By Richard Conniff
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?
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. More....