Camera network could offer snapshot of world wildlife

By David Frey

A grizzly looks into a remote camera set up as part of Parks Canada’s network of cameras. ©Parks Canada

A group of biologists is calling for a network of remote cameras to share images of animal behavior around the world.

Sixteen authors published a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment calling for an expansion of remote cameras ­­— or camera traps — and a standardized system to share data from them.

“There is a pressing need for increased coordination of remote-camera surveys to effectively monitor global biodiversity,” they wrote.

The paper stemmed from a workshop at a 2014 meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in Missoula, Mont., said TWS member Robin Steenweg, the lead author of the paper. The workshop brought together biologists who were working on networks of remote cameras to discuss their experiences.

Those networks included Parks Canada, which deploys hundreds of remote cameras throughout its nine national parks; the Smithsonian’s eMammal project, which shares camera trap data from scientists and citizen scientists at sites around the world and Tropical Ecology and Monitoring Network, which gathers data from monitoring sites in 16 tropical forests in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“There are tens of thousands of cameras — probably hundreds of thousands — that are already collecting data,” Steenweg said. “We just need to bring that data together.”

Steenweg, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Montana who now works as a species at risk biologist for Alberta Environment and Parks, imagines a system similar to weather stations that could coordinate information gathered by scientists and citizen scientists around the world to paint a picture of factors that influence wildlife and biodiversity at a larger, global scale.

“A lot of the drivers of biodiversity loss — climate change, but also habitat destruction and fragmentation — are common across ecosystems,” Steenweg said. “We want to match the scales of data collection and analysis with the scales of the drivers of biodiversity loss.”

Remote cameras are effective, Steenweg said, because they’re inexpensive, they can monitor wildlife without interrupting their behavior, and they often capture multiple and often under-studied species.

“In Parks Canada, we’ve been putting up cameras to monitor grizzly bears,” he said, “but we’ve gotten amazing photos of, for example, wolverines.”

Steenweg and his co-authors urged this network to help countries that signed on to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2011-2020 strategic plan monitor global biodiversity trends.

“We envision a global network of remote cameras that not only provides real-time biodiversity data but also serves to connect people with nature,” they wrote.

The expansion of remote cameras in wild areas has raised privacy concerns, Steenweg said. Parks Canada has addressed it by placing information signs at all trailhead and having a policy to immediately delete all images of humans.

“I understand the change in perspective of how ‘wilderness-y’ a place is if there’s a camera up,” he said, “That’s why we take these privacy concerns seriously because we don’t want to lose access to this important tool for monitoring, and for collecting wildlife images that really resonate with people”

David Frey is an editor at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at dfrey@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article. Read more of David's articles here.

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