As you may have recently seen via our Facebook and Twitter pages, these past few months have been monumental for sightings of big cats in Costa Rica, and these have all been thanks to our incredible camera traps.
Speaking to our in-house camera trap expert, Joe Hamm, I decided to find out a little more about the technology that allows us to capture these phenomenal moments, and the importance behind the data we have been collecting.
Frontier Costa Rica has had camera traps set up since January 2017, in order to capture footage of the 20 mammals our project is studying - from big cats to tapirs. These camera traps have revolutionised our research at Frontier, as they allow us to collect very accurate data of rarely seen and endangered species, with little disturbance to the wildlife. Positioned at various points around the jungle, the cameras are set up in pairs in order to capture both flanks of the mammal. Using sensors to detect infrared light, the cameras are triggered by movement in the jungle.
The recent arrival of new camera traps have vastly improved our data, as they have a shorter trigger time and distance, better microphones, and improved quality of both the day and night images. The data collected from the traps is then sent to MINEE (the Ministry of Environment and Energy), where they use it to shape their environmental policy.
Joe setting up a camera trap
Joe's speciality is big cats, and in the last two months his carefully placed camera traps have managed to catch sightings of 4 out of the 5 big cat species we study here, much to the delight and celebration of the camp. We caught footage of a jaguarondi - a small wildcat that is weasel-like in appearance and the most commonly spotted big cat in Costa Rica. We also spotted a puma, often referred to as a mountain lion - a magnificent beast that is considered close to extinction by the IUCN and is rarely spotted outside of national parks. We then got some amazing footage of an ocelot and its cub, which Joe described as his best camera trap moment. And finally, the traps managed to capture footage of the elusive margay - which is rarely seen as they are mostly arboreal.
The margay is arguably the most impressive piece of camera trap footage. As this species is nocturnal and arboreal, it is near impossible to catch sight of them on the forest floor. Past attempts to capture footage of the margay at Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary near Sumaco National Park managed to get 85 captures on the camera traps over 3,220 nights, which is an incredibly high rate. This was attributed to the fact there were very few ocelots in the sanctuary, which are thought to impact the population of margays. This is why our margay sightings are interesting, as our camera traps have also spotted a number of ocelots. Previous camera traps in other places have had much lower success rates: in Peru, their camera traps on average captured less than 1 margay per 100 nights. This makes our recent achievement - capturing two sightings of the margay in the space of 11 days - an incredible feat!
When asked about the method behind his success, Joe attributes it to ‘some hard thinking and gut instinct’ when deciding where to place the camera traps. But working alongside him, it is easy to see that his tireless work and knowledge of the species has a huge impact. He has set up endless sand traps around the jungle - examining the prints left on them to determine the presence of big cats and areas of great activity. He also finds ‘funnels’ - paths that are enclosed on each side that force the cat to walk past the camera, and if he cannot find a natural one he creates one himself. And one can see by the progression of the sightings how effective and successful his methods are: previously, we only had eight captures in around seven months, now it has taken less than two months to capture fourteen cats.
Footage from our camera traps
Camera traps are incredible pieces of technology that allow us to catch sightings of the more elusive species of the jungle. They provide staff and volunteers much anticipated entertainment and excitement, as we wait each evening to see what footage Joe has caught - shouting and jumping in celebration when we are lucky enough to capture a big cat. I will never forget the day the puma was captured on the camera traps - it was the Camp Osita version of winning the World Cup - books were thrown up into the air, tables were banged, friends embraced, and exhilarated cheers rang out, all in tribute to this magnificent creature.
More than the satisfaction of capturing various species, the camera traps are important as they opens our eyes to how close these species are. Many of the big cats were captured just 100 metres from the camp, revealing just how deeply we are immersed into the jungle. Also, our sightings are not just limited to big cats, or the mammals we study - the camera traps capture all life that is large enough to set off the sensors. This includes some entertaining footage of members of Frontier stumbling through the jungle. They also allow us to form a better emotional understanding of the animals, and we are able to view them at leisure, without disturbing their routine.
Camera traps give a whole new meaning to the idea of wildlife observation, and their benefits to conservation efforts are innumerable: they can get baseline population data on elusive mammals when only estimates were possible before, they can determine behavioural patterns, their disturbance to wildlife is minimal and the images captured can be easily shared around the world.