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Candid cameras in the jungle show parks are protecting animals

January 22, 2016
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A giant anteater trots through a forest in Ecuador with his long nose in the air. The glowing eyes of a golden cat look like bright light bulbs as it prowls around at night in a Ugandan jungle. And a jaguar with a beautiful spotted coat carries a critter it caught under a lush green canopy in Brazil.

A giant anteater in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador. (Courtesy of TEAM Network and Missouri Botanical Garden)

A giant anteater in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.
(Courtesy of TEAM Network and Missouri Botanical Garden)

These were just a few of the elusive animals photographed by 1,000 “camera traps” placed in protected tropical forest areas in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The nearly 2.5 million pictures taken over eight years were part of a study that found that biodiversity in the forests may be faring better than previously thought. The parks appear to be protecting the animals.

“We now have a global perspective of what’s going on in these ecosystems,” said Lydia Beaudrot, a University of Michigan ecologist and conservation biologist who was the lead author of a new paper about the study in the scientific journal PLOS Biology.

The researchers monitored 244 species of ground-dwelling mammals and birds—including elephants, chimpanzees, leopards and piglike creatures called peccaries. They found that 17 percent of the animals increased in number while 22 percent remained constant and 22 percent decreased.

“Our results suggest that tropical forest-protected areas are supporting stable communities of ground-dwelling mammals and birds, which is good news for conservation,” Beaudrot said. “This is a surprising result because previous studies based on expert opinion have suggested that many tropical forest protected areas are failing.”

The cameras were attached to trees about one meter off the ground and spaced over large areas. When animals walked by, they triggered the camera and a picture was taken. Many of the creatures seem to be curiously staring straight into the lens.

“It’s kind of like candid camera in a tropical forest,” said Beaudrot, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows.

Half of the parks were in Central and South America, while a quarter were in Africa and the rest were in Southeast Asia.

The study’s data were gathered by researchers with the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM), a coalition established in 2007 that includes Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A co-author of the study was Jorge Ahumada, executive director for the TEAM Network.

“At a time when environmental concerns are taking center stage, these results show that protected areas play an important role in maintaining biodiversity,” Ahumada said. “Our study reflects a more optimistic outlook about the effectiveness of protected areas.

“For the first time, we are not relying on disparate data sources, but rather using primary data collected in a standardized way across a range of protected areas throughout the world. With this data, we have created a public resource that can be used by governments or others in the conservation community to inform decisions.”   

The researchers caution that wildlife losses could still be occurring in the protected areas that were studied. They observed declines in numerous populations, and many other populations were not captured enough on camera to make an informative assessment.

This research does not speak for unprotected tropical forest areas, which may have higher rates of species decline due to differences in management and may be threatened by increased pressure from humans.

The data from the study are already being used to inform management of the protected areas TEAM monitors. In Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, TEAM identified a decline in the area occupied by the African golden cat, recognized as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Park managers noticed that these locations were heavily trafficked by eco-tourists and redirected travelers to alternate trails. Since these management actions went into effect, there has been an increase in sightings of the African golden cat.

“It is very important for achieving global conservation targets that we continue to monitor these protected areas,” Beaudrot said.

PLOS Biology study

TEAM project

Lydia Beaudrot

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