Author: Sarah Curtis
Camera traps have revolutionized scientific research of many species that were previously near-impossible to study due to their habitat and behavior, allowing us insight into unknown worlds.
The Problem: Tracking Animals That Don’t Want to be Seen
If many people think of conservation research, I am sure that they would picture khaki-clad scientists with patchy tans spending hours in the bush for one glimpse at their focal species. While this definitely is not too far from truth, the reality of wildlife conservation is that often the species we want to study don’t abide by human standards.
A vast majority of species are nocturnal or elusive (or both), meaning that they are awake while we are asleep, and are professionals at avoiding humans. This is unsurprising considering that human activity is accelerating the rate of wildlife extinctions beyond those that would occur naturally. An animal that does not have an inherent fear of humans is unlikely to survive well in a world dominated by a species that kills almost everything that it comes into contact with.
So, how do we research an animal that slinks in the shadows and is only really active in the dark of night?
The Solution: Camera Traps
A camera trap is a motion-activated device that captures photographs when it senses movement. These camera traps work day and night, allowing scientists to observe animals such as brown hyenas and leopards without the invasiveness of having to be in the same physical environment as them.
Camera traps have revolutionized scientific research of many species that were previously near-impossible to study due to their habitat and behavior, allowing us insight into the unknown worlds of a vast range of species.
They are featuring more regularly in conservation news, as their adaptiveness to a wide variety of environments have led to important discoveries from Africa to Asia.
Admittedly, we previously underestimated the usefulness of camera traps. Although we have used them in reserves, our small collection pales in comparison to studies using 40+ camera traps. We have used camera traps for some time now and obtained some incredible pictures (many of identifiable quality), but have never had enough traps to fully cover the reserves we work in.
This provides a tricky situation.
An assumption of many camera trap studies is that there is an equal probability that all camera traps will capture an animal, as typically the distance between two camera traps should always be less than the minimum home range of the study species. This meant that, for a reserve we work in of over 13,000 acres, the four camera traps we had deployed obtained many great pictures, but likely missed a lot more.
That is, until now.
Fundraising for Camera Traps
We have to fundraise for camera traps for our wildlife conservation projects, as unfortunately, money for conservation is lacking. And with the many other costs involved in running a volunteer organization stacking up, it is difficult to splash out the cash needed for one camera trap kit, let alone many of them.
Of course, our projects could not run without our volunteers, and many of them are generous enough to run fundraisers and donate to our projects.
Recently, we saved enough money from these amazing initiatives to purchase not just one, but ten camera traps and their respective equipment! This brings our total number of camera traps from 18 to 28, allowing us to expand our research and fully cover two of the reserves we work in.
This, in turn, allows us to expand our research potential, opening up possibilities for more in-depth research on a whole host of different species, many of which are lacking in research. The excitement among the research team is palpable, and we are incredibly excited to see what our new traps bring for us.
Volunteers and Camera Traps
Of course, the research team are not the only entity here that are involved with camera traps. Our volunteers are not passive observers, but actively involved in working with camera traps.
We introduce them to what a camera trap is their first day on the project and they often help service traps on drives. We are even aiming to introduce camera trap training sessions that will teach volunteers how to change a camera trap, a crucial skill for any budding conservationist.
Our volunteers also help with the upkeep of our camera traps, helping to clean them and give them some love when they return from living in the bush. And obviously, it would be unfair for the volunteers to experience camera trapping without letting them see the pictures! During their project work sessions, volunteers are designated to tagging camera trap pictures.
When a camera trap is deployed, the intention is that when an animal walks past the motion-sensors are triggered and photographs are taken until the animal moves away.
Unfortunately, and much to everyone’s resentment, this is not always the case. Sometimes you discover 7000 pictures, but when you go through the SD card you realize 6950 are of a single blade of grass moving in the wind.
While it is important that machetes and grass slashing tools are utilized when installing a trap, it is not uncommon to miss a patch, leading to this frustrating outcome.
Our volunteers’ job is to trawl through these pictures with the aim of discovering 50 pictures of animals. Of these 50 pictures, 40 may be of animals that are not our focal species – such as impala, nyala, and warthog.
While these animals can often provide some interesting and entertaining behaviors on their photographs, we disregard these photos as we do not research them. Of the 10 remaining photographs, there may only be eight of nocturnal animals.
This is where the excitement builds.
As soon as a camera trap enters night-time photographs, a whole world of animals opens up as diurnal impala and nyala are replaced by nocturnal honey badgers and porcupines. These photographs are tagged by our volunteers as their respective species, building up a database of pictures of these animals.
Lastly, the two photographs left may be the ‘money shot’ of camera traps. These two photographs could be a leopard, brown hyena, or caracal. For us, and our volunteers, it is often worth slogging through 6950 captures of grass to obtain these two pictures.
Camera Traps Contribute to Academic Research
Not only do we have volunteers here, but we also increasingly have interns staying with us in South Africa. These interns are more often than not university students, working on a project for an assignment or their thesis. These interns give us an excuse to bring out our science-side, as we assist them with creating a project and seeing it through to its conclusion.
Being able to use camera traps opens up the study possibilities for these interns, ensuring that their projects are useful and relevant for conservation, while expanding the species that they can research.
Often, interns come here with the intention to research lions. While this is fantastic, there is a wealth of information on lions in scientific literature – but genets and civets? They are often neglected for charismatic megafauna (large, well-known animals).
Having camera traps allows interns to run projects on these often-forgotten species, a ‘forgotten kingdom’ of animals, and many leave with a new-found love for these unusual and unique species.
Find out about our Wildlife Conservation and Environmental Internships
Camera Traps and the Future of Wildlife Conservation
However, as fantastic as it is that we have a number of camera traps available for our research, they unfortunately do not last forever. As with any outdoor equipment, their lifespan is not limitless, and when factors such as adverse weather and curious animals combine, it often means that the longevity of our camera traps is reduced.
It is highly likely that soon, some of our camera traps will have to retire, and so it is inevitable that our numbers will once again decrease. Therefore, it is vital for us to keep fundraising for camera traps. As technology and scientific research advance hand-in-hand, we must keep up with the advancements to ensure our wildlife conservation projects are robust and recent.
As a scientist, it is incredibly important that what we do here is justified and useful, and we simply cannot make half of the impact that we do here without camera traps.
If you want to donate to our camera trap fundraiser or find out more about our research, you can check out our Global Giving page for The Forgotten Kingdom – Help Protect Elusive Species. Better yet, join one of our wildlife conservation volunteer programs and see for yourself how camera traps contribute to conservation.