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Caught on camera – the rainforest’s endangered animals

A spectacled bear, caught on camera in the Ecuadorean rainforest

Rarely seen and endangered mammals such as the spectacled bear and jungle big cats have been captured for the world to view – on camera, that is – thanks to an innovative project involving the University of Sussex and internet giants Google.

The animals under scrutiny live in the north-west Ecuadorean rainforest in South America – a diversity hotspot with the largest number of mammals per area than anywhere else on earth, but which is under threat from logging and the effects of climate change.

To monitor these animals and to build a picture of the rainforest’s general health, Dr Peck and his fellow conservationists are using motion-sensitive digital camera traps that film endangered species in difficult-to-access habitats.

The cameras contain infrared sensors triggered by movement and any passing animal is captured on film, either in a photograph or video footage. Local reserve staff then collect the digital memory cards from the cameras. Individual animals are identified on the images and estimates made of the remaining population numbers.

The information is sent to an online database managed by Computing and Electronic Services Manager Brian Warburton at the University of Sussex via the internet, using a solar-powered laptop and a mobile broadband internet connection in the reserve lodge. With help from Google Maps, the public will then be able to view the images and keep track of species via a web site.

University of Sussex biologist Dr Mika Peck has been working on conservation projects in Santa Lucia Cloudforest Reserve, supported by grants and volunteers from conservation groups Earthwatch and Rainforest Concern Ecuador for several years.

Dr Peck says: “The link to Google allows us to place all our collected information into a map format, making it easy for the locals to upload the images and for the public to move around a map, via the Rainforest Concern web site, to see where the cameras are and which animals have passed by the camera traps that week. It allows us to spy on this remote rainforest from the comfort of our homes. We might even get to see something completely unexpected.”

He adds: “The long term storage of this type of information means we can follow what happens to these species as we try to engage in their conservation.”

Dr Peck has been helping to establish protected areas within the rainforest and to create alternative sustainable livelihoods to hunting and logging for the local population, such as small-scale ecotourism.

Through this latest camera project, tourists could soon be trekking into the jungle with local workers to collect memory cards from the camera traps, providing income from tourism and jobs for the local population. Dr Peck says: “We hope the project will run for at least 10 years and that it will start to pay for itself as people visit the reserve to help with the data collection as part of as ‘scientific eco-holiday’.”

Conservation is a key issue because the biologically diverse forests are under immense pressure from commercial logging and suffer some of the highest logging rates in South America.

Dr Peck says: “There is an urgent need to assess the status of endangered species in protected forests to see whether the current network of protected forests is successful in conserving biodiversity, particularly the larger mammal species that need particular types of habitat and larger areas to roam in, just to survive.”

He added: “The images already collected in a trial run in 2008 inspired wonder and surprise even among locals, as these large mammals are rarely seen by even them in the dense forest.”


Notes for Editors

Rainforest Concern is now hosting the latest camera trap images on an interactive map.

 

Dr Mika Peck is part of the Climate Change, Canopies and Wildlife project supported by International environmental charity Earthwatch through funding and volunteers who enlist with Earthwatch eco-treks. 

Rainforest Concern is an environmental NGO formed to protect threatened natural habitats, the biodiversity they contain and the indigenous people who still depend on them for their survival. It currently operates in 19 countries, including Ecuador.

For images, interviews etc, contact University of Sussex Press office

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Last updated: Wednesday, 8 July 2009

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