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Trip Jennings at a recent expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo for a elephant poaching research project.
Trip Jennings at a recent expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo for a elephant poaching research project.

SCIENCE

Extreme trekkers, citizen scientists Add to ...

It's a dilemma that can stymie science: How to conduct research and collect vital specimens in remote and treacherous wilderness terrain?

Take war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo. U.S. biologist Sam Wasser had been trying for about a decade to gather elephant dung samples from the country's central-north region for his poaching map of Africa. But it wasn't until a chance encounter with extreme kayaker Trip Jennings that he found a solution to his predicament. Mr. Jennings had trekked through Congo before, for the sake of research, and was eager to help.

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Dr. Wasser "had this great map. He had this tool that he created for anti-poaching organizations and conservation organizations," Mr. Jennings said. "However, he had a huge hole over the Democratic Republic of the Congo because it's just so difficult to get into."

Mr. Jennings, who returned last month from the Congolese jungle after collecting about 50 samples of elephant dung with another adventurer, is now part of a new organization designed to make it easier for scientists and adventurers to link up for expeditions around the world.

In its first six months, Montana-based Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation has helped to propel about a half-dozen research projects into the field, including a University of British Columbia study of bar-headed geese in the Himalayas. The non-profit organization's founder, Gregg Treinish, is both a wilderness athlete and a wildlife biologist.

Pairing researchers with citizen scientists isn't new. Volunteers have helped count birds for decades. But Mr. Treinish believes his organization is unique because elite athletes are involved. He hopes they'll help spur science in regions rarely travelled.

"One thing we offer is the ability to get to places that nobody else can. We're using the world's best climbers, kayakers, skiers, bikers," said Mr. Treinish, who has hiked the world's longest mountain range, the Andes, a trip that took nearly two years and spanned roughly 12,000 kilometres.

It was on that momentous trek that a feeling of selfishness set in for Mr. Treinish, followed by a realization that adventurers could be doing more with their expeditions through making contributions to conservation research.

His organization has the backing of several prominent adventurers, including Céline Cousteau, who traces her exploration roots to her father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and her grandfather, eminent French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. It also has a science advisory board that includes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alaska Pacific University and Montana State University.

Jessica Meir, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia, is part of the advisory board, too, joining after learning about the organization at a conference in Lake Louise. She's studying the physiology of bar-headed geese. These birds have a remarkable ability to fly at extremely high altitudes, migrating twice a year over the towering Himalayan mountain range. They've even been spotted over the summit of Mount Everest, where oxygen levels are about one-third of that at sea level.

However, many of these sightings are anecdotal. With the help of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, Dr. Meir hopes to establish a robust survey of bar-headed geese in the Himalayas. Two adventurers are there now, recording sightings of bar-headed geese, noting the altitude, location and time. Dr. Meir is looking for more volunteers, and hopes local guides, Sherpa, will also take part, noting that securing funding for research projects can be tough.

"If you can save by getting data from people who are already out there, I think that is really going to help further science and get things done that might not otherwise be funded or might be logistically too difficult for a particular science," said Dr. Meir, whose study includes analyzing bar-headed geese in flight in a wind tunnel at UBC.

The elephant dung samples collected by Mr. Jennings and fellow adventurer Andy Maser are still in Congo, packed in vials about the size of film canisters and awaiting shipment to the United States for DNA analysis. They'll be compared with the DNA of seized elephant ivory to help pinpoint poaching hot spots.

The illegal ivory trade has been escalating in the past 10 years, said Dr. Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology. China's growing economy is fuelling a lot of the demand: Ivory has cachet.

Getting to the elephant dung samples was no easy task. Mr. Jennings and Mr. Maser spent nearly two months in Congo, near the Lomami River. Their expedition involved six flights, dirt bikes, dugout canoes and several weeks on foot. They were aided by locals and an armed military escort at times.

"They are spectacular adventurers," Dr. Wasser said. "There have been a few places that have stymied us. The DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]has been one of those places. Now the DRC is pretty well sampled."





Adventurers Wanted

Three projects that might pique the interest of modern-day explorers

Ice worms: The retreat and disappearance of glaciers is a well-known, worldwide occurrence. Less is known about the ecosystems that thrive on glacier ice. Scientists in Alaska, Washington and New Jersey have discovered that there are likely three species of glacier ice worm in the Pacific Northwest. They're seeking mountaineers to scour glaciers for these worms. The scientists need pictures and GPS locations. Better yet, they'd liked an ice worm in ethanol to analyze.

Mountain rocks: Sounds simple enough to collect, but the rocks that Montana State University microbiologist Tim McDermott needs must come from high altitudes, about 6,000 metres or higher. Small rocks will do and from anywhere in the world. Dr. McDermott's study involves extracting DNA from microbes found on the surface of high-altitude rocks.

Pika monitoring: Here's a study the average wilderness adventurer can tackle. Montana-based Craighead Institute is looking to recruit an army of hikers to help with an international study on pikas, the smallest member in the rabbit family. Pikas generally live on rocky mountainsides and are native to cold climates. They're an important species in understanding the effects of climate change. Outdoor enthusiasts are being asked to take note of the presence or absence of pikas, and to record information about the pikas' straw piles and urine stains.

Source: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

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