Animal Surveillance

"The remote imaging program is expected to help conservation managers gain efficiencies, solve problems and get more bang for the buck."

Mark White 
Director of Maui Programs

By Jan TenBruggencate

A wary axis deer stops along a forest fence, unaware that he is being watched.

But his every move is being digitally recorded, wirelessly transmitted and appearing in near real time on a game manager’s smart phone.

New imaging technology is giving conservation crews unparalleled tools to remotely track the behavior of feral animals — in the above case, at the western boundary of The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve on Maui.

And the power of this imaging technology is growing.

Just 10 years ago, it was 35 mm film cameras in old ammunition boxes. Today, images are collected on digital, motion-and-heat activated cameras that transmit immediately on cell phone networks. And tomorrow, they may be able to pan across the landscape, following game animals as they move, to gain important new insights the into feral animal behavior that is so destructive to native ecosystems.

“Everybody’s excited about this,” said Francis Quitazol, the Conservancy’s Maui natural resource manager and remote monitoring expert.

“I like to call them ‘real time’ game cameras,” said Mark White, The Nature Conservancy’s Maui program manager. “The real-time capacity is very useful. Basically, we just set up an account with the phone company. It’s fairly inexpensive.”

Adapting an Existing Technology

Much of the technology being used to digitally monitor animal activity is adapted from the hunting market.

“We’ve been using trail cameras since 2001 or 2002. The motion sensing technology was primitive, and you ended up with a lot of shots of moving bushes. Now, it is much more efficient, and provides far more data,” said Quitazol.

“The camera automatically records pertinent information such as date and temperature, and stamps that information on the images. Then those images are sent immediately to your smart phone, either in an email or via a text message," added Maui Field Representative Alison Cohan.

The cameras are weatherproof, with long-life batteries. “You can go three months on low activity, and a month if it’s taking 100 images a day,” Quitazol said. At remote sites, solar panels recharge batteries so personnel can leave the cameras unattended for extended periods.

“We can put them up along ungulate trails or along fencelines. Animals tend to focus along fencelines. You have ‘eyes’ out there giving you information,” White said.

Eyes in the Forest

The camera systems are already providing valuable data. For example, it has been common wisdom that deer can readily jump a six to eight-foot fence, but the camera work shows that’s not really common.

“Everybody talks about what deer can do. We’re finding that they’ll try to go through an opening long before they’ll try to jump,” White said. That can translate into significant savings in material costs as the Conservancy plans to retrofit pig fences to keep out deer.

In the Alaka‘i Swamp on Kaua‘i, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i Director of Forest Conservation, Trae Menard, said managers want to understand the feral pig activity that threatens native ecosystems — how many there are, when they show up, how they behave.

“It’s an amazing technology. We can sometimes actually identify individual pigs. We can tell whether our traps have caught the pigs we’re seeing on the cameras, or whether they’re still out there,” Menard said.

And there are surprises that show up on cameras: “We never knew we had blacktail deer in the Alaka‘i. Now we have confirmed that we have deer in our (fenced) unit. There are a lot of questions we can answer with these systems,” Menard said.

The remote imaging program is expected to help conservation agencies gain efficiencies, solve problems and get more bang for the buck, White said.

“We’re trying to invest more into technology that brings the costs of resource management down.”