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1 July 2020

Curiosity Saved the Wildcat

Camera traps technology continues to provide useful conservation insights into the behaviour and dispersal of one of Europe’s endangered species, the European Wildcat.

By Josephine Bellman

GATHERING DATA ON EUROPE’S ENDANGERED species can be difficult. As we discussed in No Ordinary Cat, the European wildcat is particularly hard to spot because of its nocturnal nature and dwindling populations. So, how can conservation groups gather data and monitor these wild animals? Camera traps, a method by which a camera with infrared sensors is placed in the field, can remotely capture time-lapsed images and video whenever the devices detect motion, thus providing an increasingly popular and adequate solution. 

Just recently, researchers in the Balaton Uplands National Park set up camera traps in the Kerkamente and Vétympuszta Natura 2000 areas in hopes of spotting the elusive wildcat. And, success! Within the first two weeks of having started to gather data, a camera in one of the areas took several photos of this predator. These cameras, used alongside special lure traps with odours attractive for the wildcats, represent 21st-century technology to capture nature’s only ‘selfies,’ aiming to help animals gain more than just a little ‘online-exposure.’ 

Through camera traps, Balaton Uplands National Park’s researchers are looking to learn more about the wildcat. The ConnectGREEN project, with its over a dozen installed camera traps, aims to define the eco-corridors of the brown bear, grey wolf and Eurasian lynx.

From Film to Digital: The History of Camera Trap Technology

The non-intrusive nature of camera traps means they can capture animals who tend to avoid humans. Nevertheless, camera traps haven’t always been the state-of-the-art equipment they are today. In fact, in the 1980s, wildlife biologists initially used devices made up of two small battery-operated units and a transmitter — about the size of a brick — that sent out a thin beam of invisible light. This invisible light was then captured by a receiver of comparable size. Anything that broke the beam of light would be captured as an ‘event,’ allowing estimates of the distribution and abundance of large species in the wild.

By the mid-1990s, someone had the bright idea to attach a modified standard pocket camera so that a photograph was taken every time an ‘event’ occurred — the first model of camera traps as we know them today. 

Traditionally, the cameras used film so the process to discover whether the camera had captured anything was time-consuming and expensive. Now, digital photography allows us to see the images instantaneously. Moreover, beams of light are no longer needed; we use motion detectors! Not only that but, over time, camera traps have become increasingly less expensive. 

To maximize battery life of the camera traps, conservationists often set longer delays between photographs or integrate large 12-volt batteries or solar panels. Photo credit: SKas (license)

A Picture is Worth More than a Thousand Words

Camera trap surveys have been effectively used to quantify species diversity, relative abundance, and population parameters, demonstrate site occupancy of rare or cryptic species and describe species replacement processes. They have also been used in behavioural studies.

Still, conservation biologists are becoming more creative with the data gained from camera traps. For example, in the Balaton Uplands National Still, conservation biologists are becoming more creative with the data gained from camera traps. The researchers who recently spotted a wildcat in the Balaton Uplands National Park hope that when a wildcat rubs itself against the trap, a sample of the animal’s hair will be caught. Through genetic tests, they hope to determine whether a wildcat has indeed visited the area, as the distinction between wildcat and domestic cat is not always clear.

Additionally, technology has just been developed to measure an animal’s breathing and heart rates, based on data from high-resolution digital video cameras, a telephoto lens and a signal processing programme in the computing software MATLAB. Although the technology has only been tested successfully for 10 species in captivity, it provides another interesting use for camera traps: testing vitals.

Taking It to the Big Screen 

An oversimplified truth: whenever science can reach the wider public, that is when it has accomplished its full potential. Needless to say, camera traps have achieved so, having been used recently in wildlife documentaries, which allow conservation biology to reach larger audiences and raise much-needed awareness. David Attenborough’s ‘Our Planet’ used camera traps to capture high-definition images of large carnivores in the remotest locations in the world. For instance, snow leopards in Siberia.

These documentaries can be used to create widespread awareness of the species’ status: since photography has been found to increase emotional connection to animals and raise environmental concern, any curious cat — or any given animal — approaching these camera traps can actually help save its life — and its species — by appealing to a wider audience. 

Thus, camera traps can help ‘save’ wildcats in more ways than one: tracking their distribution and abundance, providing data to conservation biologists, and raising awareness to larger audiences. ConnectGREEN’s monitoring system set up across the Danube-Carpathian region does just that. It utilises nature’s selfies to document the progress of large carnivores, identifying their natural corridors and the animals’ behaviour — which helps other conservationists work around the animals to protect the region’s biodiversity. 

Camera traps in the ConnectGREEN project not only serve to capture large carnivores — namely, brown bear, grey wolf and Eurasian lynx —  but several other wildlife species, such as deer, wild boars, etc.