Inside Madagascar: Part Three

Nature, Wildlife and Guides

When I finally sat down to write this piece, I got into a situation of a long blank staring process at my laptop screen. It was difficult trying to write about something so profound and so special to share with the readers. I struggled. Everytime I recalled my memories, my heart got overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. It is particularly bad at the moment due to my recent brush with Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Madagascar’ documentary, which was one of the top reasons that brought me to this amazing island.

Despite all my struggles and brain blocks, I somehow motivated myself to complete the final part to my Inside Madagascar series with the hope that someday it will inspire you to make your own memories in Madagascar.

Nature
While travelling around Madagascar, one quickly realises the truth behind the highly circulated fact, that only 10% of their rainforests still remain. The good news is; the locals have taken it upon themselves to ensure that this 10% remains for a long time to come.

The nature areas are a mixture of national parks, nature reserves and community-managed forests. Most of the rainforests I visited, comprised of both primary (mostly undisturbed) and secondary (disturbed in some way, e.g. human activities), although primary appeared to be limited. Others had a variety of terrains.

Difficulty of terrains or length of tracks for walking also varied widely between each place. My biggest frustration was, my inability to gain more information about the walks. For some reason, I was never successful in extracting this information from our guides. Everytime I asked this question, I either got a silent nod or perhaps an answer which was not completely true. In saying this, my body was not of an iron woman category either. I was still recovering from my work as an intern at Umphafa reserve in South Africa, dealing with side effects from malaria medication, and have severe height phobia. It was a lot to deal with. Despite these shortcomings, I still managed to cope with almost all walks. The longest walk was in Isalo National Park, a total of approximately 15 km. Parts of this walk involved narrow paths around steep cliffs, which required a lot of hand holding with my guide. Poor guy, I squeezed the life out of his hands. I would have held on to anything to survive this walk as it was incredibly worth it. Isalo National Park is breath taking and out of this world. It scores very high for its unique vegetation and landscape. During the walk, our guide pointed out a number of plants with highly valuable medicinal properties.

Isalo National Park

My other most favourite national park was, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. On the first day of our arrival, we did a night walk which left us with jaws hanging and hungry for more. The next day, we drove to Mantadia National Park (primary rainforest) for a day walk and saw our very first Indri, one of Madagascar’s largest lemur.

Indri

Many of the nature walks involved hours, so the guides diligently arranged for packed lunches and snacks for the trips. This did attract additional costs, but again, a worthy investment. After all the perspiration and fatigue from humid conditions, an egg sandwich and more water felt like a hot meal at a five-star restaurant.

As we visited during the rainy season, mosquitoes were rampant. As mentioned in part two, even ‘Bushman’, the repellent which previously melted my flip flops, was not enough to completely keep me from being foraged alive. Constant reapplication was key. In some places, leeches were galore too. Once, I had six or seven latched on around my waist. While trying to desperately to remove them, I accidentally dropped one into my pants (more like my undergarment) and never found it. One cannot imagine the stress which ensued for the rest of the day wondering where did the leech go. Ahh…the joys of being in nature 🙂

I particularly found the community managed forests very interesting. The locals care and maintain their patch of forests. Money obtained from local guiding and souvenir sales is then invested back into the village and the upkeep of the forests. A super win-win situation. When you talk to the locals, you can easily sense their pride and devotion to their forest to ensure that it remains intact. They do watch you like an eagle and don’t tolerate any insensitive behavior such as littering or man-handling their wildlife. To me, that was fantastic!

Anja Community Reserve

When I started my trip and before my body started reacting to the malaria medication, I kept detailed notes of the nature visits. Details such as name of the nature park, list of wildlife and names of guides. This slowly dwindled to a halt as the days passed and my tolerance to the meds became weaker. I will share what I have in the next section.

Wildlife
Witnessing Madagascar’s wildlife is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The first time I heard the Indris calling from the canopy’s, it sent chills down my body and etched it solidly in my memories. It was haunting, mesmerizing and thrilling. Every place we visited, we were greeted with a myriad of species. To the point, the whole thing felt somehow staged. The species which was least spotted were the chameleons. We did see a number of them, but not as many species compared to the lemurs.

I don’t know how to describe this, but seeing a lemur in the wild, is insanely special. There is something about their gentle nature and face. It leaves you feeling very desperate and aware of just how important the remaining 10% of nature is in Madagascar. You know that when this disappears, it is not only sad, it is incredibly devastating. From my observations, tourism appears to be the current lifeline in securing what is left. Hence the unique system of guide hires, more details in the next section.

One of the most outstanding wildlife experience, was in ‘Reserve Experimentale De Vohimana’, in the Mantadia region. It was pouring cats and dogs as we drove to this small village to find the elusive endangered Calumma gallus chameleon. A density of only 13 individuals/ha was previously recorded in the Mantadia region (Brady and Griffiths 1999). This species has been severely impacted by habitat loss resulting from agriculture clearing, timber harvesting and cattle grazing.

After an hour of searching, the local wildlife guide came running back to the car motioning us to get out and run forth. We knew he found it. With no time to think, we sprang out of the car and ran towards him while splashing puddle water everywhere. But who cares right? I was about to see an endangered chameleon species! And there it was, sitting comfortably on the guide’s finger and eyeballing us from the corner. I stood there with awe and excitement. You know that this moment is precious. After a couple of minutes, this endangered individual was placed back to its original spot. Of course, it would have been even better if it hadn’t been removed from it’s original spot in the first place.
I know I sound like a broken record, but everything about the wildlife in Madagascar is special. I hope you enjoy some selected images from my trip below and a partial list of my wildlife sightings. As the bird list is extensive, I have only included the lemurs and chameleons and anything that was pointed out to be a rare sighting.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

  • Lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus)
  • Goodman’s mouse lemur (Microcebus lehilahytsara)
  • Eastern woolly lemur (Avahi lanige)
  • Nose-horned chameleon (Calumma nasutum)
  • Stump-tailed chameleon

    Stump tailed chameleon

Mantadia National Park

  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • Eastern gray bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus)
  • Madagascan pygmy kingfisher (Corythornis madagascariensis)
  • Painted mantella frog

V.O.I, M.M.A (Andasibe) – Community managed secondary forest

  • France’s sparrowhawk (Accipiter francesiae)
  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus)
  • Short-horned chameleon (Calumma brevicorne)
  • We also saw the “unknown” tree. To date, it is yet to be classified and the only one that exists in this place. The tree is considered to be sacred by the locals and is protected. Due to these reasons, I did not take a picture of it. There was also an altar in front of it with offerings and animal sacrifices.

Analamazaotra Special Reserve (part of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park)

  • Pill millipede
  • Common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus)
  • Indri (Indri indri)
  • High number of bird species

Reserve Experimentale De Vohimana

  • Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii)
  • Short-horned chameleon (Calumma brevicorne)
  • Calumma gallus

Ranomafana National Park

  • Golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus)
  • Greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus)
  • Red-fronted lemur (Eulemur rufifrons)
On the way into Ranomafana National Park

Anja Community Reserve

  • Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)

Isalo National Park

  • Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi)

Guides
Travel guide
When you go to Madagascar, it is crucial to have a travel guide to bring you around. We did encounter a few individuals who had arrived in Madagascar seeking a backpacking experience and ended up hiring a guide. From the brief research that was done to plan my trip, the importance of hiring a guide was quickly apparent from the overwhelming number of feedback shared on travel websites. Despite this, I was still a bit disgruntled and skeptical about hiring a guide. Luckily I listened to my head (and my husband) and not my heart. Having a guide there took a lot of stress away. I felt safe as the guide was a wealth of information and knowledge who made sure we returned home in one piece. There was no way I could have driven under the road conditions, or knew where to eat and which local wildlife guide to hire. So, it was both an excellent decision and investment. We were extremely fortunate to have a star guide and driver who made our travel experience so much richer. They shared insights into the political environment, their culture, food, and even introduced us to local folk songs.

Wildlife guide
Each time you visit a nature reserve or national park, an additional local wildlife guide need to be hired. We were told by our guide that one cannot enter the natural areas unless accompanied by the local wildlife guides. These guides were mostly from nearby villages. The fees we paid varied widely and depended largely on their skill sets and experience.

The depth and wealth of your wildlife experience appears to be dependent on the skill set of your wildlife guide and their trackers. You don’t always have a tracker on the trip, but these guys can fish out any lemurs in a patch of rainforest. It was incredible to see them in action.

We also learnt that guidebooks are a rare commodity to the wildlife guides due to the cost and lack of access to bookshops. So, what they had were mostly donated by tourists. Honestly, with their skills, I am not even sure they need one.

This concludes my three part Inside Madagascar series. There is still so much information not covered in my pieces. I tried my best to pick the essentials which may aid your travel plan or hopefully inspire you to visit this island someday. Till my next piece, I shall leave you with this video which inspired my trip to this amazing part of this world.

All image credits: Deniz Ortac

Inside Madagascar: Part Two

In my last post, I shared the part one of ‘Inside Madagascar’ about my mistaken identity as a Malagasy woman. Now, a few insights into my experience with accommodation and food in Madagascar.

I cannot believe how much time had passed since I last published the part one of this series. It is important to me that when I write, I put my heart into it and not rush for the sake of getting my pieces published. The last weeks have thrown all sorts of work and life challenges, and at the same time opened up new and very exciting journeys. This took a lot of time away from me causing this long delay. My sincere apologies and thank you so much for your continued support. It really means a lot to me.

Stalls you see along the streets when passing small towns
Stalls you see along the streets when passing small towns

If you had visited my blog’s main page, my love for good food is no mystery. Trying different cuisines during my travels is very important to me, more than securing adequate accommodation (something which I came to regret later). As I knew nothing about Madagascan cuisine, I was excited about what I will discover on this island. Everything I knew of Madagascar was from wildlife documentaries, that rarely covered any details about food or accommodation. I had no idea what fruits or vegetables grew there, what were their local delicacies, or style of dishes. This was a dream for any food lover (like me) with a sense of adventure! I did not travel to Madagascar for food, but for anyone curious about going there one day, I was hoping this piece can give you a sneak peek.

Accommodation

Given my love for food, everyone expected interesting and long stories about my unforgettable foodie adventures in Madagascar…on the contrary. Instead, it was my experience with accommodation that resulted in a colourful story of ‘almost’ madness, flood and a relentless three-day blood donation to mosquitoes.

Before I reveal my colourful story, I would like to discuss a few basic details about my experience with accommodation in Madagascar.

When I was doing an internet search for a tour guide, I came across a few comments from past travellers who strongly advised not to go too cheap with accommodation bookings.  To keep it simple, I settled on two criterions for my travel: mid-range (2 to 3 stars) when travelling and something better (4 to 5 stars) during rest stops in Tana.

All the mid-range accommodation had one thing in common, mattresses which broke my back. After a day of hiking through some difficult paths and travelling long hours in the car, all I wanted was a halfway decent bed to sleep in. So many of the beds in the mid-range accommodation were sponge beds, at least I think they were based on the extreme softness. Sleep became a scarce commodity during my travels.

At times, I remembered crying myself to sleep mostly due to unbearable fatigue. The next day when I stepped out for my daily wildlife sighting trip, my tears evaporated and excitement returned (most times anyway).  This cycle continued for days. Then this experience turned to extreme contrast when we stopped for rest in high-end accommodations. It felt so strange and wrong to experience so much luxury after days of witnessing the everyday difficulties and poverty faced by the locals. In the end, only my sore back thanked me for this experience as the rest of me was too guilty to be in the moment to fully enjoy some of the ridiculously comfortable accommodation.

Despite everything, I managed to keep my travel curiosity alive and well. However, I experienced a near breaking point in Morondava where the famous ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’ is located (yes…this is my colourful story). Our guide had booked us into a beachside resort-styled accommodation for a one night stay before we traveled further on to Isalo National Park. As it was the peak of the cyclone season, we arrived at the destination in heavy downpour and strong winds. After dropping us off (my husband and me), our guide left in a hurry. Before he left, we were informed of an early morning pick-up (the next day) to visit the Baobabs.

Still reeling from the tour guide’s express exit, I quickly realised that we were the only guests at this resort. In a few seconds, the reasons became apparent. Due to the heavy rains, the resort had lost its power. The main reception was powered by a generator which lulled me into a false sense of security that everything was OK. Apart from the reception area, there was no electricity in the accommodation. This meant, no fan to keep the mosquitoes away, no light and no hot water. We were given a small torch as our beacon of light. The knowledge of staying in a place with no electricity did not bother me very much as the stay was only for one night and it was quite late. I thought to myself, “How bad could it be! It is only for a night”.

After placing our dinner orders, we retreated to the room. The room was extremely dark with a very hungry mosquito population. My Australian ‘bushman’ insect repellent, which had previously melted my flip flops, was no match for the hungry mosquito mob. We unfolded the mosquito net as quickly as possible and scrambled in for security, only to realise that it had a number of holes. I felt as though we were starring in our own horror movie titled ‘Revenge of the mosquitoes’. Needless to say, we were foraged on mercilessly for the rest of the night.

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The next morning greeted us with more rain and a knee-high flood outside our resort hut. As we tread in water to make it to the reception area for breakfast, the receptionist informed us that our guide will not be coming today and that we had to stay for one more night. I felt as if a large lightning bolt hit my head. Another eventful night with a blood drive ensued. Two nights became three nights. This affected me emotionally and mentally. At this point, I was too exhausted to even talk. Despite everything, I was trying desperately to find the upside to this situation. The resort staff tried their ultimate best to make sure we had some decent food on our plates and resorted to cooking on a makeshift BBQ to provide the meals. Even my coffee was boiled over the BBQ.

On the third day, out of nowhere, our guide turned up. We packed and ran out of the accommodation so fast. I had no idea that I could move so fast. The dark cloud was finally lifted when we arrived at the famous ‘Avenue of Baobabs’. It was absolutely stunning! The heavy rains had left a special atmosphere; which we were told that very few people have experienced. Flood water was running everywhere. The grass was wet and smelled green and everywhere you looked…you could see the perfect reflection of the baobabs on the water.

The day after the big rains - 'Avenue of the Baobabs'
The day after the big rains – ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’
Electric atmosphere
Electric atmosphere

As we left this special place, news came through in the car that the cyclone had just arrived in Morondava. It was one long silent and sad car ride to our next destination.

Food

My staple dish throughout this trip was a bowl of chicken soup served with some rice and the spicy sakay (i.e. a chilli condiment) from local eateries known as ‘Hoteley’. I absolutely loved sakay! The condiment is made from a special chilli, which I cannot remember the name. The locals had an awesome description for it, a chilli which can kill four (or may be three?) men. I hope this gives you an idea of how spicy it was. At times, it was so spicy to the point I could not feel my mouth, but I still could not do without it when I ate.

Well, if you are thinking why only chicken soup? Our guide was very choosy about what we could eat and where we could eat. His number one priority was to make sure that we did not get entangled in a food poisoning episode. The chicken soup was boiled for a long time and always served piping hot, which made it safer to enjoy. We were only allowed to eat the chicken soup at ‘Hoteleys’ selected by our guide…naturally.

The best way I can describe a hoteley is a local eating joint located in each small town along the roadsides. This is frequented mostly by the locals and the occasional tourist. The menu choices are limited but really affordable. The chicken soup was simple but satisfying, cooked with lots of crushed ginger. You only get about one or two pieces of chicken in the soup accompanied by a mountain pile of rice. To keep myself full, I stuffed in all the rice I could. Honestly, I was grateful to have any food when I was travelling in Madagascar. When you see so much poverty around, it reminds you to be grateful for what you have.

What was left of my lunch :)
What was left of my lunch 🙂

Vegetables are very expensive in Madagascar. Hence, it was often not on the menu in many hoteleys and access to fruits varied from place to place too. However, I always had pineapple no matter where I went. Pineapples were more readily available as it was locally grown whereas most of the vegetables had to be imported or grown in small quantities making it very cost ineffective. Another item which was widely available was cassava. It was a long root vegetable, like your sweet potato or yam. I grew up eating a lot of cassava in Singapore. My mum used to marinate it with turmeric, deep fry and serve it with a nice cup of piping black coffee. My best (and only) experience eating cassava in Madagascar was in a local wildlife guide’s home in Ranomafana National Park. I felt so special to be invited to his house for an afternoon snack of boiled cassava with local honey. It was delicious! The simple pleasures of life 🙂

Of course, I wanted to try the street side stalls and sample a number of Madagascar’s traditional goodies. Our guide will have none of it! Thinking back, it was a good move. The malaria medication I was taking gave my stomach a good beating. I don’t think I would have survived any food poisoning episodes.

A typical street side stall
A typical street side stall selling some local delicacies and dried produce

Occasionally, the guide brought us to restaurants designed for tourists. The menu varied between Chinese, Indonesian and French influenced cuisines. You get an amazing amount of variety but these places also cost about 10 to 20 times more than the hoteleys. I will not lie, when we did get to these places, it was a welcomed change. The food was amazing.

Overall, no matter where I went and what I ate, I found the food to be decent and at times, absolutely delectable. Today when I think about all the food I had in Madagascar, it is the chicken soup and sakay that I miss the most.

If you are worried about food when travelling to Madagascar, my best advice for you is, don’t. There seems to be a little something for everyone unless you decide to be incredibly fussy. There are well-stocked supermarkets in Tana, where you can find a number of food items for the long road trips.

The next and final part will explore my experience with the nature, wildlife and guides in Madagascar. Till then, keep safe and enjoy!

In case you missed this, Part One – Mistaken Identity

 

Inside Madagascar: Part One

Inside Madagascar: Part One

From the get go, the whole trip was one big roller coaster ride. It was exhilarating, hard, humbling and definitely an eye opener. Apart from booking a local guide and educating myself about obvious health and safety precautions, not once did I look into a travel guide book or researched websites for more detailed information. I wanted to surprise myself and let the place speak to me.

My trip to Madagascar was mainly for the wildlife, but I left with a number of unexpected moments that made my trip so much more interesting and memorable. These are the stories that I would like to share with you. Since I cannot cover everything in this one piece, I will be publishing them in three parts: (1) Are you Malagasy? (2) Food and Accommodation, and (3) Charcoal, Nature, and Guides.

Children of Morondava
Never shy away from a camera moment

Are you Malagasy?

The locals in Madagascar are addressed as ‘Malagasy’ people and are further divided into 18 separate ethnic groups such as the ‘Merina’ and ‘Sakalava’, the only names I can remember right now. Each group is spread across different parts of Madagascar with each observing variations in their way of living, culture and even the way they built their houses. I was amazed to learn that many of the early settlers had arrived from Indonesia which explained their familiar appearance to me as I grew up with many Malaysian and Indonesian neighbours.

As I was waiting in the queue to get clearance to enter Antananarivo (commonly referred to as Tana which is also the capital), I noticed the immigration officers curiously peeking over in my direction. I was so nervous. I had nothing on me which could get me in trouble, but given our world today, the sight of immigration officers just glancing at me made my knees shiver.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached the counter. Then the mystery unfolded. After glancing back and forth between me and my Australian passport about five times, the puzzled officers asked me if I was ‘Malagasy’? With a silly smirk on my face (and still scared), I calmly said no. Then they wanted to know if I was born in Madagascar, moved overseas and decided to return home…again my reply was no. Finally, they asked me if I would like a Madagascar passport. I said, “Ok, why not?”. My unexpected agreement triggered a few minutes of silence from both ends. After a few more attempts of trying to make me confess if I was indeed a Malagasy woman, they finally gave up and let me through.

This did not end here. As it turned out, I was greeted with this question almost everywhere I went in Madagascar. The question was frequently addressed either in French or Malagasy language to my tour guide or the driver. The fact that I was conversing in English further confused many of the locals. They could not fathom why on earth I didn’t seem to understand their language. At times, some of the locals got very annoyed thinking I was deliberately hiding my identity which was clearly demonstrated by their animated conversation with the guide.

As the trip progressed, this cultural identity confusion got even worst. During this time, I was travelling with my husband who is German. Whenever we were seen together (which was almost always), I remembered getting some strange looks and the occasional stare while passing through villages or small towns. I always attributed this to the ongoing confusion of my origin. As it turned out, I later learnt that some Malagasy women worked as social escorts to visiting tourists (mostly from westernised countries). This practice was apparently often approved and supported by their boyfriends or husbands but generally frowned upon by society. As I was happily going around with my German husband, in addition to my new identity as a Malagasy woman, I soon realised that I now had a new occupation too.

From left: The German, Supposed Malagasy (ME) and a genuine Malagasy local.
From left: The German (not my customer), Supposed Malagasy (ME) and a genuine Malagasy local (one of our many guides).

Sights Around Madagascar

Still to come…PART TWO 🙂

Please Note: The opinions and thoughts expressed here represent my own. I visited Madagascar in January 2015.

A Peek into Singapore’s Wildlife

Whenever I meet someone during my travels abroad or back here in Australia, I am often questioned about my origins. The moment they hear Singapore their usual first response is, “Oh Singapore! I have been there for a day. Great shopping and it was so clean and beautiful.” Many people think of Singapore as a massive modern concrete jungle with no trace of wildlife. In fact, I too had that opinion for such a long time.

In recent years, that opinion has crumbled to dust. There is a reason for this. When you live and breathe for the conservation of your natural environment and wildlife, you don’t quite see the world the same way anymore. As an individual, I have become highly observant and animals rarely escape my view. During my last few visits to Singapore, I suddenly started seeing all these incredible birds, reptiles and mammals which I never knew existed. This really took me by surprise and piqued my curiosity. These sightings slowly seeped into my walks around the local neighbourhoods, the visits to parks, and other places of interest. I was mind boggled by my new discoveries. This goes to show, you see when you seek.

Many of you may have read my first guest blog about the rescue of the Malayan Colugo contributed by Mei Hwang. She is a highly talented photographer who has been uncovering the wildlife secrets of Singapore for a few years now. It has been an interesting journey for me to further discover the hidden gems, which still remain a mystery to the many residents of this ultra-modern island. A few months back, Mei contributed a collection of her photographs to be featured on my Instagram account as part of a ‘Singapore Wildlife’ series. Today with utmost pleasure, I am sharing these wonderful pictures of the wild and beautiful from this collection with you. Enjoy!

Palm Civet
This is a Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). This species has adapted to living in urban areas like roof spaces of houses using power lines to travel from one point to another. Palm Civets are also found in forests, parks and mangroves. It feeds on small animals, insects and loves fruits. It’s love for fruits helps disperse seeds (via faeces) and support regeneration of trees. When they have their young, they are often raised in tree hollows or crevices.

Otter with sashimi
A Smooth-Coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) enjoying a nice fresh fish for lunch. It feeds mainly on fish but occasionally supplements its diet with crabs, shrimps, frogs, birds or rats.

Changeable lizard
This is a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) with a Common Birdwing Butterfly (a CITES protected species) in its mouth. This lizard species was introduced to Singapore sometime in the 1980s. They can change their colours (as the name suggests) but not as quickly as the chameleons. The colour change apparently reflects their moods. Their main diet consists of small invertebrates, other lizards and small rodents. After stunning the prey (by shaking it) they swallow it whole.

Long-tailed macaque
If a photo can capture a moment, this certainly has. A Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) nursing her young. She sure looks lost in her thoughts. You can find them in a number of nature reserves in Singapore. Unfortunately people love feeding them, which needless to say…is not good for them or any other wildlife.

Bird with a message
An Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) with a message for us. Love this picture so much! This species was almost wiped out in the late 1970s due to habitat loss and illegal trapping for pet trade. At present, thanks to reintroduction efforts, they have made a good recovery and now commonly seen around parks and gardens.

Wild Boar baby
A juvenile Wild Boar, native to Singapore. They are omnivorous creatures. Main diet includes seeds, young plants and tubers. These Wild Boars reproduce at a fast rate with females reaching sexual maturity as young as 18 months and can produce up to six piglets a year. They are highly favoured for their bush meat, which posed a threat to their population. At present, their numbers are believed to be well and thriving. 

Green Crested Lizard
A Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) is found mainly in bushes and trees. They are threatened by competition from the introduced Changeable Lizard (featured above). The Green Crested Lizard feeds mainly on insects such as beetles and ants.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
This is an Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). Almost on the brink of extinction, innovation and dedication helped with it’s comeback. The ‘Singapore Hornbill Project’ constructed nest boxes fitted with temperature/humidity sensors and weighing scales to monitor the chicks’ growth. High- definition cameras were used to keep a keen eye on the chicks development and get a better understanding of this magnificent bird’s breeding behavior. You got to love a success story! Read More…

Chocolate Demon
A Chocolate Demon (Ancistroides nigrita) feeding on nectar from a Torch Ginger Flower. The adults are known to fly in a hopping erratic manner in low shrubs. They are commonly found in parks and gardens across Singapore. What a cool name!
So, what did you think? Hope you enjoyed viewing the photos and discovered something too. A big thank you to Mei Hwang for their generous contributions! I really appreciate it very much.

Featured Image in Header: An Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodulus porosus) spotted at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Jungle Book Made Me Cry :(

A note to readers: There are a few spoiler alerts for the movie 'The Jungle Book'. Please read it at your own discretion. This is not a movie review, just me sharing my experience watching the movie. Thank you everyone. 

I had Friday off from work and decided to go watch the newly released movie, ‘The Jungle Book’. I had seen the trailer before and it blew my mind! I love movies featuring animals, especially talking ones. Since I was a young girl, I always thought how great it would be if animals could talk to us. I used to dedicate hours imagining how it would feel to have a talking dog. My thoughts were if animals can talk then they can tell us how they feel. This way, we can better understand their needs and simply care for them better or just leave them alone. I still don’t remember why I had these thoughts at such a young age to begin with.

Jungle Book Cover

Anyway, I found myself in the cinema at 10.30am on a ‘Bring Your Baby’ day. Naturally I was surrounded by many cute babies and their mums who looked like they needed this break.

The animation of the movie was great. So great that it seemed natural that the animals were engaged in perfect conversations. There were some scary moments for the little ones and me. I jumped out of my seat a number of times while trying my best to keep my screams dignified and under my breath. The scary moments were not gory or horrifying, more like moments when something unexpected or bad happened to your favourite character. Since the lights were on throughout the movie, I could see a couple of babies turning around to look at the screen (attracted by the loud growls of the big cats) and wailing their eyes out. Poor fellas! This started worrying me. I hope this does not impact how they feel about animals when growing up. We need all the friends we can get to help support our wildlife. I can only hope they are way too young to remember these scary moments which made them cry.

As I started getting into the movie, I could feel deep emotions taking over. The scenes of animals banded together, looking incredibly beautiful, each with a purpose in this world, each special in its own way and roaming in great numbers really stirred some very sad feelings. All of a sudden, I started panicking. A hundred questions ran a race in my mind. What happens if all this is gone, wiped out, what if our efforts don’t work and we have to live in a world with no animals? I could see scenes from ‘Racing Extinction‘ flashing in my mind. This overwhelmed me so much that I started crying. I am not sure if anyone saw me crying during the movie, if they did, it must have left them very confused. The best part was…I had no tissues on me and I was wiping my tears all over my t-shirt. Yes, it got really yucky. Then it got worse. The two villains in the movie were the Orangutan and the Tiger. This made my head spin. The two species (along with many others) which are in peril portrayed as baddies. GREAT! At this point, I was compelled to walk up to each baby and somehow tell them how beautiful and amazing both these creatures were and this was just a movie.

Perhaps, I should have told this to myself too. I know it is just a movie but one may never know the impression it leaves on these young minds…let alone this grown up animal lover who cried like a baby during the movie! I didn’t mean to take it so seriously. Honestly, I could not believe how it managed to creep into my heart and overwhelm me with such emotions as it did.

On the whole, I loved most part of this movie and it looks like I may be watching it again.

Photo Credit:
(1) Image of book cover -  Vernon Barford School Library viaFoter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
(2) Header - mripp via Foter.com / CC BY
(3) Tiger - pattoise via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
(4) Orangutan - pattoise via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cameras in Conservation

In the last years, motion detecting cameras have gained quite a status in the wildlife conservation world. Examples of uncovering species previously thought to be extinct, providing exclusive insights into never before seen animal behaviour and supporting targeted pest management actions are numerous and varied. They are also great ways to investigate the effectiveness of wildlife overpasses, introduced animal species management outcomes, habitat improvement initiatives and habitat corridors. Apart from wildlife conservation, the cameras are also used for security surveillance and paranormal investigations.

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Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) chilling out

Due to the camera’s size and various features, conservationists can now set-up and leave them running for a number of months. This allows continuous monitoring of animal populations in remote locations increasing the chance of detecting rare and elusive species.

Using motion detecting cameras to survey or monitor wildlife populations is one of the many techniques in the field of conservation. But it is definitely one of the more accessible survey techniques which may enable more people to be involved in conservation initiatives. The cameras have also become more affordable with numerous models to choose from to suit every one’s budget. Hence, it is quite possible that we may see an increase of camera use in citizen science initiatives.

During my Master course, I was taught the basics of how to use a motion detecting camera to carry out wildlife surveys (aka camera trapping). I can tell you, the results were not that great. We worked in a team of four or six and despite our best effort, we only managed to get an extremely blur shot of a Wombat’s bum. At least I think it was. At that time, this frustrated me very much. I kept asking myself if I could have done something better. This sparked my interest about using these cameras for wildlife surveys. I was constantly on the lookout for news or reports about the use of motion detecting cameras in the conservation field to better understand the different uses it may have.

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Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) and her joey

I was over the moon when I landed my first project to work with these cameras. I was given the task to develop a citizen science project named ‘Who’s living on my land?’ (WLOML) from an earlier pilot program which ran for six months. In the pilot phase, landholders in New South Wales (in Australia) who owned private land with remnant bushland or shared borders with National Parks were mailed a camera and a two page instruction sheet on how to set a camera up to carry out a wildlife survey.

Learn More About WLOML Project

In Australia, the National Parks and Wildlife Services (a government agency) survey protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves for the presence/absence of native and pest animal species. However, the many privately owned land or properties (with varying portions of extant bushland) that existed in rural or semi-rural areas were usually not surveyed. Thus, there was an information gap on the use of private land by native and pest species. This information was particularly vital for designing habitat corridors or stepping stones to connect the ever increasing habitat fragmentation issues due to developments and land clearings.

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Red-necked Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) and her joey

The WLOML project was to address this information gap. With phase two, I designed a workshop that provided camera training to the landholders and further enhanced their confidence in carrying out their own wildlife surveys. Due to the high volume of privately owned land in New South Wales, surveying all of them would require a significant amount of manpower, costs and time. By training the landholders to carry out their own surveys increases the outreach capacity and allow more properties to be surveyed. You can imagine how great this is given the diminishing conservation funding and grants out there!

Learn more about the WLOML Project

How Do The Cameras Work? The Basics

The external design of each camera is quite similar. They each have the infrared flash zone, a motion detecting sensor also known as ‘Passive Infrared Sensor’ (PIR) lens, and red LED indicator lights. The indicator lights serve a variety of purpose. They flash when you activate the camera, flash when the battery is depleting or flash when it detects movement during a walk test. The term ‘walk test’ is used to describe the process of setting up the camera and walking around in front of it to test if it is effectively detecting your movements. This is very helpful in ensuring a successful camera set-up.

Cameras Part

I have included a list of common terms and set-up features:

  • Trigger: when the camera detects a motion and captures an image.
  • Camera or Video mode: cameras can be set to take images or record short videos each time it triggers. There are settings to select the resolution, video format and length of video.
  • Images per trigger: the number of images that the camera will capture each time it triggers. Three images per trigger is often a common setting for wildlife surveys in Australia.
  • Trigger interval: time between each trigger. This determines how often the camera captures an image when an animal continues to linger in front of the camera. If no interval had been set, the constant triggering can quickly fill up the SD card which can pose problems in long-term surveys.

When you first decide to look into using or buying your own camera, it can be pretty daunting. It is quite likely that one will be met with many words and terms that can be confusing at times. Well, it was for me when I started. For example, wildlife cameras are also known as motion cameras, remote sensor cameras, infra-red cameras, wildlife cameras, trail cameras, game cameras or camera traps. Perhaps they are even more terms out there. Then you have the different types of LED flashes: semi-covert, infra-red, low-glow infrared, no-glow infrared, covert, black flash and white flash. Covert or black flash cameras are believed to create lesser disturbance to wildlife as it is harder to detect the LED flash illumination when triggered at night. During the day, almost all the camera models utilise sunlight for illuminating the day shots. Day shots are mostly in colour and night shots are black and white, unless you are using a white flash camera. White flash cameras function the same way as your everyday cameras.

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Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

Other features which differ between camera models are trigger speed, image resolution, and other additional functions (e.g. SD card capacity, video mode). If you are thinking about getting your own camera, spend some time to do your research. Read up and develop a basic understanding about the different features, brands and find a reliable vendor.

Here are some useful websites with more information/resources about motion detecting cameras:

Which Camera to Get?

I get this question a lot during the WLOML workshops. There are so many brands out there. Within each brand, there are numerous models and different price range.

The WLOML project uses two different camera models. Keepguard KG-680V and Reconyx HC-500. I have also used Bushnell and UOVision cameras.

To be honest, it is hard for me to answer this question without any biases. I am a big fan of Reconyx cameras. They do tend to be dearer than other models. I love their sturdy built and incredible night time images. This is useful given many of our Australian critters are nocturnal. In saying that, Keepguard cameras capture great day time images. Due to my extensive involvement with these two models, naturally they are promoted to people who want to get their own cameras (without dissing the other models of course).

Useful Camera Reviews and Buyers Guide:

Finally…Responsible Camera Use

One of the best features of using a motion detecting camera to observe wildlife or investigate their presence is their non-intrusive nature. They are also relatively not as labour intensive as compared to other wildlife survey methods such as small mammal trapping using Elliot traps.

Despite their non-intrusive nature, it is still important to use them responsibly. For example, not to disturb nesting mammals or birds unless you have set the camera up before they had their young. Can you imagine someone climbing up the tree with this camera and fumbling about to install it near a nest full of newly hatched chicks? You may look like a massive predator out to get them. This can distress the animals and perhaps alter their behaviours in how they care for their young.

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Can you see the rabbit in the background? Wonga Pigeon flying past.

Some wildlife surveys, including ‘Who’s living on my land?’, use non-toxic lures (secured to the ground) or attractants to attract animals to the camera station. It is important that the leftovers or unused lures are properly discarded and not thrown away on site. I am sure you will agree that the animals can do without unnecessary litter.

If you have neighbours or live near accessible routes, be mindful about the potential privacy and security issues. Paying extra attention to where you set the camera up can save you a lot of headache in the future.

These cameras are easy targets for theft too. Hence setting it up in areas where it can be easily spotted might increase the chances of it going missing. This is particularly annoying if you have been monitoring something for a very long time. Imagine losing all that data and your camera of course!

Examples of Cameras Uncovering Nature’s Gems

Below is a list of stories I have gathered with examples of motion detecting cameras in conservation and the remarkable outcomes. Hope you enjoy exploring the stories!

(1) Trail Cam Photos Capture Wildlife across Michigan

(2) Cameras Capture Mule Deer Using Wildlife Overpass 

(3) Camera Study Reveals Wildlife Abundance in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

(4) Wildlife Making Comeback on Reclaimed Mind Lands

(5) Photographing Wildlife Without a Photographer

(6) Tiger Country? Scientists Uncover Wild Surprises in Tribal Bangladesh

(7) Guatemala’s jaguars: Capturing phantoms in photos

(8) First Camera Trap Photos Taken of Leopard in China

Photo Credit:
All images used have been kindly contributed by landholders Phil Diacono and Nigel Thomson from the WLOML workshop in Quorrobolong NSW.

 

Community and Youth Give the Dragons a Helping Hand

Today, I want to share about something exciting with you. It is about a citizen science project I have been working on since late last year which was launched in January 2016. It’s called the ‘Dragons of Sydney Harbour’. It aims to inspire and increase the community’s understanding about the importance and existence of wildlife and bushland in urban settings. Using the Eastern Water Dragon as a flagship species, participants are invited to Bradleys Head (Mosman NSW) for a day to help survey for the dragons living around the area. They also get to learn about the importance of native vegetation and the problems caused by weeds and how it impacts the quality of habitat for wildlife.

Juvenile Resting On Rock
Eastern Water Dragon (Intellagama lesueurii)

So far, I had four groups of highly enthusiastic young people from ‘Youth At The Zoo’ (YATZ), NSW high schools and individuals from the community who came along to give the dragons a helping hand. Their participation really deserves a heartfelt applause as they braved hot and sticky temperatures to get the tasks completed. Of course, everyone had fun and stole a moment or two for that incredible photo opportunity along the way. Honestly, who can blame them with that view!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Safety Briefing with YATZ before the start of activities

Where is this happening?

The project is happening at Bradleys Head located within the Sydney Harbour National Park in New South Wales. Participants get to enjoy stunning views of the famous Harbour Bridge and Opera House while doing their bit for the Eastern Water Dragons. Another famous attraction located within the vicinity is Taronga Zoo Sydney.

View from Bradleys Head Walk
View from Bradleys Head Walk, Mosman NSW

Dragon Activities

The participants are definitely kept busy through a variety of activities like dragon survey, rubbish collection and bush regeneration. Yes, you do get your hands dirty for this one!

Every activity was designed for a purpose. Each activity tells a story and helps people connect to what is right at their doorstep. With views of residential dwelling across the water, yachts bobbing up and down scattered everywhere, and the two Australian icons (Harbour Bridge and Opera House), it is no wonder that someone can forget or even find it hard to imagine that this area is home to dragons and an endangered amphibian species known as the Red-crowned toadlet.

What’s the deal with the survey?

Due to its close proximity to the city and the zoo, the Bradleys Head walk experiences frequent visitors walking or jogging up and down the path. The dragons are often seen basking on or along the edge of paths soaking up the sunlight. However, upon close approach they tend to retreat away from their basking spot. It is not known if this results in any physiological changes in this species. Hence, the survey is designed to collect data to hopefully help us investigate this further.

Training to use survey equipment
Training to use data sheet to gather information on dragons

When a dragon is spotted basking along the path, from a safe distance participants use an infrared thermometer and record ground temperatures. A densiometer is then utilised to measure the canopy cover just above the area where the dragon was basking. Details such as age, sex, distance of retreat and where it was spotted are also recorded.

Densiometer - to measure canopy cover
Densiometer – to measure canopy cover

Other Activities

Sadly, this area does have a litter problem. During my initial site scoping and training runs, I came across used diapers, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and empty drink cans posing a huge hazard to native wildlife. Newly hatched Eastern Water Dragons are tiny and can easily make their way into empty plastic bottles or cans, get stuck and die.

By getting the participants to collect rubbish, we hope to highlight the problems faced by natural environments located in close proximity to urban dwellings.

Bush regeneration is yet another vital component of this project. To help wildlife thrive in urban areas, they need quality habitat. Talks by staff from Conservation Volunteers Australia and hands-on weeding activity assist participants to learn and understand the importance of native vegetation for wildlife habitats.

Who can get involved?

Almost everyone who is interested and would love to get their hands dirty can get involved in this project! We do have an age limit due to safety requirements of the bush regeneration activities. Participants have to be 13 years and above.

Nature chit chat along the way - so it's not all work and no play :)
Nature chit chat along the way – so it’s not all work and no play 🙂

How can YOU get involved?

If you live in Sydney NSW, we would love for you to come along and join us! There are three upcoming ‘Dragons of Sydney Harbour’ events open to the community organised in collaboration with Mosman Council. I have included the link below. Click on the link, select a date, complete registration and turn up on the day. Did I leave out the best part? It is completely FREE!

For more details and registration, CLICK HERE.

Upcoming Dates/Time: Tuesday 15 March 2016, Tuesday 05 April 2016, Wednesday 06 April 2016. The event starts at 9.15am and finishes at 2.15pm.

‘Dragons of Sydney Harbour’ is delivered by National Parks Association of NSW Inc (where I work) in partnership with Greater Sydney Local Land Services (funding support), Conservation Volunteers Australia, Taronga Zoo Sydney, Macquarie University, and National Parks & Wildlife Services.

Photo Credits:
Header - Kelly Andersen (Project Participant)
Densiometer - Forestry Suppliers, United States
All other photos have been used with permission from National Parks Association of NSW

Don’t Forget Me: Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

Before you proceed any further, I kindly encourage you to take a couple of minutes to enjoy this picture. Isn’t this bird simply gorgeous?

This is the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus). Have you seen or heard of this species before? No? You are not alone.

Before I watched the documentary ‘Racing Extinction’, I had absolutely no knowledge of this species. From this show, I learnt that there are approximately 150 of them (or even lesser) left in the wild restricted only to Florida. This information troubled me and led me to question myself. Why is it that I know so much about some species and often have no idea about the other declining or endangered species out there? Is this because there was not much hype about it till ‘Racing Extinction’ featured it? Or are birds too often ignored in initiatives or campaigns that raise awareness about endangered species? I don’t really know. But BIRDS MATTER along with every other species.

I then started searching and reading up on this species to learn a little bit more about them and why have they become highly endangered. I have included a summary of the information gathered in the last two weeks so we can all discover this species together, and perhaps even fall in love.

Meet the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow was first discovered in 1901 by Edgar Mearns on the Kissimmee Prairie. It is one of the four subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows residing in North America. It is fairly small bird measuring about 13 cm in length and weighing about 17 to 18 grams.

Their plumage is well suited for their habitat providing them excellent camouflage and making them very hard to detect.

Plumage – layers of feather covering a bird. This also includes the feather pattern, arrangement and colour.

Why Grasshopper?
This sparrow’s song is similar to a quiet buzz of a grasshopper, hence their name. Their song begins with three low pitched notes and progresses to a longer and higher pitched buzz.

Habitat and Distribution

Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are restricted to central and south interior Florida within dry prairie ecosystems. A dry prairie ecosystem has low grass and shrub cover spreading over a vast expanse of land with poorly drained soil with a lack of trees.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are habitat specialists and they do not migrate or wander very far from their birth place.. Prairies preferred by the Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are dominated by Saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) and Dwarf oaks (Quercus minima). Their habitat also needs to be virtually treeless, undisturbed and burned every 2 – 3 years to thrive successfully.

Saw Palmetto
Saw Palmetto

This Florida subspecies is currently found in three public properties and a few private lands in Florida.

The three public properties:

(1) Avon Park Bombing Range
1999 – 130 individuals recorded
2004 – 10 individuals recorded
2012 – only 1 singing male recorded

(2)Kissimmee Prairie
2002 – 150 individuals recorded
2011 – 21 individuals recorded
2012 – 14 individuals recorded

(3)Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
2012 – 60 singings males recorded

Population grass
Numbers of Florida Grasshopper Sparrow populations across the three public lands (Source: Status Brief Audubon Florida 2012)

Diet
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s diet consists of seeds (sedge seeds, star grass seeds) and invertebrates such as grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, beetles, flies and weevils.

Reproduction and Nesting

The sparrows nest between April and July. During this time, the males sing for a few hours in a day. The Florida Sparrows make their nests with shallow excavations on the ground made of grass or grass like vegetation often under Saw palmettos.

The females lay about 3 to 5 eggs. Great thing is, the fellas don’t just sit around. They help raise the young too. Their young fledge within 9 to 10 days.

Signs of trouble

Photo 2A wildlife survey carried out between 1980 – 1982 revealed an alarming count of only 93 individuals across seven sites. The sparrow was then listed as federally endangered in 1986. Since then, the population has continued to decline despite conservation efforts such as habitat management.

Several reasons were suspected for this continued decline. Habitat loss and alteration, sub-standard habitat management efforts, flightless chick mortality by fire ants, and diseases. Now as a result of their small numbers, genetic problems have risen as well.

The precious habitats have undergone severe alterations with conversions to domestic pasture grass. It is believed that 91% of their habitat has been destroyed. Hence, sound management of their habitat is extremely vital for their survival.

What’s Next?

Conservation actions have been proposed by Audubon Florida to give this beautiful species a fighting chance.

Some of the actions include: (a) consistently maintain the highest standards possible to manage the sparrow’s current habitats, (b) encourage and increase research initiatives into genetic problems and diseases, and (c) explore effective methods to enable the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s captive breeding.

The above was proposed and published in a status update document in July 2012. I could not find any other up to date information expanding on the progress of the suggested actions. I am hoping wholeheartedly that something positive will transpire extremely soon as the thought of losing this special species forever is really heartbreaking. If anyone knows of any updates, kindly share that with everyone in the comments.

References/Further Reading:
(1) Delany, M.F. & Linda, S.B. (1998) Characteristics of Florida Grasshopper Sparrow NestsWilson Bulletin, 110, 136-139.
(2) Shriver, W.G. & Vichery, P.D. (1999) Aerial Assessment of Potential Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Habitat: Conservation in a Fragmented LandscapeFlorida Field Naturalist27, 1-9.
(3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1999) South Florida multi-species recovery plan.
Atlanta, Georgia.
(4) Pranty, B. & Jr.Tucker, J.W. (2006) Ecology and Management of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Pages 14-42 in R.F. Noss, editor. Land of Fire and Water. Proceedings of the Florida Dry Prairie Conference.
(5) Audubon Florida (2012) 2012 Status Brief on the Endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Tallahassee, Florida.
Photo/Video Credits:
Header - Dry_Prairie_Final 2010 - Ann F. Johnson
Photo 1 - Audubon Florida
Photo 2 - Materiamedicaresource
Photo 3 - Christina Evans - Audubon Florida
Video 1 - Audubon Magazine YouTube Channel
Video 2 - Florida Wildlife Corridor YouTube Channel
Video 3 - Discovery TV Channel

School Biodiversity Project: Connecting Students with Nature

Guest Blog by: Howard Elston
(an inspiring School Teacher who is currently working on an amazing sustainable home development project)

“If children don’t know the natural environment, then how can they care about it?”  Hearing this question at a teachers’ Sustainable Living conference grabbed my attention.  What did the students at my Melbourne suburban school know about the natural world?  Why should they care about places unfamiliar to them if there was no emotional attachment?  Responding to questions like these led to me starting the Year 5 & 6 Biodiversity Project.

To begin, I needed a place with natural features outside the school grounds.  Luckily, my school was within walking distance of a bushland reserve running along a small creek.  It offered an ideal location for an outdoor classroom where students could safely roam in a slightly wild setting.

The City Council kindly agreed to allocate a section of the reserve to the school.  With guidance from Council staff, students would provide the labour necessary to maintain and improve this area.

Picture 1
Bushland reserve near the school

In consultation with an indigenous nursery, students decided the best way to make a difference was to remove weeds from the bushland and plant a variety of indigenous seedlings (ground covers, shrubs and trees).  Each Term, the students spent an afternoon at the reserve, working on “their part” and observing what had changed since the last visit.

Spreading mulch was a good way of preventing weeds from reappearing and creating the right conditions for native plants to propagate.  Everyone had a chance to get their hands dirty!

Picture 2
Hundreds of seedlings were planted to thicken up the bushland

picture 3

Over the years since the project has been running, I have observed the growing connection between these students and their local environment.  As one student said to me, “I like the way you can see we’re making a difference.  This is a fun way to do something about climate change.”   Council representatives also commented on the gradual change.  They could see the students’ care and attention paying off with a steady improvement in the bushland setting.

Once the project was established, the ideas for making other connections flowed thick and fast.  I discovered many people in the local community who were eager to assist with educating students about the natural world.

picture 4

Highlights for the students included:

  • Learning how to care for the plants and animals in the creek with the assistance of specialists from Melbourne Water.
  • Studying the mini-beasts which lived in the bushland under the guidance of a biologist.
  • Listening to an Aboriginal elder explain the First Australians’ perspective on caring for country while sitting in a place that the students cared about.
  • Getting to know the native bird species with expert guidance from volunteer bird watchers. Students then built and installed duck nesting boxes near the creek so the ducks could thrive.
  • Sharing their experiences of caring for the local environment at an Australian conference of school children with similar passions and interests.

I am optimistic the experience has helped successive classes make a connection with the natural environment. If, as they grow to young adults, they feel empowered to take action on environmental concerns, then I have succeeded.  They truly do care.

Meet my guest blogger, Howard Elston and his wife Libby 🙂

Libby and Howard
Libby and Howard

This wonderful piece was kindly shared by Howard giving us a chance to learn more about such an awesome biodiversity project. After reading this, my curiosity peaked. I started wondering about all the other projects out there working to create this precious connection between kids and our natural environment. At present, Howard and Libby are working on a sustainable home development project. Equipped with their enthusiasm and ‘stop thinking, start doing’ attitude, they have embarked on an adventure to explore various options and build units which are kinder to our planet. Follow their adventure here.

Photo Credits:
All photos within text: Howard Elston
Header:  Theophilos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

To Sir David Attenborough With Love

sir-david-attenboroughI have not met many people who don’t know about this great man. Many of us affectionately love Sir David Attenborough and shared numerous on-screen magic moments as he opened our hearts and mind to all the wild wonders of this world.

My first encounter with that familiar voice came from ‘Echo of the Elephants’, one of my all time favourite documentaries about elephants. At that stage, I too had no clue who he was except for the fact that he had a very nice voice. Since then, I have never escaped his grip as I encountered each different documentary teaching me things I never knew, making me care about things which I would have never thought about and taught me that this world is so much more than what we allow ourselves to see every day.

When I first decided to embark on a crazy journey to throw everything away and dedicate my life to wildlife conservation, naturally, Sir Attenborough was a big influence. Somehow I wanted him to know that he has been an integral part of my decision and I wanted him to be proud of me. This man had no clue who I was, where I came from or how on earth did I look like. Why would he care? Did that stop me? No way.

I started searching high and low for a way to write to him. I finally found an address to post fan mails and decided to take the risk to pour out my heart on paper. I sat down and wrote this 5 page letter (front to back) and excitedly sent it on its way.

To be honest, after posting the letter I was not expecting anything in return. I guess all I wanted was to write to him and tell him how important he was to me. Two weeks later, the big moment arrived.

Three days prior to this big moment, I had just received my confirmation to start my Masters course in Wildlife Management and Population Management accompanied with very strict conditions. With no prior science degree, I was nervous and started doubting my decision. I was to study in a class full of younger and highly talented Biology and Veterinary students. All I had was my love and determination to play a part in saving our wildlife in any small way I could. With a heavy heart and three weeks to go before I started my class, I found this airmail envelope with three UK marked stamps waiting in my mailbox. Although I had no idea what it could be, instinctively something told me that I needed to sit down to open this. So, I ran home and locked myself in my room.

When I finally opened the envelope, I found a beautiful piece of heavy set paper. I unfolded this slowly only to see Sir David Attenborough’s address on the header accompanied with four sentences written in black ink with a signature which temporarily stopped my heartbeat. I did not scream, I did not feel excited but I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of love and quiet happiness. This moment will stay with me forever. Words cannot describe how special it was. This letter traveled everywhere with me for two years. In my hardest moments, I held it and reminded myself that I was going to be OK and it helped me pull through my two years of studies.

I have written a few more letters to him since then, but with no further replies until this crazy moment. I had just started my career and started feeling so lost in the conservation world experiencing the brunt of not finding paid employment and constantly exposed to competition. It was hard. I felt I needed to talk to somebody and get some guidance, like a mentor. So I came up with a brilliant idea to write to my favourite man to ask if he would be my mentor. I know, what was I thinking right?

The moment I posted the letter, the impossibility of my actions daunted on me. I remember standing in front of the red post box and laughing to myself thinking…I cannot believe I just did that! I was even embarrassed. Did I just write to one of the most famous man in the world and asked him if he would be my mentor?

Lo and behold, three weeks later I got a reply from Sir David Attenborough politely declining my request. In that letter, he humbly stated that he was primarily a filmmaker and believes he would not have made a suitable mentor for me. At this point, my love for him doubled. He could have simply ignored my request as I am sure he receives so many similar requests. But he did not, he wrote back.

There are so many reasons why I love this man so much and I always will have a very special place for him in my life and my heart. My deepest regret is that I have never seen him in person. Every time he came to Australia for an event, I was too broke to afford the ticket. To this day, this is something which makes me very sad. But I will always have these two letters to keep close to my heart as my journey continues to make this world a better place for wildlife. Now, all I need is a khaki coloured pants and a light blue shirt.

Photo Credit:
Main Page - JrScientist via Foter.com / CC BY
Header - diana_robinson via Foter.com /CC BY-ND