Hunting wild animals – with cameras
Paparazzi naturalists catch nature in the act with strategically placed motion-sensitive cameras.
Santa Cruz Coastal Range, Calif.
Reno Taini and Chris Wemmer wade through banks of fern and wild blackberry on this February morning. A crisscross of shadows, cast by gnarled oaks, sweeps over their gray heads and denim shirts as they move. They follow a faint trail, just the type that might lead to a stash of trashed beer bottles and Twinkie wrappers – but this is no human trail.Skip to next paragraph
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"These are all animal trails," says Mr. Taini, pointing to several tracks that snake across the steep slope. Deer, pigs, and the like have worn these trails – not humans.
Taini and Mr. Wemmer read the trails as they walk, choosing branches to follow. They've come to this wilderness area to trap the animals that travel them – not with snares, but with cameras.
Wemmer has spent his life learning to think like animals, from Tasmanian devils to Burmese brow-antlered deer; he conducted research at the Conservation and Research Center at the National Zoo in Virginia until retiring in 2004. Today he and his friend Taini search for the right spot to mount a camera so that whatever beasts prowl these hills will voluntarily strike a pose for a photo. They'll leave four cameras here for a month; infrared motion sensors will trigger the shutters.
Biologists have used camera traps for decades to estimate populations of rare animals, such as Asiatic cheetahs. And in February researchers reported a new species of elephant shrew discovered by camera trapping in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania.
The technique has also gone mainstream: Hunters mount cameras on trees to scope out the movements of big-racked bucks months before shooting season starts, and hobbyists like Wemmer use them, motivated by a mishmash of animal voyeurism, artistic portraiture, and sport.
Wemmer and Taini pause where the trail dips into a stream. "This is such a busy intersection," says Wemmer. He holds a camera against the slender waist of a young redwood. "If you put [the camera] here, they're going to stop to drink water with their body long-wise."
After mounting the first camera, they wander in search of three other places to put cameras. At one site Taini marks the ground with a scent to lure animals – a dab of catnip oil. At another he deposits a pungent dollop of Mark June's Flattail Frenzy – beaver castor gland extract – from a brown-glass bottle.
"You can make [animals] go where you want them to go," says Wemmer as he pauses on a grassy slope. On his own land, he once placed a camera on the branch of an oak tree pointing inward toward the trunk. "I got pictures of a mountain lion," he says, "climbing, turning around, sniffing, maybe rubbing on the scent, then going back down."
But Wemmer's proudest "catch" was the mountain beaver – not a buck-toothed, granite-gnawing behemoth, as the name might imply, but an obscure rodent whose primitive kidneys compel it to guzzle water. Last year, Wemmer crawled on his hands and knees into a thicket of coyote brush and blackberry at Point Reyes National Seashore here in northern California to find hollowed corridors that the critters use as highways beneath the brush. Only there did his camera capture their nocturnal movements.
Mountain beavers don't range this far south, but as Taini and Wemmer return to the car, they banter about what else their cameras might capture: wild pig, wood rat, coyote – maybe even mountain lion?
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Camera trapping connotes a look-without-touching ethic of exploring the natural world. But a string of blemished rifle shells that sit on a bookshelf in Taini's Woodside, Calif., home reveal a more complicated story.