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New camera trap images peer into hidden world of the Annamites

On its face a camera trap is a simple device: a camera, connected to a sensor, that takes a picture when the sensor detects movement. But this simple creation has revolutionized wildlife surveys, and nowhere more so than in tropical rainforests, where animals are often rare, difficult to observe and elusive. These “eyes in the forest” have given us an unprecedented and intimate glimpse into the hidden worlds of the tropics. And among rainforests, none is more unexplored, more mysterious, more full of surprises than the dense jungles of the Annamite mountain chain straddling the border of Vietnam and Lao PDR.

Setting up camera traps in the forests. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Tilker)

The forests of the Annamites have one of the highest rates of endemism found anywhere on a continental setting. This is most strikingly displayed in the mammal community. Endemic mammals include: the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a primitive type of wild cattle and one of the rarest mammals on Earth; the Annamite Dark Muntjac (Muntiacus rooseveltorum/truongsonensis), a species complex composed of almost-black diminutive deer; the Annamite Striped Rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), a tiger-looking lagomorph only described by science in the year 2000; and the Owston’s Civet (Chrotogale owstoni), a small carnivore that is streaked in black stripes and spots against a pale buff background. Unfortunately, all of these species are highly threatened by habitat loss and indiscriminant hunting. We are in a race against time to protect these species—and that makes gathering data on them all the more imperative. All of this makes the Annamites one of the most critical areas in the world to camera trap.

But camera traps can do more than simply provide presence/absence data. They also give us striking visual images of seldom-seen animals, and in this way are valuable tools for awareness raising and education. A visual image can be important in establishing a connection between the general public and an endangered species that lives in a foreign country and thousands of miles away. With this goal in mind, I set about building my own camera traps last year, in an attempt to get higher-quality photographs than are currently available using commercial camera trap units. The cameras that I build use point-and-shoot cameras attached to a sensor and are housed in a waterproof container. (The latter is especially important since the forests where I work often experience annual rainfall in excess of 20 feet.) This was a side-project of mine—not directly related to my Ph.D. work in any way, but something of a personal challenge. I wanted to get superior photographs of the rare and elusive animals that live in this lost world. Last fall I set three of these custom-made cameras deep in forests of southeastern Laos. One of my colleagues set an additional camera trap in a different area, on the border with Vietnam.

The results have just come in. And they didn’t disappoint:

Camera Trap Set 1: Outside protected area, montane forest, approximately 2,000 meters elevation, set on a mountaintop alongside a small stream.

One of two species of ferret badger in the Annamites.

Pair of Annamite Dark Muntjac walks through the background.

Cropped photo showing male and female Annamite Dark Muntjac pair.

Crested Serpent Eagle.

Annamite Dark Muntjac close-up. Note the orange crown and small antlers that is typical of this group.

Another Annamite Dark Muntjac.

Masked Palm Civet.

One of two species of ferret badger in the Annamites.

Camera Trap Set 2: Inside protected area, lowland forest, set in open area near water source.

Annamite Striped Rabbit close-up. Note the black-brown stripe along the flank.

Annamite Striped Rabbit caught in mid-hop.

Set 3: Outside protected area, broadleaf forest, approximately 1,500 meters elevation, set near animal trail.

Wild Pig family.

Wild Pig family.

Wild Pig family.

Annamite Dark Muntjac.

Cropped photo showing the Annamite Dark Muntjac’s distinctive orange crown.

Camera Trap Set 4: Outside protected area, pine forest, approximately 1,800 meters elevation, set along narrow ridge.

Masked Palm Civet.

Masked Palm Civet.

Yellow-throated Marten.

Unidentified rodent species (Rodentia).

Spotted Linsang. This small carnivore is common but is rarely camera trapped, perhaps because it is so arboreal. This individual almost slipped out of frame.

Owston’s Civet. This species was recently listed as Endangered under the IUCN Red List and is becoming increasingly rare.

Read more about Tilker’s work and adventures on Saola Blog: https://saolablog.wordpress.com/

About the Author

Andrew Tilker

Andrew Tilker

Andrew Tilker is a GWC associate conservation scientist and a biologist interested in ecology and conservation in tropical ecosystems. Andrew has a bachelor’s degree from Midwestern State University, a Master’s from the University of Texas, and is currently a doctoral student at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.