Why Secret Wildlife Cameras Might Be a Poacher’s Worst Nightmare

Since they first became widely available a decade or so ago, camera traps have revolutionized conservation biology. But can they catch poachers in real-time?

Secret Wildlife Cameras Might Be a Poacher's Worst Nightmare
A critically endangered Northwest African or Saharan cheetah is seen on a systematic camera trap surveying the central Sahara. (Photo: Farid Belbachir/ Reuters)
Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

It seemed at first like a familiar story. In 2011 at Orang National Park in Assam, India, poachers killed one of the park’s 70 rhinos, hacked off its precious horn, and made their escape. But a few days later, park rangers were flipping through the latest batch of images from a nearby camera trap set to monitor wildlife.

To their surprise, the camera had caught a perfect image of three poachers entering the park before the killing, armed with .303 rifles. After “wanted” posters appeared in nearby villages, two of the poachers soon surrendered and the third fled the area. There was only one problem: The rhino was already dead.

Could camera traps actually stop poachers before they kill? Since they first became widely available a decade or so ago, camera traps have revolutionized conservation biology. Human researchers tended to work by day, says Tim O’Brien, a camera trap specialist in Kenya for the Wildlife Conservation Society. But “half the species out there are nocturnal, and the other half are doing everything they can to avoid humans.” By being on the scene around the clock and without human disturbance, other than occasional visits to change batteries and download photos, camera traps have recently solved both problems, often with spectacular results:

—In 2011 in India, rangers using pugmarks to census tigers were reporting tigers in parks and protected areas where they didn't actually exist. Then camera traps revealed that those pugmarks were from leopards. Now India is switching over to camera trap monitoring nationwide.

—In 2012 in Sumatra, camera traps rediscovered some species that had not been seen since the 19th century, among them the giant pitta (a bird) and the Sumatran short-eared rabbit. 

—In February of this year, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researchers who had been working in Nouabal-Ndoki National Park for 30 years were startled to see how many large mammals lived in a habitat they thought they had thoroughly studied. They also got the first photos ever of the forest aardvark, probably a new species.

The power of camera trap technology has improved rapidly. Back in 1998, says O’Brien, a camera trap that cost $450 was basically a leaky box with an Instamatic and 36 frames of film inside. If you were lucky, it would last a month. You still pay $450 today. Now, though, that gets you a waterproof box, a camera that can record 50,000 images, and a battery that will last a year. 

For conservationists in the middle of a global poaching epidemic, the tantalizing dream is that even smarter and more sophisticated camera traps could also spot wildlife crime and stop it before it happens. Several recent developments suggest this dream is now close to becoming reality.  

Panthera, the wild cat conservation group, plans to deploy the first cellphone-enabled version of its inexpensive, lightweight camera traps in Sumatra later this year. Anti-poaching patrols are also now being equipped with GPS devices, says tiger specialist John Goodrich, so they can log the location of snares and other poaching threats in the course of their work. The idea is to overlay that map onto a map of areas favored by tigers or other target species, then position the camera traps where the two overlap. The new camera traps can distinguish human intruders and then telephone images back to a park monitoring station within seconds.

In a test last year, a cellphone-enabled camera trap spotted poachers entering the habitat of the endangered Amur tiger at Lavovsky Nature Reserve in Russian. When the poachers came out again, empty-handed, police were waiting. The case is now being prosecuted.

But one problem with cellphone technology, says Jamie McCallum of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is that phone companies tend not to build cellphone towers in remote wildlife areas. Cellphone batteries are also notoriously short-lived. So ZSL recently began to deploy its first camera traps using satellite-transmission technology. The cameras, developed by Cambridge Consultants, are being tested in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, one of the bloodiest sites in the current war on elephants. Within minutes, rangers will know when intruders are moving through the park and which direction they are headed. That means they can get there in time to stop them.

In addition to the anti-poaching work, says McCallum, the cameras will also be useful for simply monitoring wildlife in remote and difficult terrain, because satellite transmission together with improved battery life could reduce maintenance visits to just once a year.  ZSL already feeds its camera trap information directly to the public via its Instant Wild app. So instead of spending hours of a biologist’s time to review a 10,000-photo download, the public now crowd-sources the task. “And the punters are really good at it,” says McCallum, identifying species in more than a million photos and even tipping off biologists to an apparent new species, or a species in an unexpected location.

This all sounds highly promising. But it also suggests what the punters would really like, and it smacks a little of Dirty Harry going after the bad guys: People around the world are sickened and outraged by the continuing slaughter of tigers, rhinos, elephants, pangolins, antelopes, turtles, and other species. They’re deeply depressed that the forests of the Earth are being rapidly emptied of wildlife. And they feel helpless. 

What they want are those satellite-transmitted images turning up instantly on cellphones worldwide, so they can spot the poachers themselves and call in the alarm from all over the planet. They want to be there, at least in spirit (if not with a .44 Magnum), when the park rangers make the roundup. 

Sadly, though, says McCallum, ZSL is not planning to crowd-source law enforcement. But at least poachers will increasingly have to live with the knowledge that anti-poaching forces are watching.

And, just around the next bend, with their weapons raised, maybe also waiting.

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