Lisa Mullins talks with Jorge Ahumada of Conservation International. They’ve used hidden cameras to collect 52,000 images of mammals in the wild from Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Laos, Suriname, Tanzania and Uganda.
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Lisa Mullins: Here’s an achievement that’s going to impress you if you’ve got a zillion photographs you still haven’t sorted through. The group, Conservation International has installed cameras in tropical areas in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. The cameras shoot pictures 24/7 for a study of mammals. Now, here’s what’s impressive: Conservation International has organized all 52,000 of these images and it’s released a study based on what the pictures reveal. Jorge Ahumada is with the Tropical Ecology and Monitoring Network of Conservation International. First off, what is a camera trap study?
Jorge Ahumada: We use cameras to capture animals doing what they’re doing. So the camera works with a heat sensor and so whenever there’s a change in the heat signature in front of it, you know, if a warm body walks in front of it, then it will trigger a number of images. And that’s how we get these animals.
Mullins: And there were a lot of warm bodies that walked in front of your cameras. Tell us about some of the more interesting or maybe more revelatory images that you found.
Ahumada: Well, there’s several of them. I mean one of the ones that hit me most was some of the pictures from gorillas in Uganda. You can capture pretty intense moments of the mom staring at the camera with the baby on the lap and they look like they’re going about their day. We also captured some very rare species. In Costa Rica we photographed the mountain tapir which is a very difficult species to see in the wild. You can spend all of your life looking for it and never see it.
Mullins: And what does the tapir look like?
Ahumada: A tapir looks like a cow, but it has like an extended nose, pretty much like an elephant, but very short.
Mullins: And this as I remember was one of the more — maybe you wouldn’t use the term ugly — but scary animals that you found?
Ahumada: Some of these animals look like characters pulled out of Star Wars movie. Some of them have long noses because they’re adapted to eating ants. Some of them have big fangs like all of the cats, you know, those are pretty common as well.
Mullins: There was one image and maybe you can remind me of what the animals were, it was like a family. Looked like mom, dad and a couple of babies and they were staring right at the camera. I don’t know if they could see it or not.
Ahumada: Yeah, these were pictures from Suriname of a family of peckeries. Peckeries travel throughout the forest, huge groups, and they probably stumbled across a camera and were interested in look at it probably by the smell. So, a peckery looks like a pig, you know, very much like a wild pig or a wild boar. And you could see all the different sizes there…a couple of adults in the foreground and a couple of little ones there too in the background.
Mullins: And had you ever seen anything like that before?
Ahumada: Peckeries are pretty common, but other animals like the big cats, the giant anteater, the tapirs are very difficult to see.
Mullins: So when you saw for instance, the tapir, what was your reaction?
Ahumada: In the pictures?
Ahumada: Yeah, I was completely blown away. I mean you never see a tapir like this ever. The best you get when you’re walking around the forest is you hear a huge amount of noise of a tapir running away. You might be able to get a glimpse of the rear part of the animal, the tail sometimes, but that’s it. So seeing these tapirs look into the camera, investigate, passing by, you know, going by with their babies, it is incredible.
Mullins: So you’re seeing this images, what information do you gleam from them? I mean what’s the value other than the awe effect and really, these are amazing images.
Ahumada: These images for us are also data, so they contain a lot of information about what species are in the sites, how abundant they are, what are they eating and what is their behavior. So we used these images as tools to extract information about how these communities and mammals are doing throughout the world. And the main message we got from combining all this information is that basically, no matter where you are in the world, humans have a huge impact over these mammal communities. And you know, this data are really important not only because you know, we want to protect these animals, but ultimately because we want to protect people. And you know, if these animals decline and disappear from these forests there will be a lot of other consequences for these forests, for the water they produce, for the carbon dioxide that these forests regulate, so ultimately this will have an impact on the local populations and the human well-being people that live around there.
Mullins: Is there one photo that taught you the most?
Ahumada: There’s one picture of a jaguar and I found that picture so artistic. It looked like a painting. The animal is walking towards the camera. The forest and the background of the forest mingle exactly with the animal, you can hardly see it. It looked to me like these animals just kind of coming out of the beautiful forest and showing us his or her face, I don’t know if it was a male or female. That image really impressed me as you know, as an artistic value.
Mullins: Is that the one you have on canvas hanging in your living room?
Ahumada: I will do that probably. Not right now, but…
Mullins: You have a choice of 52,000 images so…
Mullins: That’s a lot of sorting through to do. Well, we wish you good luck on the project. Dr. Jorge Ahumada is an ecologist with Conservation International. We’re going to put some of the images of the 52,000 that you’ve collected from 420 cameras at theworld.org. Thanks, Dr. Ahumada.
Ahumada: Thank you, Lisa.
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