Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Camera Trapping Outside Protected Areas

President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust Anish Andheria provides a first-hand account of the remarkable work being done by the organisation to monitor forests outside the protected area network of central India.

Showcased here is an infinitesimally small selection from an ever-growing repository of nearly 30,00,000 camera trap images that has been built over five years of systematic and intensive monitoring of forests outside the protected area network of central India. The exercise has been carried out by the field team of Wildlife Conservation Trust in collaboration with the State Forest Departments of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. While doing so, the team has spent countless hours scaling some of the most arduous terrains and braving temperatures ranging from 2 to 45 degree Celsius. Yet, according to them, nothing is more pleasurable than participating in work that helps the States to get a first-hand, granular understanding of the distribution of large carnivores, their prey, several other lesser known, timid species, and also of anthropogenic disturbances.

The eye of the leopard: Probably a courting pair. Leopards are by far the most adaptable of all large carnivores, which is why they do well both in pristine and multiple-use areas such as buffer zones of tiger reserves and corridors. Our work has shown that tiger: leopard ratios range between 1:2 to 1:3 outside national parks and sanctuaries. Contrary to popular belief, leopards also coexist alongside relatively large human populations with little or no conflict.

Hunters of the night: The most gratifying phase of camera trapping is when the field team begins downloading images, when ‘non-target’ species start emerging. This splendid image of a ground-dwelling jungle cat and an aerial insectivorous bat in one frame resulted in an excited exchange of mails between WCT team members.

Tottering into the twilight: This spectacular late-evening image of a jackal with a streak of lightning in the background is stunning. Jackals were once fairly common across their range, but in recent years, sightings have dropped largely, thanks to the rapid growth of road networks, urbanisation, and explosion in the population of domestic dogs.

Thorny encounter: Porcupines are feisty creatures. Their tenacity, and the ability to tirelessly flex their muscles and quills more than compensates for their lack of speed, agility and raw power. Large carnivores such as tigers, lions and leopards do predate upon porcupines from time to time but are rarely captured on camera.

Catch me if you can: Seeing a ratel or honey badger in broad daylight is very unusual. Seeing it at night is equally challenging. In the past 30 years that I have spent time in the Indian wildernesses, I have seen this nocturnal carnivore only thrice! Capturing a ratel and porcupine in the same frame outside a Protected Area is extraordinary. Was the ratel chasing the porcupine? Was it just an accidental encounter? Were they locked in a battle? Do ratels hunt porcupines? These and more questions will remain unresolved until some camera trap reveals part II of this story in one of India’s hidden corners.

The Corridor Conundrum

The central Indian landscape (CIL) is one of the three most important tiger-bearing landscapes of India, others being the Western Ghats and the Terrai Arc. The CIL, which supports nearly 31 per cent of India’s tigers, is a complex mosaic of over 60 protected areas and several good quality reserve forests that act as both buffer areas and corridors. It harbours some of the better protected tiger reserves of India – Kanha, Pench, Panna, Tadoba-Andhari, Ranthambhore, Satpura, etc., with significant tiger populations. Yet, none of the tiger reserves on its own has over 100 adult tigers with 20 breeding females, numbers that are needed for long-term viability of a tiger population. The only way these tiger reserves can withstand existing anthropogenic disturbances – low levels of tiger poaching, widespread hunting of prey species, forest degradation due to uncontrolled firewood collection, man-made fires, and large-scale linear intrusions such as highways, canals, railways and electricity lines – is by strengthening the protection along the corridors and other intervening reserve forests. In other words, unless the corridors and other intervening forests allow safe passage of tigers and their prey, the tiger reserves alone will not be able to conserve the species in the long run.

WCT’s decision to focus on forests outside protected areas has yielded many interesting and uplifting results. It has revealed the presence of the Eurasian otters in central India from where it was previously unknown. Camera trapping has helped bust the myth that wolves have virtually disappeared – their numbers may have fallen but they are still widely distributed across central India. Fieldwork has showcased the persistence of tigers in multiple-use areas, alongside dense human and livestock populations. We now know that tiger densities in some of the reserve forests are comparable or better than many well-protected tiger reserves. Extensive camera trapping efforts has also highlighted the fact that despite the presence of sizeable leopard populations in forests with high anthropogenic pressures, the incidence of conflict is relatively low.

However, not all is well. Our work in association with the State Forest Departments has captured innumerable direct and indirect evidences of potentially harmful human activities in corridors and other forest patches. Unfathomable levels of firewood collection is one of the biggest threats to these forests. Pictures of gun-carrying men in broad daylight are fairly consistent from several high density human-dominated forest patches. Another significant observation from the camera trapping work across reserve forests is of wild animals that have either miraculously escaped from wire snares, such as this injured adult hyaena (in the insert), or animals roaming with snares stuck around their necks or waists. Whenever such images appear, the WCT team shares the details with respective forest officers so that necessary action can be taken to curb bush-meat hunting. However, the presence of high-density human populations in and around territorial forests makes the forest department’s job extremely challenging. High frequency of human-wildlife interactions is slowly escalating the antagonism between villagers and the forest department, which is further accentuated by periodic accidental injuries or deaths of humans caused by wild animals. To make matters worse, the local politicians more often than not add fuel to the fire by instigating the villagers against the forest departments.

Porcupines making porcupines: WCT’s field team surveys over 6,000 sq. km. of central Indian forests every year; and our library includes some truly stunning natural history moments. This mating porcupine image blew us all away. Given their armoury, scientists say that sex between porcupines can only be consensual, unlike many species, as males cannot force themselves on to a female!

Goat lifters: Intensive, landscape-scale camera trapping exercises are crucial to the understanding of the distribution and status of wide-ranging species such as wolves and hyaenas. While our surveys have revealed a widespread distribution of both these species, the latter is present in a much lower density than once believed. Wolves, on the other hand, were encountered more frequently than indicated by anecdotal information. As the images reveal, their dependence on livestock and the associated myths lend themselves to persecution of these enigmatic carnivores, whose dens are often destroyed across their range by pastoralists.

Jostling chausinghas: The four-horned antelope, popularly called the chausingha, is one of the least-understood bovids of India. Solitary in nature, they have adapted to living along forest fringes. This is probably why both researchers and tourists have largely ignored this incredible animal, which happens to be the only wild four-horned mammal in the world. A predominantly ‘forest-and-large-mammal-centric’ Protected Area approach has been counter-productive to chausingha conservation and most of our information now comes from camera traps.

Hare acrobat: In all probability, these rufous hares were startled by the flash of the camera trap. India’s forests are reeling under assault of bush-meat hunting and hare, junglefowl and barking deer are among the most frequently slaughtered animals. A year on year comparison of the frequency-occurrence of such species (in camera traps) can help estimate the prevalence of hunting in a forest. Camera trap data, if correctly interpreted, offers us a treasure trove of conservation information.

Camera Trapping

When one talks about estimating wild animal densities or identifying individual animals from a population of a species that has body patterns unique to each individual (for example tiger, leopard, hyaena, snow leopard, clouded leopard, other striped or spotted small cats), the technique that comes to mind is camera trapping. Apart from being more reliable than other methods, its added advantage is that it can be implemented across vast landscapes once the forest staff is adequately trained. In fact, in the last All India Tiger Estimation exercise carried out by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2014, an astonishingly vast forest area of over 3,50,000 sq. km. spread across 18 states of India was surveyed.

Camera traps are nothing but cameras mounted on posts such as tree trunks or wooden boles approximately 3.5 - 4 m. on both sides of a potential animal trail, with an infrared beam (invisible to animals) set at a height of about 45 cm. Animals such as tigers, leopards and hyaenas repeatedly travel along certain trails, communicating with other individuals of their species through scent markings. Camera traps are placed on such routes to maximise photo-capture of the target species. Camera trap points are selected based on the presence of signs such as scats, scrapes, tracks, claw markings and scent deposits. When an animal cuts the infrared beam, the circuitry triggers the camera and a picture is taken. A set of two cameras, one on each side of the trail, helps in identifying unique individuals as the pattern on both sides of the body varies. Date, time and location of each photographic capture are noted. Animals are identified from photographs by comparing stripe or spot patterns. Shapes, specific individual stripes and the positions of several such stripes on different individuals are compared to unambiguously identify individuals.

Camera trapping exercises almost always provide extremely important information about the presence and ecological role of other lesser-known, elusive species such as pangolin, civet, wolf, fox, ratel, mouse deer, marten, porcupine and nocturnal birds. Additionally, vital information on disturbances caused by human activities such as hunting of wildlife, collection of firewood, and livestock grazing is also captured. The forest department with the help of this information has made several arrests.

Dr. Anish Andheria, a conservation biologist, naturalist and wildlife photographer, is the President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, a not for profit working in and around 140 national parks and sanctuaries in 23 Indian states to safeguard natural ecosystems by strengthening the protection mechanism of forests and building capacity in local communities.

Author: Dr. Anish Andheria, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018.