Although it's been in use for many decades, with the latest technological advances, the relatively simple device known as the 'camera trap' has been quietly revolutionising wildlife research and conservation. Its increasingly important role in documenting never-before-photographed species, recording rare footage of mating and hunting behaviours, and even identifying entirely new species of animals has opened up an exciting new world for researchers and scientists. |
What is a Camera Trap?
A camera trap is a remotely controlled camera or digital device that's equipped with infrared or motion sensors. Designed to record data with as little human intervention as possible, the device captures a series of flash photographs whenever the sensors are triggered by movement or body heat of an animal. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to set up, and cause minimal disturbance to habitat and wildlife.
The first camera traps were used in the 1890s, when trip wires were used to capture the first wildlife photos not involving actual human presence. However, due to their unreliability and other logistical issues like short battery life, they did not find practical use as a research tool until the advent of infrared trigger mechanisms in the 1990s.
Since then, rapid advances in technology (especially in the realms of digital photography) have afforded scientists and researchers a window into an intimate world of wildlife, with seemingly endless possibilities.
Where Are They Used?
Depending on their specific purpose, the camera traps are most often set up around watering holes (where there's a high proliferation of wildlife) or trails. Consideration must also be given to ease of access, for practicalities like downloading images and changing the batteries of the device.
There are drawbacks in that they can only capture images in the small area the sensors are aimed, so in order to gather completely accurate data several cameras are required.
How Camera Trapping is Aiding Conservation
By enabling the gathering and analysis of data without capturing animals, camera traps are becoming a valuable tool for conservation initiatives by enabling researchers to establish population numbers of species by the collection of baseline data. They're also being used to raise awareness of specific conservation campaigns through the sharing of images on social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
Jaguar Watching Research and Conservation
One example of an area where conservation strategies have been enhanced by the use of camera traps is by researchers involved in Jaguar watching. Due to the big cat's elusiveness, their solitary behaviour, and the difficulty in accessing their habitat, the collection of ecological data has always been notoriously difficult.
In the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, which has a history of Jaguar watching research dating back to the 1980s, the use of camera trap technology has enabled the identification of individual animals in order to collate vital data relating to population density, prey availability, habitat range and social structures. This kind of data is affording researchers a valuable insight into the spatial distribution and movement patterns of the big cats, so they can focus conservation efforts on reducing human-Jaguar conflict in the area. (Such as hunting by ranchers protecting their livestock and habitat deforestation due to commercial development.)
With the technology advancing all the time, scientists and researchers will only be limited by their imaginations. It's possible that camera traps could be used underwater and in the canopies of rainforests to study avian and aquatic life, and even the smallest of the world's micro-species may soon no longer be able to hide from the lens of a micro-camera trap.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal region. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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