What is camera trapping?

Ever wondered how nature photographers get that close-up shot of a massive tiger sniffing the camera? Hint: they usually aren’t just sitting there holding a camera paralyzed with fear! Many of the incredible shots you see of rare mammals like snow leopards, wolves, bears, and jaguars are taken using automated camera stations called camera traps. 

Camera traps are hardy, boxy cameras that are meant to be attached to a stationary object – like a tree or pole – where they remain for weeks, or even months at a time. They are meant to survive the harsh elements for long periods of time so that they can capture any animals that pass in front of the lens. Camera traps use infrared sensors to detect if something hotter or colder than the environment is moving in front of it. They can then capture a combination of photos and videos that show which animals have passed by. 

Camera traps provide useful data about the diversity, density, and behavior of mammal species living in a specific area. Depending on the study, camera traps can be placed at specific distances from each other to help in calculating species density or can be baited to provide a clearer picture of the rare species living in an area. Importantly, they allow scientists to monitor animals that avoid human presence, usually mammals (excluding primates) and some ground bird species. 

The footage from camera traps, which often reveals stunning species in their natural habitat, is also extremely helpful for conservation advocacy, demonstrating to communities and visitors the hidden biodiversity of the forest. Here’s what to expect when you help with camera trapping. 

What to expect on a camera trap survey

Camera trap surveys might involve setting up new cameras or simply checking the memory cards on existing cameras. Your naturalist or guide will have GPS that marks where the cameras are set up, as they can often be well-hidden off the trails in the woods. You may also look for other mammal sign as you are walking – tracks, scat, fur – which naturalists can record to get a clearer picture of mammals moving in the area.

If you are setting up new cameras, you will likely walk a few kilometers from any tourism centers along a trail to find places where animals naturally move through the forest. Depending on the survey, your leader will have clear instructions on where to place the camera. For example, calculating jaguar density requires cameras to be at least 2km apart and 50cm off the ground. A more general density survey merely requires cameras to be placed where animals regularly walk.

Cameras are often set up near the ground to capture a wide variety of species that might walk by. New cameras should be stocked with fresh batteries and an empty SD card, prepared to capture whatever comes by. It is also best to remove any nearby vegetation that could be moved by rain or wind, triggering the camera. In tropical environments, researchers may also place plastic shields over the tops of cameras so they don’t get waterlogged in heavy rains. 

Checking existing cameras can often be a long trek, as mammals are widely dispersed in the forest. You may be asked to carry batteries or SD cards for your naturalist, whose backpack is probably weighed down with a few new cameras to set out. When you find a camera, you and your naturalist will check if it is working and see how many pictures have been captured. If needed, you can make any adjustments to the angle, or change the batteries if they are getting low. Most importantly, you will change out the SD card for a fresh one and make a note of which camera the used one comes from, so you have the information for future data collection. 

Once all the cameras along a transect are checked, you will head back to your accommodations to check the footage. Most pictures on a camera trap are of leaves, moths, and rain. However, when you find a large mammal like a bear or jaguar, it can feel like hitting the jackpot to know that these magnificent animals passed through just hours or days before. 

If you want to learn more about camera trapping or join us on a survey, check out our tours in Ecuador!

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