Camera trapping: More than wildlife selfies!
Written by Anisha Iyer
A whole lot of thought and effort go into setting up cameras at vantage points across a landscape.
We see plenty of wildlife selfies going viral these days – macaques looming large in front of the lens, the rear end of a tiger, a bear scratching his belly, and thousands of other unseen behaviours, all thanks to the magic of camera traps. Being able to get a glimpse of the most intimate moments of the daily life of wild, elusive animals is an offside treat the camera traps provide. They have immensely helped researchers determine population distributions, estimate populations, identify various species and gain unusual knowledge on these species.
Camera traps were first invented around 1890s to capture wildlife images from the wild landscapes. These were made with trip wires and flash bulbs, and the images were caught on film. Over the years, different modifications to the same design like adding batteries, reducing the size of the equipment and so on have made it an indispensable aid to wildlife science and conservation.
The most significant change was infrared technology that helps sense an animal by picking up the heat radiation in addition to the traditional movement sensors. Presently heavy-duty cameras that can withstand heat, cold and all kinds of extreme weather are also used to establish future strategies, poaching activity and track progress from previous studies.
The WCS-India team of experts uses camera traps in several locations all over the country for furthering quality research. WCS researchers in Amrabad Tiger Reserve along with the forest department have set up camera traps to monitor carnivores in the reserve. The vastly improved methods of setting up cameras according to the targeted species have helped these survey these landscapes thoroughly.
With temperatures that rise up to 40 deg C by noon, the team sets off early in order to set these up in order to establish the data required for further research. The team manually chooses each location very carefully to set up camera traps. A reconnaissance survey in the area of interest is done in advance by foot, jeep or boat according to the species of interest. In Amrabad, the cameras were set up in order to obtain photo-captures of large carnivores like tigers and leopards.
Any vegetation around the selected tree that obstructs the line of sight of the camera is cleared. The cameras which have in-built sensors that can detect presence of a moving object up to 10 metres are put up in pairs to capture both flanks of the animal. The locations of these cameras are marked on a GPS in order to be able to retrieve them after a certain time and change batteries every fortnight.
Once the cameras are set in place and ready to put to work, the first trial photograph is of a little black board. The board consists of location number, date and time of the camera, which is now active; this is then waved in front of the active camera traps much like a muhurat shot by a film unit! This ‘slate shot’ as it is termed here is taken primarily to fix the time in case of malfunction of the internal clock of the camera or mismatch between the pair of cameras.
After the first 15 days since the camera is deployed, the data is retrieved and the fresh batteries are installed for the next round of photographs. The collected photographs are then processed. The images captured are identified and relevant data about desired species, individual animals and locations is extracted; and then analyzed to glean actionable insights.
Camera traps can also have drawbacks. The images captured are limited to space, as they can gather information only in the areas that are activated by sensors; which may leave us not being able to detect all the animals in the given area. However, there are statistical techniques to address this issue of detectability.
The costs of camera traps can also be exorbitant, the better the camera the more it costs. A basic camera trap in India can cost up to Rs. 20,000; hence losing camera traps can be a major issue. They are also at the risk of breaking as curious animals are capable of pulling it apart. Elephants have been known to crush them. In addition, the cameras are stolen to be sold. There are also times when they are dismantled by people who don’t like their photo being taken, especially when they have trespassed into a forest.
For a person with no knowledge of camera traps, it can be quite surprising and odd to see them in remote locations. Locals in some areas of India have mistaken them for bombs and alerted the cops! Hence taking necessary precautions such as labelling them and alerting locals in surrounding areas can be a good step.
Amrabad Tiger Reserve spreads over 2,800 sq.km with sudden inclines, declines and boulders scattered along the way making every step a calculated move, a terrain that is extremely difficult to manoeuvre. An added factor is the heat. Carrying the necessary cameras, and other additional equipment can make the process quite tiring. At ATR there are around 220 locations where the cameras are set up at. Often the whole process can take longer than expected.
But after doing a thorough job the results can be satisfying as camera traps add a dimension to research like never before. Although we don’t personally see the wildlife photographed, the stories these images showcase also have an impact on how wildlife is perceived by people.