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Could camera traps save wildlife worldwide?

It’s safe to say that the humble camera trap has revolutionized wildlife conservation. This simple contraption—an automated digital camera that takes a flash photo whenever an animal triggers an infrared sensor—has allowed scientists to collect photographic evidence of rarely seen, and often globally endangered species, with little expense and relative ease—at least compared to tromping through tropical forests and swamps looking for endangered rhino scat. Now researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) are taking the utility of the camera trap one step further: a study in Animal Conservation uses a novel methodology, entitled the Wildlife Picture Index (WPI), to analyze population trends of 26 species in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. While the study found a bleak decline in species, it shows the potential of camera traps for moving conservation forward since it marks the first time researchers have used camera traps to analyze long-term population trends of multiple species.

“The Wildlife Picture Index is an effective tool in monitoring trends in wildlife diversity that previously could only be roughly estimated,” the study’s lead author, Tim O’Brien of WCS, said in a press release. “This new methodology will help conservationists determine where to focus their efforts to help stem the tide of biodiversity loss over broad landscapes.”

Close-up of Sumatran rhino caught on a camera trap in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is on the edge of extinction: it is believed that less than 250 individuals survive in the wild. The species, the world’s smallest rhino, is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List and threatened by widespread deforestation, poaching for its horns, and now the simple fact that there are so few rhinos that finding another to breed with becomes difficult. Photo courtesy of WCS.

Gathering 8 years of over 5,000 camera trap photos from Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, O’Brien and his colleagues analyzed population trends of 25 mammals and one ground bird. They found that biodiversity suffered a total decline of 36 percent in the protected area, a loss which actually outpaced deforestation in the area.

Species sought for the lucrative black market, such as tigers, rhinos, and elephants, fell faster than smaller ones like monkeys and deer, which are killed for food or as agricultural pests. Species that had no economic value showed little change in abundance.

The researchers argue that this method, the WPI, could aid the goals of the internationally-recognized Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which by nearly all accounts has not succeeded in its goal of stemming global biodiversity loss by this year. The WPI may help provide better baseline of data for biodiversity worldwide, especially in the tropics where such data is often lacking.

“The Wildlife Picture Index will allow conservationists to accurately measure biodiversity in areas that previously have been either too expensive, or logistically prohibitive. We believe that this new methodology will be able to fill critical gaps in knowledge of wildlife diversity while providing much-needed baseline data to assess success or failure in places where we work,” John Robinson, WCS Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science, says.

Another positive aspect of camera trap photos is that they allow the public to peek at rarely seen animals in their natural habitats, hopefully instilling deeper interest in and concern for the world’s embattled and shrinking wildlife.

CITATION: T. G. O’Brien, J. E. M. Baillie, L. Krueger & M. Cuke. The Wildlife Picture Index: monitoring top trophic levels. Animal Conservation (2010) 1–9 c_2010. doi:10.1111/j.1469-1795.2010.00357.x.

A Sumatran tiger caught on camera trap. Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae), a subspecies of the tiger, is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Like the Sumatran rhino, tigers on the island face surviving in ever smaller patches of forest and poaching for their bones used in traditional Chinese medicine. Photo courtesy of WCS.

Sumatran elephants captured by a camera trap. The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant which is considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List. This subspecies is endemic to the island of Sumatra and is also threatened by poaching and deforestation. Photo courtesy of WCS.

Full photo of the Critically Endangered and incredibly elusive Sumatran rhino, one of the world’s most imperiled large mammals. The conservation organization EDGE which identifies species according to their evolutionary uniqueness and global endangerment lists the Sumatran rhino as number six of the world mammals. Photo courtesy of WCS.

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