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A biologist’s biggest challenge is studying a species whose survival depends on avoiding contact with humans. In jungles of the Terai Arc, camera traps are the only pairs of eyes that can record key scientific information about animals; ranging from abundance and behavior to preferred prey and human threats.
Meraj Anwar, Senior Project Officer of WWF-India, has conducted camera trap studies on tigers in the Terai Arc since 2010. In this Q&A, he talks about how camera trapping and scientific data collection contributes to conservation.
WHICH CAMERA TRAPS DO WE USE AND WHAT INFORMATION DO WE GET FROM THEM?
We use thermo-motion sensitive cameras that can detect changes in temperature and slight movements within a range of 40 feet. Even a leaf blowing in the wind will trigger its sensor. We get lots of pictures of leaves on windy days!
Camera traps lend us primary data from which we can infer a host of behavioral characteristics about a particular species. Because it records date and time, we can determine which time of the day an animal is active and how its behavior is affected by changing seasons. Images of predators carrying their prey are crucial in determining what they eat and when. We’ve also spotted injured animals and previously unknown species. We once observed a tigress carrying her cub in her mouth and moving from a location with human activity to a quieter place. This validated what we always knew but now we have evidence for it.
And, of course, camera traps help identify individual tigers from their stripe patterns, which is the foundation for population estimates of tigers.
WHERE DID YOU LAST CARRY OUT A CAMERA-TRAP SURVEY?
We’ve just completed monitoring tigers in Ramnagar Forest Division (FD) that borders Corbett Tiger Reserve in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Corbett is a well protected area and tigers in the reserve thrive without any major threat. But an animal isn’t aware of man-made borders and tigers often roam into neighboring forests that are similar to Corbett in every way but protection. We’re focusing our energies in determining the number of tigers and other key species in Ramnagar Forest Division with the hope that this evidence can be used to ensure better protection in the forest by the authorities.
WHICH PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN SPECIES DID YOU SPOT IN RAMNAGAR FOREST DIVISION?
We spotted a red fox for the first time in Ramnagar Forest Division, but even more exciting was seeing the rusty-spotted cat there in 2012. The cat is endemic to India and Sri Lanka, and is common in southern India but has never been photographed by anyone in the north before. Our camera traps recorded images of the rusty-spotted cat for the first time in 2010 in eastern Terai, and a few times after that in central and western Terai.
HOW ELSE DO CAMERA TRAPS PROMOTE CONSERVATION?
Camera traps can monitor the forest in a way humans can’t. We have images of unidentified people moving with guns recorded on camera. We’ve passed on the photographs to the Forest Department who were able to use the evidence to conduct searches and arrest the suspect. Photos from camera traps were also used as evidence by the department in court proceedings.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM CAMERA TRAP SURVEYS?
That animals always see us first. I recall an incident two years ago when we deployed a camera trap behind a temple situated in a crucial corridor. When I routinely downloaded data three days after deployment, I saw an image of a tiger recorded just a few minutes after I left the spot. This meant that the tiger was watching and waiting for us to leave before it negotiated that stretch. No modern equipment can beat the eye of the tiger.