My journey with camera trapping

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After 5,000 nights of camera traps, we now know the gems that inhabit the forest reserves of northeast Bangladesh

July 13, 2022, 10:00 a.m.

Last modification: July 13, 2022, 09:58

It was 2018 when I first planned and carried out a camera-trapping investigation on my own. Camera traps, a special type of camera that can detect motion and heat, and activate based on changes in its environment, have revolutionized the study of wildlife.

We can deploy camera traps on forest trails and we can set them high on a canopy. With camera traps, we can delve into the secret lives of tigers and leopards, count serows and mountain goats clinging to cliffs, discover animals such as the saola that nobody imagines, and choose tracks of notorious, gun-wielding poachers.

Camera traps allow us to know the most accurate number of Sundarbans tigers. This weatherproof, rugged, and expandable technological marvel is a game-changer when it comes to conservation. It was no wonder that I, being a graduate in zoology, was drawn to camera traps – kind of like a moth to a flame.
However, I had no prior training. My graduate courses had nothing on camera traps. Until 2018, my experience with trail cameras was limited to touching some old models used by senior colleagues.

To overcome this inconvenience, I borrowed 10 camera traps from a conservation NGO. To gain hands-on experience, I chose my supervisor’s workstation.

Camera-trapping. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

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Camera-trapping. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

I programmed a unit and used cookies as bait. The rats sharing the room did not disappoint me. So, you could say that it was the way of the rats that I had followed, harassing but persevering.

I then looked for a forest that would be logistically feasible to conduct a survey and potentially host endangered mammals. Forest reserves in northeast Bangladesh looked like ideal study sites.

I got a few small grants from the university which ensured support throughout the winter of 2018. However, expert opinions walled in another hurdle. “You don’t even find barking deer in these reserves,” smiled a Sundarbans tiger expert at my view. “It would be a waste of time,” I was told.

The mixed evergreen answered my challenges. The little survey in a 2.5 square kilometer national park in northeast Bangladesh was incredibly rewarding.

Lasting almost 600 nights of camera traps, the survey revealed 17 different mammals, including 10 carnivores. The study showed that the Asian wild dog – a globally endangered apex predator with a wild population of just 2,215 known mature individuals – frequently uses the landscape.

The discovery was a milestone, a boost to the outlook that traditionally despises the Habiganj and Moulvibazar forest reserves – a change in this precarious situation seemed imminent and appropriate.

But why do these forest reserves, which singularly barely reach the 100 square kilometer mark, need our help? Are they worth keeping?

The geo-topographical features of Habiganj and Moulvibazar will amaze everyone. The forest reserves of these two districts share porous borders with Tripura and southern Assam, India.

These habitats are the northern fringes of the hills of Tripura and are known for 127 different land mammals. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bangladesh has almost half of the total carnivore diversity of the Indian subcontinent.

All these 27 species would live in these reserves. In the 1990s there were even recordings of tigers. Close to human settlements, these reserves are easy to manage and ideal candidates for our hill forest biodiversity conservation plans.

So, are there investments in conservation and research in these forest reserves? To date, the answer stands at zero.

The forests of Bangladesh are full of surprises. The situation of carnivores in this difficult, fragmented landscape, totaling only 500 square kilometers, is an enigma for biologists.

The serow, an ancient hoofed mammal, still exists in Moulvibazar. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

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The serow, an ancient hoofed mammal, still exists in Moulvibazar.  Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

The serow, an ancient hoofed mammal, still exists in Moulvibazar. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

After the reappearance of the Indian gray wolf in Bangladesh after 70 years, which I investigated in 2019, this question took a paradoxical turn.

While the country’s carnivores seem to appear frequently in stories told between colleagues, they remain more elusive in the wild – difficult to understand and never studied.

In this regard, Bangladesh holds records of which it cannot be proud. It is the only country in the bear, clouded leopard and leopard range that has the least amount of research done on these animals which are no less magnificent than tigers.

The wildlife of eastern Bangladesh is hammered. Retaliatory killings, deforestation and “patch effects” – where habitats are fragmented into isolated areas, or “patches” that limit the dispersal of species

foraging and/or breeding, the list is endless.

Despite this, much of the wildlife seems to survive in these reserves with incredible resilience. For example, this year, colleagues of mine discovered a new species of frog in a forest in Moulvibazar. I wonder what else resides there? What lives in the streams of these riparian semi-evergreens?

My work eventually led to a Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Program (CLP). The timing of this support was opportune.

In August 2020, I received feedback on a manuscript reviewing research on carnivorous mammals from Bangladesh. A reviewer from Bangladesh who knows me and my mission well, had forwarded the manuscript to one of his students to do the review for him, received an unexpected blow when he observed: “The Rare carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied in large-scale landscape-scale projects.”

I don’t want to go into research ethics, but it’s true that at the time, comments like that instilled in me an impostor syndrome.

A photographic trap is installed. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

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A photographic trap is installed.  Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

A photographic trap is installed. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

The leadership program kept my spirits up. The support of my peers gave me the confidence to successfully defend the manuscript.

The book is now published and I am continuing my research in three of the six forest reserves in northeast Bangladesh. While conducting systematic investigations with camera traps here, I try to shine a light on lesser-known carnivores using unique approaches.

It’s been four years since I started camera trapping. The survey effort represents 5,000 camera trap nights, making it one of the longest, if not the longest, camera trapping surveys conducted in eastern Bangladesh.

Now we know the gems that inhabit the forest reserves of northeast Bangladesh. We know that small-clawed otters live in every mixed evergreen forest reserve in the Sylhet division.

The otter population was previously unknown to the world. Before this discovery, we only considered the Sundarbans, a forest located more than 1,000 km from Sylhet, for these otters.

We also know that the northeast forest is home to golden cats, a medium-sized feline that can take on six different coat patterns; that serows, an ancient hoofed mammal, still climb its hidden cliffs; that unique and strange mammals like hog badgers and ferret badgers still roam its waterways; that bears still like to nibble on the berries and beehives that grow there; and that leopards and clouded leopards could visit our camera traps any day of the survey.

All of the finds turned out to be the first finds for these forests. It’s 2022. What else surprises us? When do we start conservation work? Is there enough time?

Eastern Bangladesh occupies a crucial position. In Tripura, it has been decades since the last mammal survey was carried out. Along with the forests of Tripura, eastern Bangladesh belongs to ecologically uncharted territory in terms of carnivore research.

As we almost proverbially deem ‘unworthy’, unscientific and harmful development programs like the zoo-style recreational safari park, large-scale bamboo harvesting practices, etc. made of breaking threads annihilate any creature.

Camera traps can detect illegal hunters. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

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Camera traps can detect illegal hunters.  Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

Camera traps can detect illegal hunters. Photo: North East Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

My ultimate goal is to give these unexplored forest reserves in the northeast the conservation attention they deserve. In the years to come, I dream of a community of carnivorous conservationists emerging from Bangladesh.

For now, I’m happily coordinating a hands-on camera trapping session recently included in the program. I hope all wildlife species will be treated with equal importance and I want more internationally recognized protected areas in eastern Bangladesh because currently only 9.2% of the 5,500 square kilometers has such protection.

I hope that every winter a horde of researchers will rush to do camera trapping in different forests. We are doing our best to save the last 200 white-rumped vultures in Bangladesh.

Can’t we be committed enough to save the last 30 to 50 bears or serows or 200 otters in eastern Bangladesh?

Finally, tell me, who wants a forest filled only with tigers? Will conserving tigers ensure our overall goal of saving wildlife? If we don’t learn to love other iconic wild animals in the same way, can we love tigers properly? The beauty, indeed, lies in the diversity of these fantastical beasts.

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