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Expedition: Great Bear Rainforest — Day 4

Day 4: Big Brother Great Bear

By Sanjayan

The author and photographer Ian McAllister of the group Pacific Wild is about as rugged as a grizzly bear — not to mention as agile.

On this trip, I've watched him slip through the rainforest at ease, covering ground in a stooped walk that avoids the vicious thorns and snags, negotiating slippery logs like a gymnast. Most impressive of all? He never complains about the rain.

Still, his work is not easy. Ian is most interested in the carnivores of the Great Bear Rainforest — and carnivores by nature live secret lives. It makes sense. If you make your living preying on other animals, being cryptic and stealthy is simply prudent policy.

An 800-pound grizzly bear can melt into a thicket of alders, crab apple and sedge as easily as a mouse can dart into a woodpile. Which makes finding them and studying them an intractable challenge. 

The Old Way to Watch a Bear

Scientists normally deal with this challenge by exposing a few individual animals to long hours of human presence and then by relentlessly following those acclimatized few. This approach is often the most expensive and time-consuming part of any field carnivore research program. 

With enough time, a fragmented picture emerges of key behaviors and population structure that could give you a useful picture of what the conservation challenges are. 

Still, this way is less than ideal. For one, it's expensive and logistically challenging to place human observers in close proximity with secretive wildlife. Second, our presence no doubt alters behavior. 

I have seen cheetah moms stash their cubs underneath the vehicles of field researchers for safety while they are out hunting. They have learned to tolerate humans so much that they now use the interactions for their benefit. Cute, no doubt; but hardly authentic. 

The Answer: Reality Bear TV 

Collaborating with scientists, Ian and his colleagues have devised a way of watching carnivores and studying them without the usual burdens of time, logistics and interference with the subject. 

Inspired by the boom in reality television — and using hardware and software lifted from the surveillance industry — these enterprising engineers are testing the efficacy of a remote video-surveillance system for carnivores.

The components are simple: a video camera, a motorized swivel system, waterproof housing, a power source, and a radio transmitter. 

This combination should enable us to deploy a video camera in the forest for days or weeks at a time and watch a live feed of the “action” from miles away. 

Through remote signals, we should be able to pan and zoom the video camera to follow animals in view. And the animals should be completely oblivious to be watched and studied. 

It is the equivalent of the hit global reality television series "Big Brother"… except for animals.

Of course, a few additions would make the system all the more useful. For example an infra-red setting would allow watching in the dark, and a solar or mini-hydro power source set up on site would provide unlimited power.

Salmon Without Their Heads: A Good Sign 

Simple as the remote solution sounds, it has taken the research team a while to get the system to a point where field trials are now possible. And although Ian had this idea a few years ago, technology wasn’t up to snuff to withstand the rigor of the Great Bear.

Today, however, with support from a private foundation and help from The Nature Conservancy, Ian and his team are deploying several video cameras deep into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest and starting to observe never-before-seen behavior in the forests — of secretive carnivores including coastal wolves who hunt fish for a living, and the resident population of grizzly and black bear.

We are using signs of bear and recent wolf activity and the presence of salmon in streams to guide our search for suitable sites to deploy cameras.

When we find a good inlet that is littered with the bodies of salmon sans heads (a sure sign of wolves as they usually only eat the head — or brains, to be more specific), the research crew goes to work, assembling and setting up the video cameras and radio relay stations.

The unit resembles one of those darkened globes you see in malls and airports and casinos. And at times, dodging bears emerging from the leafy forest is a bit like playing Russian roulette.

But instead of watching people, these units watch the animals — and transmit the footage to an offshore research boat, where the data are recorded and catalogued for later analysis.

As we find sites for the cameras, I wonder if Ian will miss being out in the field. Spending hours in front of a television screen does lack the visceral touch. Even if the whole island becomes wired with cameras, I suspect he'll still sneak off to remote inlets to “poke around.” 

Big Brother Great Bear might be a hit with millions of viewers to Web sites around the world, but it is for the bears and the wolves that we do this — not necessarily for humans. There's no high-tech substitute to getting out into nature. 

Sanjayan

« Day 3: The Big HouseDay 5: Salmon, Bear and a Perfect Ecology »

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