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Photos reveal that protecting animal habitats is improving biodiversity

January 24, 2016 at 6:18 PM EDT
For nearly a decade, scientists have used motion-triggered cameras to capture animals living in protected areas around the world. Researchers from the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network have sifted through those pictures, which show that efforts to preserve habitats worldwide may be paying off. Lydia Beaudrot joins NewsHour's Stephen Fee to discuss.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: Around the world, there are protected areas for animals in danger.

For nearly a decade, researchers used motion-triggered cameras in Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia to capture millions of photos of animals in some of these protected areas. Those researchers from the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network have sifted through all those pictures, and they seem to show that efforts to preserve habitats worldwide may be paying off.

The lead author of that study, Lydia Beaudrot, spoke to the “NewsHour”‘s Stephen Fee.

STEPHEN FEE: Lydia, tell me a little bit about what you expected from this study and what you actually discovered.

LYDIA BEAUDROT, Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network: Well, we know that, globally, there are massive declines in biodiversity. And extinction rates are about 1,000 times what they would be right now if there weren’t human activity.

And so we were expecting, in this first assessment with this pantropical camera trap network, that we would see those large-scale declines. But we’re looking within protected areas, and we’re really surprised to find that, actually, these protected areas, at least for now, seem to be doing a good job of maintaining stable communities of tropical mammals and birds.

STEPHEN FEE: And how is it that you were able to gather all of these photographs? Explain to me a little bit about the logistics.

LYDIA BEAUDROT: The infrastructure that the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network has put in is absolutely unprecedented.

This was visionary work that was put together by Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian. And so, together, these organizations have put 60 to 90 cameras each in 17 forests all around the world. And that’s 15 different countries.

And each of these camera traps and each of these sites is using the same approach. And so we have this systematic way to analyze what’s going on in these forests worldwide.

STEPHEN FEE: You know, Lydia, some of these photos are pretty incredible. I understand that some of these species, we rarely see in person. Is that right?

LYDIA BEAUDROT: That’s right. Some of — these are some of the most elusive animals out there that, if we were having people walk through the forest and try to survey what’s there, very unlikely would they see these animals.

And so that’s why these cameras provide a really special glimpse into what is going on in these forests that is hard to know otherwise.

STEPHEN FEE: What are some of those species that you were able to capture on camera?

LYDIA BEAUDROT: Well, any of the charismatic large cats, for instance, like jaguars and leopards, that live in the forests and are incredibly elusive and hard to see.

We have some nice sightings of rare bush dogs in South America that are just — it’s hard to know if they are in a protected area or not. And so these cameras let us know that they are there, which is great news.

STEPHEN FEE: What does it tell us generally, though, about how protected areas are maybe doing a good job of protecting wildlife?

LYDIA BEAUDROT: Well, protected areas, even though they have their weaknesses, generally sustain the habitat that these animals need.

And so, when you look, for example, on Google Earth, you can often see a protected area, because it’s different from the landscape around it, where a lot of forests have been converted to, for instance, agricultural or other development purposes. So having these areas that maintain the habitat is really important for wildlife.

STEPHEN FEE: It tells us a lot about what is happening in protected areas, but what about unprotected areas of the world?

LYDIA BEAUDROT: That’s right.

So, we’re seeing from this first assessment that these protected areas, at least for now, are showing good news. But that’s not the final word. It’s just the first word for the team network. And what we want to do is, we also want to compare to outside protected areas, where we would anticipate that stability wouldn’t be the case.

So, there are threats like conversion of forest areas to agriculture, threats from illegal hunting, and other kinds of human influences that we would expect that the wildlife outside of the protected areas is probably not doing as well as the animals inside the protected areas.

STEPHEN FEE: Lydia Beaudrot from the University of Michigan, thanks so much.

LYDIA BEAUDROT: Thank you.

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