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African wildlife conservation - From big cats to small butterflies: Monitoring biodiversity of Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, Malawi, Africa

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This African wildlife conservation project will take you to the little known, but species-rich and quintessentially African Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve in Malawi to monitor elephant, hippo, zebra, buffalo, cats, primates, bats, antelopes, as well as insects and vegetation. You will be working as part of an international team, based at a rustic but comfortable field camp. You will be covering ground in off-road vehicles and on foot and conducting research activities such as live and camera trapping, target species searches, transect and species identification work, as well as data entry. All this in an effort to help local scientists assess the nature and patterns of biodiversity in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve and to inform biodiversity monitoring and management in order to protect this relatively untouched part of Africa for future generations.

You have created something big with Biosphere Expeditions and I wanted to thank you for letting me be part of it. My experience with you was not only extraordinarily enriching and beautiful, but it has also put many wheels in motion in my life, amongst other things a new understanding of wildlife and nature, as well as a deep personal friendship. My expedition has been one of the most inspirational and formative experiences of my life. THANK YOU!” > more testimonials

  • Leopard
  • Elephants just outside the expedition base
  • Hippo
  • Zebras
  • Kudu
  • Impalas
  • Buffalo
  • Yellow baboon
  • Lions
  • Inside Vwaza Reserve
  • Inside Vwaza Reserve
  • Inside Vwaza Reserve
  • Sunset at Vwaza Reserve
  • On a foot transect
  • On a foot transect
  • On a vehicle transect
  • On a night transect
  • Setting up a mist net to catch bats
  • Setting up an insect trap
  • Setting up a camera trap
  • Surveying vegetation
  • Cataloguing insects
  • Checking a harp trap for bats
  • Bat work
  • Navigating
  • On a foot transect
  • Recording data
  • Data entry
  • Expedition base
  • Safari tents at the expedition base
> more pictures on    Facebook   GooglePlus   wordpress


Expedition contribution: £2180 (ca. €2440 | US$2890 | AU$3180) excluding flights per dates as shown. Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in £ and the approximate € | US$ | AU$ equivalents. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and up to date exchange rates.

Dates & meeting point: 02 - 14 Sept 2018 | 16 - 28 Sept 2018 (13 days)Other dates. The meeting point is Liliongwe, the capital of Malawi. More details on this and how to get to Liliongwe are in the expedition briefing

Status & availability: Amber: Expeditions of status amber have few spaces avaiable (or are currently in the field). To join them you need to decide soon. .


Host country and expedition safety

Most visits to Malawi (not to be confused with Mali!) are trouble-free. This is what Lonely Planet has to say: “Malawi is one of the safest African countries for travellers. Needless to say, you should still be reasonably cautious and employ common sense.”


Flat savannah woodland and wetland marshes.

Weather expected during expedition

The expedition takes place during the dry season. In September and October, temperatures are between 25 to 37ºC during the day and around 20ºC at night. There is virtually no rain and many cloudless days.

Expedition base

The expedition team will be based in a rustic field camp in large, shared twin-bed safari tents on wooden platforms. You can stand up inside the safari tents and they have beds, linen and furniture. The camp has flushing toilets and hot showers, as well as a permanent and comfortable chalet-type structure for eating, meeting, relaxing and watching the elephants that often pass by.

Team size

Up to 12 team members + 1-2 local scientists + 1 expedition leader.

Skills & prerequisites required

None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.

Fitness level required

Ability to walk around 10-15 km per day, in flat terrain, sometimes when it is hot. There are also options to get involved in non-strenuous activities, ranging from vehicle-based surveys, to data entry to camera trap maintenance.

Team assembly point

Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Lilongwe is well connected through its airport and flights from outside Africa route via either Johannesburg, Nairobi or Addis Ababa.
> full details on how to get there are in the expedition briefing

Aims & objectives

(1) Determine mammal, reptile, amphibian and insect species distribution and abundance, as well as correlates of mammal and insect diversity.
(2) Compare species distribution and abundance between habitats, seasons and years.
(3) Measure variability in bat diversity and assemblage composition over time.
(4) Provide maps of species distributions to assist in biodiversity management and IUCN action planning.


Malawi is recognised as being of international importance in supporting a rich array of endemic species, including some that are restricted to single mountains. However, this rich biodiversity base is seriously threatened by an unsustainable rate of exploitation mainly through deforestation, pollution, invasive species and development. Montane and upland forests are under particular threat, with many areas converted to tea plantations and other agricultural uses. For the most part, the only remaining upland forests are those that have been protected since the 1920s. Conversion to agriculture, firewood collection, wild fires and invasion by alien species are all real threats. Deforestation is a considerable a problem too with Malawi losing 2.8% of forests per year.

Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve (VMRW), the expedition study site, was proclaimed a Wildlife Reserve in 1977. It is home to the widest variety of large mammals in Malawi (including lion, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus, buffalo, zebra and many other species) and a fascinating range of lowland birdlife of over 300 species of birds. However, currently there is limited capacity and resources for park and wildlife management. In partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, this project is providing vital information to inform conservation and wildlife management in order to enhance and conserve the park habitats and species.

Study species

Carnivores including leopard (Panthera pardus), caracal (Felis caracal), hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), serval (Leptailurus serval), jackal (Canis adustus) and several species of mongoose and genet.

African species including elephant (Loxodonta africana), common zebra (Equus quagga), African cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious), bushpig (Potamochoerus porcus), warthog (Phacochoerus aethopicus).

Primates including yellow baboon (Papio cynocapalus) and vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops).

Antelope species such as greater kudu (Taurotragus srepsiceros), impala (Aepyceros melampus), common duiker (Sylviacapra grimmia), klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus), common reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), puku (Kobus vardoni), roan (Hippotragus equinus).

All the bat (Chiroptera) species in the park (estimated 30+ species) and vegetation.

There is a great abundance of birdlife and the odd lion may pass through too.

Typical day

The expedition’s work is organised into specific small group tasks, some of which begin early (at around 06:00) and some of which last late (until about 22:00). You can pick and choose flexibly which tasks you would like to do when and there are a variety of easy (e.g. static observations, species processing), medium (e.g. vehicle transects, camera trapping, bat capture) and harder tasks (e.g. foot transects). We all get together for lunch and a siesta during the hottest part of the day, which is also when we review the past 24 hours and plan the next 24, and when you will put yourself down for your next research tasks. After dinner there are talks and discussions for those not on a late shift.

Please note that every team member will be rotated through all activities. A cook will prepare food at base camp where you will return to eat, rest and have a shower.

Research area

Malawi is a landlocked country in southern Africa, bordered by Zambia to the northwest, Tanzania to the northeast and Mozambique on the east, south and west. The country is separated from Tanzania and Mozambique by Lake Malawi. Malawi encompasses 119,000 km2, of which 20% is water. Malawi has an estimated population of 17 million with an average population density of 139 people/km2 and a population growth rate of 2.8% per annum. Its capital city is Lilongwe, which is also Malawi's largest city. The name Malawi comes from the Maravi, an old name of the Nyanja people that inhabit the area. The country is also nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa".

Malawi is listed as a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Global 2000 Ecoregion because of its high species richness and endemism. It lies at the heart of three eco-region categories including the central and eastern Miombo Woodlands, Zambezi Flooded Savannahs and Southern Rift Montane Woodlands. Malawi is of international importance due to its rich array of endemic species, including some that are restricted to single mountains. According to WWF-SARPO (2002) there are 26 areas of special biodiversity importance within the ecoregion. The ecoregions of Malawi include mountainous rainforest, tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannahs, and shrublands of the miombo woodland, dominated by miombo trees; and the Zambezian and mopane woodlands, characterised by the mopane tree; and also flooded grassland providing grassland and swamp vegetation.

Malawi is home to mammals such as elephants, hippos, big cats, primates and bats; a great variety of birds including birds of prey, parrots and falcons, waterfowl and large waders, owls and songbirds. Lake Malawi, a World Heritage Site, covers 20% of the land area of Malawi (>29,000 km2) and has one of the richest lake fish faunas in the world

Malawi has five national parks, four wildlife reserves, 87 forest reserves and three nature sanctuaries, most of which are listed as Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

The Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve (VMWR), the expedition’s study site, is a wildlife reserve located in the north of the country. It covers an area of 1,000 km2 of flat terrain located in the Central African Plateau on the watershed between Lake Malawi and the eastern lip of the Luangwa rift to the south east of the Nyika Plateau. The western half of the reserve borders Zambia and comprises plateau Miombo woodland, clay soils dominated by Mopane (Colophosphermum mopane) woodland and wetland marshes, while the eastern half of the reserve contains Miombo and broad-leaved (Combretum) woodlands in the foothills of the Nyika plateau.

VMWR is home to many species of ungulates (impala, reedbuck, kudu, bushbuck and bufflo) and carnivores (spotted hyaena, leopard, side-striped jackal) and has healthy populations of elephants and hippo. Lions are also seen occasionally. Wildlife can move freely between the reserve and the Luangwa valley in Zambia. The south and eastern boundary of the reserve is fenced, with villages right up to the reserve boundaries.


Biosphere Expeditions' two main partners for this expedition are the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA).

And finally (almost)

Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.

And finally (briefing)

Even more details, including instructions on how to get to the assembly point, are in the expedition briefing below.


For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.

Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone. 

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Send your cheque to one of our offices. Once your cheque has been received and cleared, your place on the expedition will be confirmed.

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Results & achievements

Since this is a new expedition, there have not been any expedition-specific achievements yet. However, LWT, since starting in 2008, has engaged over 35,000 children in environmental education programmes, rescued and cared for hundreds of animals at the LWT Wildlife Centre and released one in four of them back into the wild through applied conservation research projects, protected 200 hectares of rare forest from urban encroachment, planted 10,000 trees in local communities and arrested 57 ivory traffickers including the confiscation of over 500 kg of illicit ivory.

CRA, since starting in 2013, has discovered three new bat species for Malawi, established a toll free Wildlife Assistance Helpline, provided the first-ever density estimates of leopards in Malawi and established various human-wildlife conflict resolution schemes with local people.

For Biosphere Expeditions, scientific reports and publications are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.

Awards & accolades

First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards    

Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.

National Geographic    

Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple National Geographic awards and accolades such as "Best New Trip" and "Tours of a Lifetime".


Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple Travel+Leisure awards and accolades such as the "Conservation Award" category of Travel+Leisure's "Global Vision Awards" or "Best Adventure Outfitter" and "Best Save-the-Earth Trip" accolades.

> more awards & accolades


More videos on   YouTube


Since this is a new expedition, there has not been any press coverage yet. You can see other Biosphere Expeditions press coverage on   Issuu  


Since this is a new expedition, there are no expedition-specific testimonials yet, but there are more, general testimonials.

Frequently asked questions

What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the detailed section above. All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the expedition briefing, which you can download above. > more

Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more

Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more

How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.

Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more

Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.

How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the  and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.

What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.

Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more

> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page

More questions?

If you have any more questions, please just e-mail us, get in touch with one of our offices, or use the form below.