researchers gather the data they need to best manage the park by monitoring the many species in the reserve, conducting waterhole counts, and studying camera-trap images.

“Laying in my cot to sleep at night and seeing through the slit of my tent window – maybe 15 yards from my pillow – the tusks of elephants gleaming in the bright full moon as a herd passed through camp was a magical moment…Watching the parade of animals visit the waterhole over the course of an entire day was the stuff I had dreamed about since childhood. Yes, I could have had some similar experiences had I gone on a commercial safari, but this Earthwatch project allowed me the opportunity to be connected to the wildlife reserve and its inhabitants in as meaningful and authentic way as possible for a layperson.”
David Meyerson

 

  1. South African Penguins

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERANinety percent of the penguin population on Robben Island has disappeared over the past 100 years. The island lies in the middle of major shipping lanes, and the risk of oil spills to local seabirds has been well documented. Here, volunteers are working with researchers to monitor the health of this island environment and monitoring seabirds to help reduce the impact of the various threats to this fragile environment.

“Signing up for this project was the best thing I have done. It was such a privilege to be given the opportunity to live and work on an island that is full of history and inhabited by mostly birds and other wildlife. To be up close and personal with the penguins was such an awesome feeling.”Emi Estrada

Earthwatch: ‘An experience that will always be a part of you.’

By Jan Boal

Author Jan Boal believes in tuning oneself in to the signs from the universe. Her book, “Safari for the Soul,” explores her journey in finally heeding these signs and taking a leap of faith in herself, deciding to travel the world solo. During her year of self-discovery, she volunteered on three Earthwatch expeditions and was profoundly changed.


Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting the staff of Earthwatch Institute at their Boston Headquarters. Not only was I warmed by their sincerity, but I was grateful for their vision and dedication in pursuit of caring for our planet.

In 2011, I volunteered on three expeditions, Blazing the Biodiversity Trail in Brazil, Dolphins of Greece, and Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. I was 52 at the time, single and following my calling. I knew it would be like when I went off to college: Anticipation of what was to come, knowing I would be different when I returned, and anxious for all those same reasons along with traveling alone to these far away countries. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Like college and getting an education, it is the same when venturing off with Earthwatch — an education, an experience that will always be a part of you, a broadening of yourself, like a breath of fresh air, a new you. Be prepared that volunteering on an expedition is quite holistic and all-encompassing. You will learn about the animal/environment you signed up for as well as the culture of this environment and its impact and struggles dealing with whatever threatened issue is involved.

 

Black rhinos as seen by Jan Boal on the expedition Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos.

You will experience being around a type of passion we seldom experience, usually only witnessing it in the movies. I am talking about the directors of the sites — these scientists who eat, sleep, and breathe in pursuit of their cause — who do it with such dedication and enthusiasm that once you experience this it will unlock something within yourself.

Admiration and unlimited gratitude is what I felt when I went to sleep each night after returning from my expeditions. I knew these scientists were continuing their calling, their mission in gathering data and saving a part of our world — day, after day, after day, after day.

The hands-on experience, learning something new and foreign, being challenged by this — by the travel, unfamiliar ways, and culture — working on a volunteer team consisting of such a variety of people unknown to you, realization of situation, the direness and frustration of this environmental issue, and the pride and joy you will experience is profound and life changing.

I encourage you to trust in this process and have an experience, a journey of a lifetime. You won’t regret it! Be a piece of the puzzle that helps to solve the problem and save our home we call Earth.

A Thing or Two About Cheetahs

My name is Jonathan Harrington, and I’ve been on six Earthwatch expeditions. I just returned a few weeks ago from Cheetah Conservation in Namibia.

During my trip, I spent two weeks as a volunteer with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. I had a crash course in animal husbandry, helping to care for cheetahs, dogs, and goats; helped census antelopes, giraffes, zebras, and other animals in the surrounding bushland; learned a lot about cheetah biology and CCF’s approach to conservation; and went on a short safari to the awesome Namib Desert. I thought I’d share the interesting parts with you. Perhaps you’ll join me next time!

Saving the Cheetah

Formerly ranging from the southern tip of Africa to India, cheetahs are now confined to Africa except for a small population in Iran. They are the most endangered African cat. Namibia in the southern part of Africa has more cheetahs than any other country. Most Namibian cheetahs live outside of protected areas on farmlands where they share the habitat with domestic  sheep, goats, and cattle as well as a variety of antelopes and other African animals that are their normal prey. CCF is developing ways in which cheetahs can continue to coexist with humans and their livestock over the long term.

The cheetah is the only big cat that can be readily tamed. Egyptian pharaohs, Russian nobles, Italian Renaissance princes, and Mughal emperors kept cheetahs for show and sport. These two are accustomed to people and are often brought out to show to visitors to CCF.

The cheetah is the only big cat that can be readily tamed. Egyptian pharaohs, Russian nobles, Italian Renaissance princes, and Mughal emperors kept cheetahs for show and sport. These two are accustomed to people and are often brought out to show to visitors to CCF.

The Sprinter

Most cats, of whatever size, are versatile predators. They are good at climbing, leaping, stalking, pouncing, rushing, even swimming, and killing a variety of prey by various methods. Cheetahs are specialists. They are good at only one thing—running—but they are better at it than any other animal. Their powerful leg muscles, flexible spine, enlarged heart, and large lung capacity enable them to reach speeds of up to 112 kilometers (almost 70 miles) per hour. However, like human sprinters, they can keep up such speeds for only a short time (usually around 20 seconds). They feed mostly on small antelopes. Overtaking their prey from behind, they trip it with their front legs and then kill it by holding its throat in their jaws until it is asphyxiated. For a large carnivore, cheetahs are rather delicate and unaggressive animals. They do not attack humans and can be driven from their kill by lions, hyenas, or even vultures.

For exercise, CCF’s cheetahs chase a small piece of red cloth attached to a moving cable.

For exercise, CCF’s cheetahs chase a small piece of red cloth attached to a moving cable.

Conservation, Education, Research

CCF has more than 50 resident cheetahs. Cheetahs that are brought to CCF as cubs orphaned before they have learned to hunt from their mother cannot be returned to the wild. Therefore, they will live out their lives at CCF where they will be used for display and research. Many of the others (more than 600 so far) will be released back into the wild. Visitors to CCF can observe the animals being fed and exercised and visit the gift shop and museum. CCF researchers are studying genetics, reproduction, prey preferences, ecology, diseases, and other aspects of cheetah biology, as well as monitoring the status of many other species of wild animals in the surrounding area. CCF also conducts training programs for farmers to minimize conflict with cheetahs and educational programs in schools throughout Namibia to raise awareness of environmental issues. Finally, interns, visiting scientists, and Earthwatch and other volunteers from all over the world come to CCF to learn and participate in its activities.

Namibian visitors observing cheetahs feeding.

Namibian visitors observing cheetahs feeding.

Observing African Animals in the Wild

CCF is located on a 7,000-hectare (17,000-acre) former farm, surrounded by the Waterberg Conservancy, that is home to giraffes, zebras, big antelopes (kudu, hartebeest, oryx, and eland), small antelopes (steenbok, springbok, and duiker), vast numbers of warthogs, several predators (cheetah, leopard, jackal, and brown hyena), big birds (ostrich, kori bustard), and many other birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. We took regular drives around the property in open-topped vehicles to count animals and also observed animals for one day from dawn to dusk from a hide at a waterhole. We entered the data into CCF’s database, where they are used for research on game density, movements, demographics, and habitat utilization.

Giraffes and warthogs at a waterhole.

Giraffes and warthogs at a waterhole.

Guardian Dogs

Over several millennia, a number of breeds of large, tough guardian dogs have been developed to protect livestock in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. They do not herd livestock but rather live with them in the field and threaten or drive away predators such as wolves and bears. The CCF raises Anatolian shepherd dogs and distributes them to Namibian farmers, who report that they are effective in reducing the numbers of livestock killed by cheetahs. Discouraged from attacking livestock by the guardian dogs, the cheetahs are more likely to go after their normal wild prey. The dogs are reared with sheep or goats and defend them from predators as if they were members of the herd. These beautiful and well-behaved dogs were a pleasure to be with and to take for walks.

Anatolian shepherd dogs and friends.

Anatolian shepherd dogs and friends.

Animal Husbandry

As a volunteer, I placed food and water in cheetah pens, cleaned the plates when they were finished, collected bones and feces from the pens, raked the pens, walked the dogs, fed the baby goats, and cleaned the goat pens. This was an educational experience that made me appreciate how much hard work and attention goes into caring for these animals!

CCF intern Hannah cleaning a goat pen.

CCF intern Hannah cleaning a goat pen.

Cheetahcare

CCF’s cheetahs receive top-notch medical and dental care from a resident veterinarian and a dentist who visits from the nearby town.

Cheetah getting a root canal.

Cheetah getting a root canal.

Harvesting the Bush

The habitat around CCF is thornbush savanna, consisting of thorny acacia trees interspersed with grassland. As a result of overgrazing, the trees are encroaching on the grassland. This is bad for cheetahs because they require open areas to chase their prey. CCF is conducting a project to harvest the trees, chop them up, and mold them into logs (Bushbloks) for fireplaces and barbecues that are sold in southern Africa and Europe. This project benefits consumers by giving them a chance to purchase an eco-friendly product, the local people by providing jobs, CCF by bringing in some income, and the cheetahs by improving their habitat.

Thornbush savanna.

Thornbush savanna.

Awesome Dunes

One of the benefits of Earthwatch expeditions is that they give you an intensive experience of a relatively small area. After two weeks I felt I knew this little piece of Africa fairly well, although one could spend a lifetime trying to learn everything about it. I think this is a much better use of time than dashing around trying to cover as much ground as possible (I’ve done this on other, non-Earthwatch trips). But I also like to visit some of the rest of the country to see the wildlife, the landscape, and how people live. In six Earthwatch expeditions, I’ve always taken a side trip either before or after the expedition. In Namibia I spent several days relaxing in the capital, Windhoek, a pleasant modern city with a number of attractions. I also went on a three-day safari to the Namib Desert, one of the world’s driest and oldest (it has been desert for at least 50 million years, throughout global climate fluctuations that turned the Sahara into grassland). The high point of the trip (literally) was the 170-meter (550-foot) dune 45.

Find the people on top of the dune and the oryx in the foreground.

Find the people on top of the dune and the oryx in the foreground.

Nature’s Equilibrium Isn’t Monkey Business

There’s a reason scientists and volunteers are tracking chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda – and it’s not just because National Geographic put Uganda in its list of Top 20 global destinations.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are an endangered species, decreasing at unsustainable rates. Many chimpanzee troops in Uganda are under long-term study to fully understand these population declines and the steps needed to reverse the trends. Yet, a recent census indicates the chimpanzee population within the Budongo Forest Reserve could be on the rise.

While the Budongo population increase is clearly great news for the primate, a bigger family comes with a higher price. A possible result stemming from this suggested population increase is a higher demand for fruit from trees in the forest, the same fruit that forms the basis of a natural chimpanzee diet. With other studies indicating that the number of fruiting trees is decreasing, this may mean not enough fruit to go around for all the chimps! This may contribute toward forcing chimpanzees to expand their search for food beyond the forest, and into local farms. And when farmers have their crops raided, they aren’t happy. This causes conflict.

Primates on the farm.

Primates on the farm.

Conflict Evolves Between Humans and Chimpanzees
This is where participants on Tracking Chimps Through The Trees of Uganda help solve one of nature’s puzzles. One of the research topics at the Budongo Conservation Field Station within the Budongo Forest Reserve is to examine the species conflict between humans and their closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Lucy Bruzzone is a Project Manager for Earthwatch, and recently returned from Uganda where she observed chimpanzees and other primates that inhabit the forest first-hand. Lucy manages 16 different expeditions for Earthwatch, and has traveled to locations across the map, including Borneo, Thailand, the French Alps, and the Scottish Hebrides visiting projects. This was her first trip to Uganda, and she helped bring this local story and its research needs to life.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

“The original research question from Earthwatch lead scientist and, ecologist, Dr. Fred Babweteera, came about from the results of long-term research being conducted in the area on forest ecology. Data collected in the last 20 years on tree phenology – fruiting and flowering cycles – have shown a decrease by 15% in the total number of trees producing fruit in the last 15 years. This raises the question of why? And what are the implications? How has this impacted the primate populations and in turn the local human population? If primates can’t eat the fruit, what is their main food source? Where would they go to supplement their diet? Do they forage at different times or places? Do they raid people’s crops more often?”

Crop-raiding by primates is a well-known problem and a serious contributor to human-primate conflict, and these are questions researchers must consider when investigating. Lucy continued:

“We are hopeful that with research help from volunteers, the project can help us better understand the impact of the decreasing fruit abundance, and this will help to inform management strategies in collaboration with the National Forestry Association that manages the Reserve. Such strategies will hopefully enable chimpanzee and humans to live together in harmony, in their shared environment.”

Evolution Took Years, and So Does Chimpanzee Data Collection
If these changes are being seen across the Reserve, researchers want to identify why the changes are happening so they can make recommendations in their management strategies to address them. If the changes are actually localized to the original research area, this may be due to specific tree species, microclimate or other environmental change in the area. Understanding all this will be key to the management strategy created and recommendations made. And the answers don’t come over night.

“There is a unique long-term data set here that researchers started looking at in the 90’s. Primates have fixed home ranges and rarely move about, so it is possible to study the same troops and groups that were studied back when data was first collected to see if any changes in habits have occurred linked to changing fruiting patterns. Equally, the team at the Budongo Conservation Field Station has recently expanded their research area and more hands-on help is needed to collect the data to answer these questions. This is where Earthwatch volunteers help.”

Lucy explained further.

“The BCFS wants to see if the changes they’ve identified in their local area of the forest are unique, or if they are being seen across the Budongo Forest Reserve. By helping to collect data on tree flowering and fruiting, insect populations, chimpanzee and monkey diets and crop raiding, Earthwatch volunteers can help investigate the situation, and hopefully help resolve it.”

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Every five years, there is a census that estimates how many animals there are in the Budongo Forest so that population trends can be monitored and the causes or impacts of these trends can be investigated. With thorough research and subsequent management strategies, it is hoped that human-primate conflict in the area can be reduced and forest health improved. In the future, research results should lead to a positive outcome for both local communities and primate populations around the Budongo Forest Reserve.

The next census is in 2015, so there is plenty of research to keep everyone busy until then. We hope you can join us in the forest.