Eyes in the forest

Imagine that you are a wildlife biologist and you’ve been given a dozen pairs of eyes that you can place anywhere in the forest to watch wildlife for you. You can find a good area, put them down, then walk away. These eyes are unblinking and all-seeing. They’re open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They don’t get tired and bloodshot. They don’t need to be propped open with toothpicks after hours of empty staring. They don’t need glasses or contacts. And they rarely miss an animal. Sound too good to be true? Well, if the eyes are attached to the rest of a Homo sapien, then it is. People, with all their glorious imperfections, are not well equipped to sit in one place for hours or days or weeks on end looking for wildlife. People have to do things like eat and sleep. And play games when the tedious boredom becomes too much to handle. But fortunately there is a technological solution: the camera trap.

Camera trap
Camera trap

A camera trap is a just a camera with a sensor that takes a picture when the sensor is tripped. There are as many types of camera traps as there are types of motorbikes cram-jammed onto the crowded streets of Hanoi. Although they come in an almost endless variety of shapes and sizes, the basic premise is the same for every camera: the sensor is triggered and a photo (or sometimes a video) is taken. It should come as no surprise that camera traps have revolutionized wildlife surveys around the world. Biologists can use camera traps to gather large amounts of data over large spatial and temporal scales for a large number of species. Camera traps are especially useful for studying rare or elusive animals. I could give a long list of rare species that have been studied using camera traps, from pygmy hippos to Asiatic cheetahs to Javan rhinos, but a few examples from my own patch of woods, the Annamites, will suffice: To date, camera traps have given biologists glimpses of Large-antlered muntjac, dark muntjac, striped rabbit, and the jewel of the Annamites—the Saola. In fact, the rediscovery of the Saola in Vietnam last year was accomplished by a camera trap photo. Take another look at that picture. And marvel at the fact that we have a photograph of one of the rarest and most elusive species on the planet.

I was excited to have camera traps for the current survey. I had a decent number at my disposal: WWF had loaned me more than twenty cameras, and Global Wildlife Conservation had given me five. Never before had I had so many cameras to use for a survey. My goal was to use the cameras to assess the status of the ungulate community in Xe Sap. As I noted in my previous post, one way to do this is by searching for jungle sign, mainly hoofprints. But there are drawbacks to this method. First, ungulate hoofprints are difficult to come by in the limestone-strewn mountains of Laos and Vietnam because the ground is so rocky. More problematic is the fact that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the prints to species. All muntjac prints, for example, look the same, so there is no way to tell if the print was made from a common red muntjac or the rare Large-antlered muntjac. A clear camera trap photo is, on the other hand, unambiguous. More significant, however, was our ability to have multiple sets of eyes operational over a wide area for the next few months. I would have to leave Xe Sap in a couple weeks. But my work would continue. While I was back in America, the cameras that I set would continue taking photos. And in the end they would provide me with an intimate portrait of the ungulates that roamed this remote jungle. They would help me unlock the biological secrets of the Annamites.

Endemic Annamite mammals caught on camera
Endemic Annamite mammals caught on camera

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