When it comes to exploring our natural world, I’ve found that cameras give us clues in the sea … and on land. Forget the humble birdfeeder – remote camera traps can give a new perspective on urban wildlife.
The teaspoon on the counter clatters into the sink, its metallic twang startling me into wakefulness. ‘Shhh!’ Steve, fellow wildlife-enthusiast, hisses excitedly. ‘She’s here …’ With painstaking caution, I unfold my limbs from my comfortable waiting post on the couch and leopard-crawl along the floor to the glass sliding door. This home-made alert system is Steve’s invention: a teaspoon connected to a cotton thread that snakes its way out to a well-used path in the garden. Predictably, the subject of our quest is tempted outdoors by the dimming daylight and fragrant lure of a well-tended (and up to now, fiercely guarded) vegetable patch. Some grunting, mixed with the unmistakable rattle of a suit of quilled armour, betrays its presence. It’s a Cape porcupine, rooting around in the garden not two metres from where we lie with our noses pressed against the front-door glass.
Remote camera technology is becoming increasingly affordable, and is suitable for use by anyone who dreams of becoming a low-tech David Attenborough. A camera trap erected at the entrance of the burrow for a few days gave us some idea of our quilled neighbour’s comings and goings. The advantage? The camera operates by sensing motion and can be set to capture still images or video. It’s quiet, non-invasive and low-impact – and, unlike even the most zealous zoologist, it doesn’t fidget or get tired. Its only limits are battery life and storage capacity, so joint-stiffening stake-outs and weary hours of binocular-gazing are a thing of the past.The curiosity of two off-duty zoologists is easily piqued by any hint of an animal encounter, particularly if it’s in our own backyards. So after Steve discovered a suspiciously porcupine-sized burrow at the bottom of his garden, we decided a serious stake-out was in order. The question was, how would we know when to look out for this creature – and certainly, how would we get evidence that it had moved into our ’hood?
Call me a bit voyeuristic, but there’s something to be said for the excitement of trawling through the images captured on camera the night before. An olive-breasted thrush hopping in the underbrush or a curious dog with its wet nose thrust in the camera’s direction – if it moves, the camera will catch it. In Cape Town, where ‘green belts’ form an important habitat for species that persist in an urban environment, these cameras can pick up particularly exciting footage. A grey mongoose slyly picking its way across a stream or a large-spotted genet moving shadow-like through the grass are heartening confirmation that these islands of semi-natural habitat may maintain populations of some adaptable urban wildlife.
Birdfeeders in nearly every garden betray the fact that Steve and I are not the only South Africans who derive pleasure from knowing that there is animal life in our backyards. Cleverly picking up on this concept, Dr Tali Hoffman and a team from the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town are now using the winning combination of eager citizen scientists and camera technology to capture evidence of mammal life across South Africa. The aim? To complete the African Mammal Atlas Project. Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? Absolutely! The value of using an interested public to contribute to data collection is enormous. In an urban context, an awareness of the wild creatures we are still able to find along bike trails, on green belts and in our own gardens is a fantastic step towards putting steps in place to conserve remaining urban wildlife.
So while my day job keeps me busy dropping cameras in the ocean, some creative camera-trap placement along Cape Town’s green belts has introduced me to some shyer neighbours. We’ve even taken to taking the camera with us on some expeditions to more remote wilderness areas, with exciting results (see the curious Cape foxes and a wily black-backed jackal). A three-hour drive to a fenced, protected area is however not the only option for an exciting wildlife encounter. Conservation and exploration, it seems, starts in your own back yard.
The African Mammal Atlas Project uses digital photographs submitted by the public along with accurate geographical coordinates to consolidate records of mammal distribution across the continent in an accessible, digital database.
If you’re interested in citizen science, a keen photographer or naturalist at heart, follow the pioneering work of the African Mammal Atlas Project. Register as an ADU observer on the Mammal Atlas website and keep up with the project on the Facebook page (search ‘MammalMAP’).