Eyes in the forest

by Rashmi Bhat


When I was young and could not sleep at night, my mother would ask me to “count sheep.” I was meant to imagine a large number of sheep jumping over a fence one by one, and to try counting them so that the repetitive exercise (and sheer boredom!) would lull me to sleep. Now, a grown-up wildlife researcher, I know that counting wild animals is in no way like counting sheep. Wild animals are notoriously shy and, to my dismay, do not conveniently jump over imaginary fences for me to easily count them.

But humans are ingenious, and have found out ways to sneakily count wild animals in the forests where they live. Clever people have devised cameras that automatically activate themselves and silently take a photo when an animal walks by. These camera trap pictures have hugely contributed in the better understanding of the lesser-known co-inhabitants of this planet. Camera traps have helped scientists in discovering new animals in under-explored areas such as the Annamite striped rabbit on the Laos-Vietnam border, Sunda clouded leopard in Sumatra and Borneo, African golden cat in the African rainforests, and pygmy hippos in West Africa. In the case of the giant armadillo in the Brazilian Pantanal, researchers have virtually witnessed new animal behaviour such as dispersal of young armadillos and a surprisingly high level of parental involvement in rearing the young.

Closer home, our team at NCF in Karnataka has found animals such as the ratel (also called honey badger) in places where they were not previously known. Apart from finding animals in unexpected places, new scientific techniques are allowing photos from camera traps to be used in other useful ways as well. In animals where the pattern of stripes or spots can be used to tell one individual from another, repeated camera trap photography is used to estimate the size of the population; something that is vital for planning conservation efforts.

Not an easy task

But it’s not as though working with camera trap data makes life easy! In our work, it is common to have to sort through thousands of photos of cows or goats before one finds a tiger or leopard. Sifting through lakhs of images while making sure all important information is correctly identified and classified tries one’s patience to the utmost.

Increasingly, citizen science projects such as Snapshot Serengeti and eMammal are enlisting volunteers’ help in documenting and categorizing camera trap data. Students across the world are working first hand with camera traps while collecting scientific data and making observations and contributing to real world knowledge. At NCF, volunteers are putting in hundreds of hours in helping us wade through the deluge of photos and, along the way, solving interesting ecological and conservation questions about wildlife.

Camera trap technology is helping us get as close as we can to easily ‘counting sheep’ for wildlife. But instead of lulling us to sleep, they are opening our eyes to new discoveries in the forests.

Trap of a different kind

Rudimentary camera traps were first used by George Shiras in the late 19th century to capture the very first automated wildlife pictures.

Camera traps are usually placed on well used animal trails, waterholes and mineral licks which the wild animals usually frequent and use.

Apart from taking only pictures, there are also camera traps that can record video and sound. Newer models are being developed where camera trap pictures can directly be sent to a computer via the Internet.

Camera trap photos have recently been used to show that the behaviour of animals appears to change in advance of a major earthquake.

Repeated camera trap photography is used to estimate the size of an animal population; something that is vital for planning conservation efforts.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 22 July 2015.

Photo: Caught snapping – A camera trap captures young tuskers play-fighting in the MM Hills of Karnataka. Notice the second camera on the opposite side (highlighted). Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation