Monitoring Wildlife: Eyes on the Ground and in the Sky

Rainforest Trust

Dec 7, 2016


Visual technology advances in the conservation field allow researchers to gather information about rare and enigmatic species that were previously inaccessible. These images provide conservationists with invaluable data on the state of these species and the habitats on which they depend for their survival.

  • Camera traps stationed in the field highlight astonishing biodiversity within rainforests. Photo by CIFOR.

As a video feed streams images of undisturbed foliage, a large shape ambles into the viewing frame. At first it is difficult to make out what creature it could be, until suddenly it becomes clear: a rare and Critically Endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros turns its head and stares directly into the camera, locking eyes with the viewer.

Footage from remotely activated camera traps provides opportunities like this to be “up close and personal” with elusive and endangered species, offering a powerful conservation tool that enables the observation of wildlife without the animals being aware of the observer. With less than 100 Sumatran Rhinos surviving in the wild, they are among the most endangered large mammals and are notoriously shy. Being able to witness one in its natural habitat is a rare privilege for both amateur wildlife enthusiasts and researchers. In addition to giving viewers the chance to watch these animals from the comfort of their own computers, camera traps provide critical insight to conservationists who might have access to the field but not directly to the species they are trying to protect.

This technology is aiding in the development of successful conservation strategies that rely on a continued understanding of the range, behavior and habitat requirements of wildlife needing protection. Camera trap photography can aid conservationists in confirming the presence of rare species and is a tool to track populations of endangered animals, draw distribution maps, monitor animal behavior and estimate wildlife populations. The advantages of camera traps are numerous: their setup ease makes them less time consuming than traditional catch-and-release methods used to study animals; they are minimally intrusive, causing no impacts to wildlife; and the images they produce can be reviewed by teams of scientists, reducing the chance of individual subjective errors.

  • A camera trap in the proposed Imawabum National Park in Myanmar captures an image of a Vulnerable Takin. Photo by Flora and Fauna International.

As part of a species survey, Rainforest Trust’s Cambodian partner, Wildlife Alliance, is using camera traps to collect photos of a variety of animals in the Southern Cardamom National Park, which was newly established this spring through the collaborative efforts of both organizations. Images of marbled cats wandering through the forest undergrowth and clouded leopards traveling in pairs give a glimpse into the lives of these elusive animals, sometimes providing unexpected results. For example, sightings of these rare cat duos may indicate the presence of an abundant prey base since they are usually solitary creatures, according to Wildlife Alliance’s CEO Suwanna Gauntlett.

Another advance in conservation imaging technology is the usage of drones to monitor wildlife movements and habitat change. Rainforest Trust often uses drones equipped with high definition cameras to provide an aerial view of conservation project sites. During a recent site visit in Borneo, Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman maneuvered a drone to inspect forest regeneration inside a newly protected area to ensure that oil palm plantations were not invading the protected forest. He also used the drone to count the number of Borneo Pygmy Elephants that inhabit one of the properties that Rainforest Trust helped to protect.

  • Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman operates a drone to count Borneo Pygmy Elephants.

While aerial photography is useful to monitor large-scale movements of wildlife, small, non-intrusive cameras that are temporarily attached to animals can provide more localized insight. Rainforest Trust’s partner Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) in Papua New Guinea recently used Crittercams (developed by National Geographic) to learn more about the Matschie’s Tree-kangaroo. In this case, gently fastening a miniature camera to the creature using a collar is preferable to a ground camera trap, as tree-kangaroos spend the majority of their time high in the tree canopy. The visual recording process involves local communities as former hunters use their tracking skills to help TKCP researchers capture, equip and release the elusive tree-kangaroos.

  • A Crittercam collar is temporarily attached to a tree-kangaroo. Photo by Lisa Dabek.

The attached camera then records short video segments throughout the day and reveals information, such as feeding behaviors, that is otherwise difficult to observe. These images are invaluable for making decisions regarding the ecological composition and size of new protected areas based on the needs of the species.

“Extremely secretive species can now be tracked via camera traps, and drones provide instant information on the true situation on the ground,” said Dr. Bert Harris, Rainforest Trust’s Director of Biodiversity Conservation. “Advances in photographic technology are enabling conservationists to accomplish what was once impossible.”