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Eyes in the forest

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-06-2017 Aakash Lamba

I was on all fours, my eyes fixed on the laptop, placed a few feet away on the forest floor. Every time I crawled past the camera-like device fastened on a tree along the forest trail, a new email would land in the inbox on my computer screen with the subject line “Trap triggered”, and an attached image of myself in this strange pose. The angle looked just fine. Everything seemed to be in order. This device was a “smart” camera trap I had developed independently over the past few months and it was time to test it out in the real world.

A camera trap, simply put, is a motion-activated camera that records pictures or videos every time it detects motion in its field of view. Camera traps have become an indispensable tool in a wildlife conservationist’s toolkit, giving us an intimate view of the lives of some of the most elusive creatures in the wild. The smart camera traps that I was testing—in addition to the basic functionality described above—can remotely transmit their images over email in real time and live-stream videos.

To help me test these devices, Wild Otters, an organization that works for the conservation of smooth-coated and small-clawed otters, allowed me to use its field station on the picturesque Chorão island in Goa. Chorão, which has slipped under the radar of the tourists who flock to Goa each year, has rich forests and mangroves that are relatively intact. Given how elusive wild otters are, the smart camera traps could notify a researcher of the presence of an otter through email and live-stream its movements.

The researchers at Wild Otters had been tracking a family of smooth-coated otters on the nearby island of Divar, which is about an hour away from the field station, and this was by far the most promising place for capturing otter activity. We made our way from Chorão to Divar through winding country roads, with the fragrance of ripe cashew fruit periodically breaking the monotony of the salty smell of the sea. Crossing from one island to the next by ferry gave me time to admire the egrets waiting patiently for their quarry in the murky waters of the mangroves, while a Brahminy Kite soared above, calling out impatiently in its characteristic whining tone. The last stretch of the journey was a walk through the mangroves. A sharp fishy smell permeated the air—a family of smooth-coated otters can deposit quite a large quantity of droppings in just a few days. The scat looked fresh.

We deployed a camera trap for a few days. Since I was monitoring emails on my smartphone, I would eagerly check my phone every time it buzzed. Perhaps the most significant notification was when I received images of a group of fishermen walking across the mangroves early in the morning.

Unfortunately, the otters did not make an appearance. There was, however, a silver lining. One evening, when we had finished checking on the camera traps, we heard a series of short grunts followed by a high-pitched yapping sound. Not too far from the camera trap, a family of eight smooth-coated otters, five adults with three pups in tow, crossed the path less than 10m ahead, and disappeared into the backwaters. This was my first sighting of otters in the wild.

My next field site was to be Mumbai, a dense megapolis that holds within itself a splendid national park rich in wildlife. The 108 sq. km Sanjay Gandhi National Park is bustling with human activity during the day, with joggers and morning walkers crowding the park. But, as night falls, the forest’s true monarchs emerge to patrol their domains. I am, of course, talking about the resident leopards.

A camera-trap image of a leopard at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai.

Knowing when and where to deploy camera traps to maximize the possibility of getting images is extremely difficult and requires a thorough understanding of an animal’s behaviour and habits. It’s almost like getting into the mind of the animal. A good rule of thumb is to place camera traps along an intersection where multiple forest trails cross. With a number of sites matching this description and only a limited number of days for testing, it wasn’t easy to decide where to deploy my trap. I was fortunate to have Nikit Surve, a wildlife biologist from Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who has been working in close collaboration with the forest department on estimating leopard populations in the park, advising me on where to deploy my traps.

To ensure the camera traps were not stolen, a problem that most wildlife researchers in India face, traps were placed every evening and retrieved before daybreak.

However, the long, sweaty hikes had their perks. On multiple occasions, I saw grey mongooses, rat snakes, numerous bird species and the immensely entertaining langurs that share the forest with the phantom-like leopards.

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The first few days were not very eventful. There were no trappings or notifications, and I was getting a bit anxious. But then at 10.31 on the night before my departure date, as I was about to dig into dinner, my phone buzzed. “Trap triggered,” read the email subject line. The creature that had triggered the camera was a leopard. In the background, the city lights of Mumbai sparkled. It was an absolutely fantastic feeling; the camera traps had become my eyes in the forest!

I hope to test out the live-streaming capabilities in the next phase of field testing. Modern technological applications and systems have immense potential in making biodiversity conservation initiatives more effective. Leveraging the power of technology can help conservation practitioners greatly augment their work through significantly increased efficiency both in terms of costs and human effort, and can grant access to information or capabilities that would otherwise have been impossible.

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