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The Osa Camera Trap Network: Uniting people to monitor biodiversity

  • The Osa Camera Trap Network monitors big cats and their prey on public and private lands across Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.
  • Concern about connectivity for apex predators between Corcovado National Park and mainland Costa Rica has encouraged the participation of a diverse cadre of stakeholders that has broadened the scale of the project.
  • Clear communication, together with a few photos of resident jaguars, have allowed the network’s 23 institutions and communities to install and maintain more than 200 cameras providing the baseline data needed for long-term monitoring of the area’s mammals.

When Osa Conservation project coordinator Juan Carlos Cruz met a local landowner angered by the presence of a pair of camera traps on his land in this southwestern section of Costa Rica, Cruz promised to relocate the cameras but suggested they first review any photos captured. Once he saw the beautiful male jaguar on the screen, the landowner hugged Cruz and begged to keep the cameras in place.

“This is the power of knowing what you have and being able to see it, and feel proud of the value of your land for the wildest of creatures,” said Andrew Whitworth, executive director of the NGO Osa Conservation. “And this was not an uncommon story.”

Camera traps, remotely installed cameras triggered by motion or heat of a passing person or animal, have helped research projects document the occurrence of species or describe a vertebrate community in a given area. Their remoteness allows camera traps to photograph shy, cryptic, or nocturnal species, the presence of which would otherwise be difficult to confirm.

Camera traps installed at grid 47 by the local guides of Punta Marenco Lodge caught a puma (Puma concolor) traveling on a steep ridge in a  wildlife refuge on the edge of Corcovado National Park. Image courtesy of Osa Camera Trap Network (OCTN).

Scientists have developed and tested methods for setting out grids of cameras that can identify individual animals and estimate the abundance of species using the study area. But top predators and other wide-ranging species move across large areas, which makes their populations difficult to assess by a single camera-trapping project.

Five wild cat species

A diverse assemblage of stakeholders in Costa Rica are combining their resources and skills to monitor the apex predators and their prey around the Osa Peninsula in the country’s southwest corner.

The Osa Peninsula is one of the last wild places in Central America and one of the few supporting healthy populations of five wild cats: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi. It is also home to an outsized number of plant and animal species and a high number of endemic species, as it was once an island.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica’s minister for environment and energy, called the Osa “the emblematic unique place in Costa Rica that best represents our conservation efforts.”

Building a collaborative network

In 2013, a group of people interested in the Osa region’s wildlife joined forces to survey its charismatic vertebrates with camera traps. The initial network had three members maintaining 10 to 15 cameras who encouraged fellow landowners, including research groups, protected area managers, ecotourism providers, and local communities, to set out cameras to learn which animals were passing through their land, Whitworth said. “We all know that rainforest animals can be super secretive and often never seen,” he added, “especially some of the most charismatic species, like the cats, and weird and wonderful nocturnal beasts, like the hog-nosed skunk.”

As more residents set out cameras, the network expanded to its current 23 members, who maintain more than 200 cameras installed across the Osa region.

Cameras installed at grid 48 by the local Los Planes community caught a young male jaguar walking in the early hours of the morning. Image courtesy of OCTN.

Osa Conservation initially designed the Osa Camera Trap Network (OCTN) to better understand the conservation needs of wild cats and their prey. Jaguars, in particular, control territories of 25 to 135 square kilometers (10 to 52 square miles), so understanding where they move can guide actions to maintain vegetative cover between blocks of forest.

The institutions and communities of the OCTN are collaborating to generate information needed to manage and monitor wildlife in the area’s reserves and surrounding private lands. The project has placed camera traps across the Osa Peninsula, including Corcovado and Piedras Blancas national parks and the properties of local eco-lodges, private landowners, forest reserves and Osa Conservation.

“Region-wide monitoring is crucial to effectively monitor large terrestrial vertebrates, a key indicator of ecosystem health and function,” Whitworth told Mongabay. “However, large-scale monitoring is expensive and complicated to implement, especially in harsh rainforest terrain.”

Osa Conservation (OC) and Universidad Nacional (UNA) biologist Juan Carlos Cruz Diaz speaks with members of the local Rio Tigre community about rainforests and camera trapping. Image courtesy of OCTN.

The OCTN comprises diverse stakeholders. Leading public and private organizations in the region collaborate with four local communities, corporate landowners, tour companies and eco-lodges, NGOs, and international universities. The network offers members a chance to participate in and feel ownership of the data collection and the wildlife they document.

“At a regional scale,” said Max Villalobos, Osa Conservation’s Costa Rica director, “the Osa Camera Trap Network represents an excellent example of how public-private partnerships, inter-institutional coordination and citizen action can generate a positive impact for conservation in one of the wildest places in Mesoamerica.”

The group formalized the OCTN at a workshop in August 2017, where participants shared information about their work or their property and agreed on common questions they wanted to answer. They agreed to share information to determine how many jaguars actually occupied the Osa Peninsula. No one had answered that question before because jaguars range widely, and monitoring them effectively typically requires a study area too large for any single institution to cover.

The first OCTN workshop in August 2017, all members presented information about their work or details about their property’s location, to help devise a monitoring plan as a collective for the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula. Discussions led by Juan Carlos Cruz Diaz, Biologist with UNA and Osa Conservation. Image courtesy of OCTN.

The participants also agreed to monitor changes in the abundance and diversity of mammals found in protected areas (Piedras Blancas and Corcovado) and animals’ use of recognized “biological corridors” (Corcovado-Piedras Blancas and Corcovado-Matapalo). They also agreed to contribute their experiences to help develop a wildlife monitoring plan.

The growing network has had to address past personal disagreements among neighboring landowners, including competition for funding, which Whitworth said periodically led to communication breakdowns. Finding time and space to bring all members together to maintain clear communication has meant managing teaching schedules for university groups, peak tourism seasons for lodges and guides, and planting seasons for local communities. To address a third challenge, training to standardize data collection, the network’s leaders used good planning, inclusive protocols, and an active core field team to work closely with partners.

Building a data collection network

In February 2018, teams of community partners and OC biologists dispersed across the Osa to install two cameras at the center point of each of 125 grid cells (each cell measuring 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, a side) that they had superimposed over the tropical forest.

Osa Conservation biologist Eleanor Flatt and members of the Alto Laguna indigenous community that borders Corcovado National Park installing camera traps on the highest ridge in community’s territory. Image courtesy of OCTN.

With just the pair of cameras and the GPS location of the center point of each grid cell, the field teams located each point, sometimes having to hike steep ridges or cross a river to get there. Local residents played a key support role for the OCTN members on these forays. Once they learned about the project and its goals, they often provided help, leading the field teams onto their property in the best direction or feeding a field team after a difficult hike.

The field teams successfully installed 206 camera traps within 103 of the grid cells, which the project believes is the largest camera trapping network in Central America.

The Osa Camera Trap Network grid 2018 made up of 125 cells measuring 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) a side. The cells highlighted in yellow-green are where two camera traps were successfully installed, giving a total of 206 camera traps in 103 cells. Image courtesy of OCTN.

They overcame several hurdles along the way, starting with determining who owned the land they were traversing. Teams sometimes made several visits to find out who had rights to a given property. Once they found the appropriate landowners, it often took time to convince them to allow cameras on their lands, especially if they knew people who hunted (illegally) and might get caught.

Most, like the landowner thrilled to see a jaguar on his property, were proud to have wildlife on their land. In some cases, however, Whitworth said, “we had incidents where teams heard chainsaws and guns inside and close to national parks. Teams had to be briefed to ensure avoiding conflict (no taking photos and just being friendly and non-conflictive).”

Biologist Juan Carlos Cruz Diaz  and members of the Rancho Quemado community completing the installation of a pair of camera traps. Image courtesy of OCTN.

In the end, members of one community persuaded the group not to hide and chain up the cameras but to instead be honest and put up a sign explaining what the cameras were, why they were there, and provide phone contact details for more information. “Although seven of the 100+ grids had cameras stolen,” Whitworth said, “this proved very effective.”

To function in tropical forest, camera traps need to be robust, Whitworth said. “The dream is that you can leave them out for months on end and know that they won’t have any technical issues. That’s pretty much #1.”

Whitworth also said that improvements in the quality of camera trap images had vastly improved the project team’s ability to accurately identify different individuals of animals such as jaguars or ocelots. The project’s dream now, he added, is “to have cheaper, high-end robust models that can send imagery direct to the cloud via cell-signal, and then to have AI on the other end that can sort between potential misfires, humans, and ultimately different species or at least groups of animals.”

OC biologist Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya accompanying Saladero Eco-Lodge owner Harvey Woodard and boat captain David on the edge of Piedras Blancas National Park installing camera traps. Image courtesy of OCTN.

The OCTN is already testing the ability of cell-capable cameras to send images in near-real time to rangers. Once functioning, these geo-tagged images would allow rapid-response groups to detect and stop illegal activities as they are happening, something previously unfeasible in dense rainforest habitats.

Cameras for connectivity

In August and September 2018, the teams returned to the field to retrieve the cameras and began sorting through the thousands of photos of the area’s wildlife. The team is still analyzing the image data but has so far made several general observations about where it’s finding target species.

“Although Piedras Blancas National Park was established to assist with connectivity of Corcovado National Park,” Whitworth said, “some species, such as jaguar, white-lipped peccary and tapir, seem to still be absent, or at least in extremely low numbers, a sign that we still have work to do for these wide-ranging species.”

He added that Corcovado and the Corcovado-Matapalo corridor remain strongholds for these three species, “a great indicator that the Osa remains a viable intact tropical system.”

The project has already produced the baseline data it needs to monitor the Osa Peninsula’s terrestrial mammals over the long term, allowing members to better evaluate the success of the region’s protected areas in maintaining mammal populations and the use by mammals of biological corridors.

Cameras at grid 47 also caught Central America’s largest land mammal, the Baird’s tapir, passing over the ridge on the edge of Corcovado National Park. Image courtesy of OCTN.

Whitworth said assembling a diverse group of stakeholders to plan and carry out a biological monitoring project across the 1,800-square-kilometer (700-square-mile) region has also helped to connect wildlife and people, empower rural residents, and ensure the monitoring project’s longevity. He said he expected the OCTN model of local community integration in regionwide monitoring could be adopted by national and international monitoring efforts across the neotropics.

“A recipe that garners the support of a diverse array of actors to come together and invest in wildlife monitoring and subsequent management actions is a valuable model for other regions where wildlife monitoring is needed,” Whitworth said, “especially where there are local people close by to be more than just a bystander to conservation, but to become a key part of it!”

 

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