How do you study giant armadillos when hardly anyone has ever seen one? Or figure out if a whale is losing weight—without getting too close? Camera and drone technologies are allowing scientists to watch animals more closely than ever before, without disturbing them. Scientists in India are using thousands of camera trap photos to track tigers' movements. In Canada, caribou outfitted with collar cams show conservationists which habitats they rely on throughout the winter. Capturing everything from the unexpected to the comical, these technologies are giving wildlife managers insights that could ultimately help them fight extinction and habitat loss. (Premiered November 27, 2019)
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PBS Airdate: November 27, 2019
NARRATOR: From frigid oceans...
SARAH FORTUNE (University of British Columbia): Okay, there he is.
NARRATOR: …to distant jungles
ULLAS KARANTH (Wildlife Conservation Society): You can keep going a little bit more.
NARRATOR: …there’s a hidden world of exotic creatures just out of view.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ (Giant Armadillo Conservation Program): Finding the animal is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s really difficult.
NARRATOR: Around the world, researchers are tracking the most vulnerable animals, trying to save them before they vanish forever.
ULLAS KARANTH: This powerful-looking animal is so fragile, the pieces of knowledge that are needed to make it survive are critical.
NARRATOR: Now, new technology is revealing their secret lives.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: They’re really silent, little spies that make no noise, that can capture intimate moments of the animals.
CRAIG PACKER (University of Minnesota): You get millions and millions of photographs, and you suddenly see things for the first time.
NARRATOR: Frame by frame, the invisible world of animals is coming to life,…
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: I could not believe this species existed, that it was right here around us.
CRAIG PACKER: I had no idea they did that.
NARRATOR: …their habits, fears and most intimate moments.
SARAH FORTUNE: It has completely revolutionized our ability to understand behaviors.
NARRATOR: Rare footage from the animal kingdom is offering up new clues. Can we uncover the secrets to these animals’ survival, before it’s too late? Animal Espionage, right now, on NOVA.
Our planet is teeming with millions of species, yet we’ve only been able to study a small fraction of them. In this hidden world, much goes unseen, until now. Advances in camera technology are opening our eyes to the world around us.
LIANA ZANETTE (Western University): The valuable information that people will get from a simple, wee, little camera that anybody can buy off the shelf, it’s unbelievable.
NARRATOR: What can researchers learn by spying on animals?
ARTHUR R. RODGERS (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry): Why are they doing that? And why did they do that? And what are they going to do next?
NARRATOR: Can a new wave of animal surveillance turn the tide and help preserve our planet’s most vulnerable species before they disappear?
Cumberland Sound, Canada, about 300 miles west of Greenland: beneath these frigid waters dwells a mysterious giant, the bowhead whale. Little footage of these 100-ton creatures exists. They are the longest living mammal on the planet; some have reached the ripe old age of 200. But their survival isn’t guaranteed. The species could be in trouble.
SARAH FORTUNE: They’re living in the Arctic. And this is a place where climate change could be threatening their, their future.
NARRATOR: Marine biologist Sarah Fortune studies bowheads in Cumberland Sound, where the whales come to feed for months at a time. But rising temperatures and melting sea ice are affecting their primary food source, tiny animals called zooplankton. Bowheads favor a nutrient-rich variety, and their numbers are dropping. This could be catastrophic for the whales: one bowhead needs to eat about 100 tons of food each year.
SARAH FORTUNE: I need know what the whales are feeding on today and how energy-rich their current food resource is.
NARRATOR: Monitoring their size and weight over time will tell Sarah if these whales are getting enough to eat, but tracking them is no simple task.
SARAH FORTUNE: Bowheads are a little bit elusive. They dive for half an hour, an hour. You spend a lot of time waiting for them to come up again. And then it’s also, can be really difficult to track where that whale has gone.
Okay, there he is.
NARRATOR: Even when they find a whale, it’s hard to see its entire body.
SARAH FORTUNE: We would see what everyone else would see, the top of the whale’s head, their flukes, sort of, a really small proportion of the whale’s body. And so that means that a lot of their behavior goes unknown.
NARRATOR: Fortune and her colleague Bill Koski are monitoring a group of about 80 bowheads in Cumberland Sound. A bowhead expert, Bill is eager to get a new perspective on an animal he’s been studying for decades.
BILL KOSKI (Whale Biologist, LGL Limited.): Most of the studies I’ve done, I’ve been flying in an airplane, and we’re circling whales at a thousand feet or so, so that we won’t affect their behavior.
NARRATOR: Any closer, and a noisy plane spooks the whales, who will dive and disappear.
NARRATOR: So, Sarah is trying a new approach. She’s going spy on the whales with a state of the art, high-definition drone.
SARAH FORTUNE: Set.
NARRATOR: The drone quietly hovers just above the whales. They seem oblivious to the flying camera following them.
SARAH FORTUNE: It’s exactly analogous to a bird. The same level of reaction that you would get from a bowhead having birds overhead is what you get with the drone being overhead.
NARRATOR: Finally, they can see the whale in its entirety. Its body tells a story about day-to-day life in the Arctic.
SARAH FORTUNE: They often need to break thick ice with their heads, and so we’ll see that they have white scars.
NARRATOR: The scars are like fingerprints, allowing scientists to identify and track individual whales. The drone helps the team measure the whale, by comparing its body to the length of the boat.
SARAH FORTUNE: That gives us an idea of how fat or how skinny an individual is. And that’s a way that we can assess their overall health.
So, are these whales getting enough food to eat?
Over time, we can monitor these animals to see how healthy they are in the face of a changing environment.
NARRATOR: When the whale dives below the surface to feed, the drone keeps an eye on it.
SARAH FORTUNE: Because the water is so clear here, it provides this really wonderful opportunity to observe their behaviors over long periods of time. Otherwise we would just be sitting on the boat, wondering where the whale had gone.
NARRATOR: Now, clear water and a bird’s-eye-view reveal new insights into bowhead behavior. Biologists used to think that bowheads were solitary creatures that sometimes swam in pods but rarely interacted.
SARAH FORTUNE: The whales are constantly touching each other. And before, there’s no way that we could have seen that, right? It was illuminating to see how these animals are more social than we could appreciate just by observing them at the surface.
We’re able to see how that whale is engaging with other animals, how it’s engaging with the environment. So, I think it has completely revolutionized our ability to understand bowhead whale behaviors.
NARRATOR: For scientists like Sarah, the drone is a window into the lives of these mysterious creatures and a way to gauge their survival in a changing climate.
When the Inuit’s ancestors first settled Baffin Island, thousands of years ago, the surrounding waters were teeming with whales. By the late 19th century, the commercial whaling industry had nearly wiped them out.
Today the Inuit are among the few communities in the world permitted to sustainably hunt bowhead whales. The Inuit in this region take up to five whales per year. A single bowhead will feed hundreds of people.
Sarah is sharing her research with the board of the Hunters and Trappers Association, which manages hunting. They’re concerned about the fate of the 6,500 bowheads in this area of the Arctic.
SARAH FORTUNE: If anyone has any suggestions or questions that you think we could answer with this technology, that would be really helpful to know.
NARRATOR: The images yields new insights that intrigue even the locals, who have lived with these whales for decades.
FISHERMAN: What part do you study in order to get the age?
BILL KOSKI: Based, based on our experience with the photographs, the amount of white just in front of the tail, it gets more and more white as they get older. So, when you see one with lots of white on it, you know it’s a very old whale, probably 150 years or so.
NARRATOR: Knowing the size and age of the whales around here helps locals plan for hunts that leave enough whales in the ocean for future generations.
There’s one question that fascinates both locals and scientists. Year after year, the bowheads gravitate toward the shore and hang around the big rocks there. No one knows why.
Sarah is hoping the drone will explain a mystery first recorded more than 170 years ago. Ricky Killabuck, an Inuit fisherman, brings them to the site.
SARAH FORTUNE: So, have you seen any whales in this bay this year?
RICKY KILLABUCK (Inuit Fisherman): Oh, yeah.
SARAH FORTUNE: Yeah? Okay.
If you go back to the whaling records, dating back to 1845, whalers had made note that these whales would go near shore and they’d rest their heads or their chins upon these large rocks.
RICKY KILLABUCK: Going along this coast, we’ve been seeing whales along the rocks in this area.
SARAH FORTUNE: Okay.
Some people thought that they might be feeding; others thought that they’re resting.
NARRATOR: Without a clear view, it was to impossible know.
SARAH FORTUNE: Around our 11:00.
BILL KOSKI: So, we have a whale up ahead. We’re heading towards it now.
TOMMY: Got that camera out to the aft, all powered up.
SARAH FORTUNE: So, then I think you’re going to want to bring it to our 11:00 here, maybe to the bow.
TOMMY: It’s starting to come shallow.
SARAH FORTUNE: Mmhmm, it’s coming in.
NARRATOR: This whale seems to be scratching his back against the rocks.
SARAH FORTUNE: Now we know that the whales aren’t just coming here for feeding purposes, they’re also coming here for molting purposes, rubbing on these large boulders as exfoliation, so, to help expedite the molting process.
NARRATOR: The best guess is they’re trying to keep their skin healthy and free of parasites.
The drone reveals Cumberland Sound, with its shallow rocks and plentiful zooplankton, to be a critical bowhead habitat.Yet it’s also a place destined to change.
SARAH FORTUNE: These are whales that will be impacted in one way or another by environmental change. We don’t know if it’s going to be detrimental, we don’t know if these whales will be very adaptable, but we know that things are going to change, just like they’re going to change for the people in the north that are living in these communities.
NARRATOR: For now, keeping a close eye on these giants of the Arctic is critical.
SARAH FORTUNE: The really big win about drones is that we’re able to collect a lot of data about the whales with zero impact to them. And so, I think this is a very positive step forward.
Great, awesome. Thanks so much, guys.
NARRATOR: For more than a hundred years, we’ve used cameras to try to capture the natural world as it truly is, away from human eyes.
In the late 19th century, an ambitious young photographer named George Shiras, the Third, pioneered the field of spying on animals. Using crude trip wires and flashbulbs, he was the first to photograph a hidden world. He roamed North America, photographing predator and prey alike. Published in National Geographicin 1906, his images were the first of their kind ever printed in that magazine.
The experience turned Shiras from a hunter and fisherman into a conservationist. He pushed for the creation of parks and policies to protect the wildlife he photographed. Years later, scientists like Arnaud Desbiez are perfecting Shiras’ camera trap system, trying to capture images of creatures that few people have ever laid eyes on.
The animals Arnaud seeks live in the Pantanal region of Brazil, far south of the Amazon River. At nearly 75,000 square miles, it is the world’s largest wetland and home to some fascinating creatures.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: You could also say that the Pantanal is the land of giants. Here, we have giant otters, giant anteaters, the largest jaguars, and, of course, the giant armadillo.
NARRATOR: The giant armadillo, which practically no one, not even among the local population, has ever seen.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: The giant armadillo is almost like a ghost species, the holy grail of animals. They occur at very, very low densities, and they’re very, very hard to find. They are a nocturnal species, so to follow them at night is almost impossible.
NARRATOR: There are more than 20 different species of armadillo all across the Americas, some as far north as Nebraska. Like their anteater cousins, armadillos dine mostly on insects and grubs, which they dig for with powerful claws and lap up with sticky long tongues. A shell of overlapping boney plates protects them from predators. The smallest of the species could fit in the palm of your hand, while giant armadillos can grow to be as big as a Labrador retriever, but so little is known about them.
How many offspring do they have? How do they communicate? Are they thriving or doomed to extinction?
Arnaud is hoping to find out by setting up cameras right outside their homes.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: Finding a giant armadillo burrow is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s really, really difficult.
NARRATOR: Individual giant armadillos are thinly scattered across the Pantanal, sometimes as few as seven in a 40-square mile area. So, Arnaud has placed thousands of camera traps, like this one, all over the wetlands.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: A camera trap is essentially a device that you can place anywhere, and when something passes in front of it, it will take a series of pictures and videos.
This the part I really want to get, so I’m going to get the motion sensor to work.
NARRATOR: Then, he waits.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: So, the camera traps are, for a field biologist, what a microscope is to a microbiologist. It helps us see things that we can’t see with our own eyes. The camera traps are basically our eyes in the field.
NARRATOR: Weeks later, Arnaud and his team review the footage. Frame by frame, the hidden world of the Pantanal comes to life, but no sign of the giant armadillo. After sifting through hours’ worth of footage, the star finally appears.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: Do you remember when you were a child and you saw your first image of a dinosaur? That’s how I felt the first time I saw an image of a giant armadillo from a camera trap. I could not believe that this species existed, that it was right here around us.
NARRATOR: Arnaud’s fleet of camera traps has revealed much about this prehistoric creature.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: We were able to document the role of giant armadillos as ecosystem engineers. Giant armadillo burrows are used by other species as a refuge against predators, as a refuge against extreme temperatures, as a place to forage. We suddenly were able to register a whole community of animals using giant armadillo burrows.
NARRATOR: And that giant sand mound outside their door?
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: It’s like their inbox where, they leave messages, because when they dig they defecate and urinate. The giant armadillos, which are solitary creatures, will communicate and learn about each other in the, from the sand mound. Leaving a camera trap in front of the sand mound, we can find out who’s coming to visit.
NARRATOR: And the camera traps caught something never before recorded on camera, a baby giant armadillo.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: It was an incredible experience to be able to see this tiny little white shape. They have no coloring. You can tell that the shell is soft, and they’re a little bit clumsy the way they move.
NARRATOR: The scientists nicknamed the baby Alex.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: All of us got extremely attached to this little giant armadillo, with whom we actually had no physical contact. Our whole relationship was through these images. Every time we came to the field, it was an exciting moment, “What is Alex going to be doing now? How has he progressed?”
NARRATOR: Thanks to Alex, scientists estimate that giant armadillos have just one offspring every three years. The babies nurse for a year and live with their mothers for 18 months.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: Parental care is much, much longer than we could ever have imagined. We were able to follow time spent inside the burrow, time spent outside the burrow. And so those measures of time, now, today, help us to estimate the age of a baby giant armadillo, because we related those to the age of Alex.
NARRATOR: Arnaud shared Alex’s story with the public. Soon, everyone was hooked on the day to day life of this vulnerable baby armadillo.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: I remember telling them when he predated his first termite mound. I remember when he dug his first burrows. We were almost like you would celebrate a child’s first achievements; we were doing that with Alex.
NARRATOR: After a few months living on his own, Alex’s story took a sad turn.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: One day, we saw that he had entered one of his mother’s old burrows. So, we set a camera trap in front of the burrow, but he didn’t come out that night. And he didn’t come out the night after.
We saw a vulture land in front of the camera trap. I went and put my face against the burrow, and I smelled a rotting nasty smell from the burrow.
NARRATOR: A necropsy revealed a mortal wound in his shoulder. Only one animal in this area could inflict such damage: the puma.
News of Alex’s death hit hard. There was an outpouring of public sympathy.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: This little armadillo had actually become quite the ambassador for, for his species. People were able to understand how vulnerable this species is, and how easy it is to locally extinct a population of giant armadillos, because any threat, whether it’s habitat loss or hunting or road kill, will have a huge impact on the species.
NARRATOR: That impact is already evident. In the past 25 years, the giant armadillo population has likely declined by at least 30 percent. In eight years, Arnaud’s camera traps have captured just 50 giant armadillos. Each one needs monitoring.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: So, now we just applied the anesthetic. We’re going to wait a few minutes for the animal to fall asleep, and then we’ll take him out and just start the procedure.
NARRATOR: Arnaud and his team will tag, track and spy on this young armadillo, like they did with Alex.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: It’s the highlight of our project. This is a moment we get to interact and get to meet the species we hardly spend any time with. We’re actually like paparazzi. We’re spying on the animal the whole time. So, for us, yes, it’s like meeting a celebrity. It’s a, this is a highlight for us. It’s very, very exciting.
NARRATOR: Today, state authorities in Brazil use the giant armadillo as a guide when planning new parks and protected areas. The goal is to keep this species’ habitat intact. Arnaud’s camera trap data is a key piece of those efforts.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: We will try to estimate densities and find out how many are still left so that we can find out, are there enough giant armadillos for the future or are these populations already ecologically extinct? And so, we want to inform conservation measures, such as habitat protection, creation of corridors, so that we can protect giant armadillos for generations to come.
NARRATOR: Remote cameras introduce us to species rarely seen by the human eye and invite us to see the world from a different point of view.
NARRATOR: Research scientist Art Rodgers is headed into Canada’s boreal forest, a large swath of mostly coniferous trees and bogs stretching across the country. It’s home to rare and endangered animals, including a subspecies of reindeer, the boreal woodland caribou. Caribou roam across Europe, Siberia and North America.
ART RODGERS: Where’s the antenna?
BLAKE: It’s in my pack.
NARRATOR: Here in Ontario’s boreal forest, there are just 5,000 boreal woodland caribou left, and they are hard to find.
ART RODGERS: These caribou generally don’t occur in large numbers. They’re fairly solitary animals and moving in, in relatively small groups of maybe five to 10.
NARRATOR: Industrial development poses a serious threat to these caribou. They need vast areas of intact forest to survive, and that land is disappearing.
Art wants to figure out which habitats need protecting, to ensure the caribou don’t go extinct.
ART RODGERS: One of the key things we, we need to know about caribou is their food habits. We know that caribou are eating lichen through the wintertime, so we wanted to find out what caribou were eating during the summertime. What kinds of habitats have the food that they really need?
NARRATOR: These caribou roam across a hundred square miles or more, and are hard to track. Camera traps are not an option. So, one of Art’s colleagues came up with an idea: why not hitch a ride with the caribou and watch them eat?
COLLEAGUE: Ah, oh, there it is. We were close.
ART RODGERS: Ah, good place for it.
NARRATOR: This lightweight collar contains a small camera and G.P.S.
ART RODGERS: Well, there, the belting isn’t chewed too much.
NARRATOR: Six months ago, researchers placed it around the neck of a captured caribou.
ART RODGERS: The camera is programmed to take a 10-second clip every 10 minutes, for two hours in the morning and two hours towards the evening, during the times of day when we know that caribou are likely to be feeding.
Yeah, we’ve got the collar.
NARRATOR: Art is hoping the footage on this camera will reveal everything he wants to know about where and what this caribou ate.
ART RODGERS: Oh, here we go. Look at this.
NARRATOR: Not Oscar-winning cinematography, but to Art, the footage is simply amazing.
ART RODGERS: Wow, look. We can see this. We can actually see what they’re doing. We can see what they’re eating. It allows you to accompany the animal on its journey through life.
NARRATOR: Finally, Art and his team can see what caribou are munching on during the summer. The result is surprising: more lichen.
ART RODGERS: We thought, well, once, you know, the world turns green and all the other plants and leafy vegetation comes up, that they would switch onto the, the easy stuff, relatively speaking, and relatively more nutritious.
NARRATOR: But the way they eat it in the summer is unique.
ART RODGERS: They graze along the top of the lichen mat and maybe just take the top centimeter or two, a couple of centimeters, sort of the newest growth on the lichen. And in a sense you can call that, sort of, “farming” the lichen. They’re leaving some behind to grow back for another time.
NARRATOR: And the cameras turn up more surprises. Caribou like mushrooms.
ART RODGERS: It’s quite amusing to watch a caribou walking through a forest feeding on these large mushrooms and basically just picking them off.
Well, there goes another mushroom and another.
There’s just no other way we would have ever known that or seen that, and no one ever has, other than until we got these videos.
NARRATOR: With fresh water scarce in the winter months, caribou wash their food down by mushing up snow and ice with their hooves, a behavior Art calls “slushing.”
The cameras create caribou home movies of entire herds, including its newest members.
ART RODGERS: One of the most exciting moments was the first time we saw a newborn calf in one of our video clips trying to stand up for the first time, and, and mom drying it off.
It gave me the impression right away that, “Gosh, we’re going to see all kinds of wonderful things that we would never ever, ever see any other way than without having these video cameras on the collars.”
NARRATOR: One key discovery: certain habitats are especially important for calf bearing and rearing. New mothers stick close to the forest’s lakes and bogs with nearby islands. If mom senses a predator, she can swim her calf to safety.
Over the course of eight years, scientists have mounted cameras on dozens of caribou here. They can see the boreal forest as a caribou would and understand which areas it needs to survive.
ART RODGERS: And when we know what those habitat types are, we can start planning for those in terms of, of land use planning and forest management and other industrial developments, and make sure that there is enough of that to conserve caribou on the landscape.
NARRATOR: Camera technology is opening our eyes to the hidden lives of animals, but what can it tell us about not just one species, but an entire ecosystem?
CRAIG PACKER: We need hundreds of cameras in this area, if we can get it.
NARRATOR: Biologist Craig Packer has traveled all over Africa, studying wildlife in the continent’s parks and reserves. And it’s clear to him the animals are in trouble.
CRAIG PACKER: A lot of the research all points to the same thing, that wildlife populations are declining quite rapidly.
NARRATOR: In Africa, elephants, lions, wild dogs and the black rhino are just a few of the species whose numbers have plummeted in the past 50 years. Habitat loss and poaching are the biggest threats to their existence. Different countries are tackling these problems with a variety of methods, in the hopes of saving their wildlife.
But how can anyone know which conservation methods are actually working?
CRAIG PACKER: What I know as a scientist is that we have to measure things. So, we want to make it possible for people to have readily available to them reliable information on the abundance and the trends in all of the species within their reserves.
NARRATOR: So, Craig had an idea. What if you took a census of all the wildlife parks and reserves in Africa, to get a clear picture of animal populations and conservation methods?
CRAIG PACKER: I’m aiming for this program to include camera grids from 50 different sites. This will be able to provide data that we can use to assess how things are going, in terms of the conservation. We’ve got literally thousands of these cameras being set up all over Africa. So, we have to make sure we know where we are and when.
So, we’re in the Klaserie Reserve. This is camera k013, and this is the 22nd of July, I hope. This is the 23rd of July.
So, we’ll have camera trap grids in Kruger Park, Mountain Zebra National Park, Maasai Mara, in Kenya. There’s cameras in Ruaha in Tanzania. There are cameras in Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.
NARRATOR: Thousands of motion-sensor cameras, powered on 24/7, for weeks at a time, watching everything. They will show that what may look like a tranquil savannah landscape, is actually an ecosystem teeming with life.
The cameras reveal where zebras gather, the gentle intimacy of elephants and an antelope’s curious nature. But the cameras were snapping photos nonstop.
CRAIG PACKER: The practicalities were daunting. We were generating millions of photographs.
NARRATOR: How do you make scientific sense out of so many images? Then, Craig’s graduate students came up with the solution: the internet. They would upload all their photos and ask the world for help.
CRAIG PACKER: And you could have volunteers from all over the world look at your data, and then help classify it.
NARRATOR: More than 140,000 people from all across the globe have participated in Craig’s project as citizen scientists.
CRAIG PACKER: There is a real community around the camera trap process that involves a broader segment of society than we ever could have otherwise.
NARRATOR: So far, millions of pictures and over 50 species have been ID’ed and catalogued. The citizen scientists have helped discover behaviors that had been mysteries to biologists, like relationships between major predators.
CRAIG PACKER: After a very large number of observations of lions with these cameras, we never saw a cheetah show up at the same spot less than 12 hours afterwards. So, they went at a good safe time. And then they might come and actually sleep under the same tree, so they’re, it’s kind of a timeshare. And they’re safe enough apart in time that there’s no risk of an encounter.
NARRATOR: The cameras capture some surprising moments.
CRAIG PACKER: With the cameras, we know where everything goes at night. Birds that ordinarily roost in trees we’ve discovered like to roost in the crotch of a giraffe, for example. These are oxpeckers who have decided that that’s a nice warm place to spend the night, and I had no idea they did that.
There’s also interactions between other species that sometimes seem really amusing, like a warthog that looks like it’s talking to a gazelle. So, those kinds of things can just suddenly make you laugh.
NARRATOR: And while some images might bring a smile, all are part of a long-term study, trying to answer tough questions about wildlife management, in one of the wildest places on earth. Can you save prey animals without destroying predators? Do fences help or hurt? What investments are most effective when you’re managing a wildlife reserve?
CRAIG PACKER: An ideal outcome, 10 to 15 years from now, is we have a really good view of what’s going on. I think the ultimate power of these cameras is that you’ve got hundreds of eyes out in the field that are collecting information. And you have literally hundreds of thousands of eyes looking at those photographs that are all part of the scientific program to say, “This is what’s happening, this is how well this area is being conserved.”
NARRATOR: Sometimes, conventional camera traps can’t capture all the data that scientists need.
MIKE CLINCHY: So this is?
LIANA ZANETTE: All right, we’re Den 4, this is A.B.R. 15.
MIKE CLINCHY: Right.
NARRATOR: Like Craig, biologists Liana Zanette and Mike Clinchy are spying on animals in South Africa, but their camera traps are very different.
MIKE CLINCHY: It’s playing hoopoes.
NARRATOR: This camera setup plays back sounds of predators in order to trigger a fear response.
MIKE CLINCHY: So, lions at 11:42, on the 23rd of July. Make the terrible noise. There we are.
LIANA ZANETTE: When the animal walks by, the system will activate the speaker. It’ll get that 10 seconds of sound, so we can see what the animal was doing just before it heard the sound, what it does when it’s hearing the sound, and also what it does after the sound stops.
NARRATOR: This may sound like a mean practical joke, but Liana and Mike are trying to understand the role that fear plays in an ecosystem. What happens when animals aren’t killed, but just scared?
LIANA ZANETTE: We are basically counting fear. So we’re figuring out the degree to which fear affects everything.
NARRATOR: Their work addresses a serious problem in ecosystems all over the world, the dwindling number of scary but natural predators.
LIANA ZANETTE: Wherever large carnivores have been exterminated, there’s often massive ecosystem problems. The prey have nothing to fear, and because they have nothing to fear, they can overgraze everything down to the ground. That’s happened repeatedly, all over the world, and it continues to happen, and it’s a real ecological problem.
NARRATOR: Decades ago, Yellowstone National Park faced a crisis. With the native grey wolf locally extinct, the elk population exploded, gorging on plants and decimating the landscape. In 1995, the park service reintroduced the grey wolf to Yellowstone, and the elk population dropped.
Soon, parts of the ecosystem began to change: vegetation flourished; willow trees thrived, helping to stabilize the once-eroding river banks; scavengers such as fox, black bear and even birds benefited from the elk carcasses left by wolves.
Exactly how the wolves changed Yellowstone’s landscape is still being debated, but Liana and Mike say it’s not just about the number of kills that predators make, it’s how many prey they scare.
LIANA ZANETTE: Predators will kill way fewer prey than they scare. Predators scare all of their prey; they kill a few of them.
NARRATOR: To better understand how fear affects animals, Liana and Mike have spent days setting up dozens of cameras that record video and play sounds from three different predators here: lions, cheetahs and wild dogs.
LIANA ZANETTE: The cameras give us the ability to do a manipulation of this sort, which is very difficult. I mean, working out here is very difficult, all right? These animals, we don’t know where they’re going to be. They’re not radio-tagged or anything like that. I don’t want to be out here at night when all the lions and the cheetahs and the leopards are out. Thankfully, we have the cameras that can be out here.
NARRATOR: A week later, they return.
MIKE CLINCHY: Grab the laptop.
LIANA ZANETTE: Okay, just double check.
NARRATOR: Looking through hours of footage, Liana and Mike analyze fear responses to the three predators.
LIANA ZANETTE: This is…oooh.
MIKE CLINCHY: Oh, didn’t like the wild dogs.
NARRATOR: Cheetahs startle some animals but not others. Wild dogs are scary, unless you’re a rhino. And lions make just about everybody run for the hills.
LIANA ZANETTE: Camera 13.
MIKE CLINCHY: Camera 13.
NARRATOR: The next phase will be to see how fear affects these animals’ reproduction rates and feeding times. Liana and Mike have conducted similar studies elsewhere in the world, and the results are startling.
LIANA ZANETTE: What we’ve discovered, over the years, is that this has massive repercussions on a long timescale, in terms of the number of offspring that animals are able to produce.
NARRATOR: In British Columbia, sparrows subjected to the sounds of a hawk produced 40 percent fewer offspring. Raccoons frightened by hearing large carnivores spent 66 percent less time feeding, leaving more crabs and fish in the oceans. And when cougars heard the sound of their predator,…
HUMAN VOICE: Because if you…
NARRATOR: …humans, their feeding times went down by half.
LIANA ZANETTE: Just because they think that there’s predators around, there’s fewer offspring that are produced. The predators aren’t killing the offspring. It’s just thinking that there’s predators around that is causing this massive reduction in population.
NARRATOR: Their research is sounding an alarm to conservationists: big scary predators affect landscapes in ways that aren’t always obvious. Failing to protect them could cause entire ecosystems to collapse.
LIANA ZANETTE: By incorporating fear into the equation, we have a much better understanding of management plans that, that may work, management plans that will not work.
It’s just the beginning of a whole new understanding of how the fear of predators can shape everything. It’s unbelievable.
NARRATOR: On another continent, a predator at the apex of the food chain is struggling to survive: the wild tiger. The largest member of the cat family, tigers can weigh 500 pounds or more. They roam solo and hunt often. An adult tiger needs one large prey animal per week to survive.
ULLAS KARANTH: You can keep going a little bit more.
NARRATOR: Ullas Karanth is a tiger expert and conservationist, working in Karnataka state in India, where most of the world’s tigers live. He has dedicated his life to preserving these elusive predators.
ULLAS KARANTH: I grew up in a small village. The local culture had tiger deeply infused in it. People used to wear tiger masks and dance during festivals. Yet ironically, the last of the wild tigers were being hunted out by people around me.
NARRATOR: A hundred years ago, there were close to 100,000 tigers in Asia. Today, only about 3,500 remain. Most of them are in India, where conservation campaigns and a hunting ban saved the species from local extinction.
But even here, this iconic predator is far from safe. Poaching is still a problem. And as India develops at a rapid clip, tiger habitats get carved up. In some areas, tigers are running out of prey, such as deer and wild cattle.
ULLAS KARANTH: Often, tigers disappear not because they have been hunted but because their food has been taken away, their prey have been hunted out by local people.
NARRATOR: How do you protect one of the world’s most vulnerable predators in one of the fastest-growing countries?
ULLAS KARANTH: Conservation is a difficult enterprise. That’s where the role of counting tigers accurately, monitoring their populations, monitoring their distributions come. It’s an audit of whether tiger conservation is succeeding or failing.
NARRATOR: An audit that requires accuracy, if we are to know how many tigers are left and where they are thriving, not easy when counting one of the world’s most dangerous and elusive predators.
For years, conservationists kept a safe distance by counting tiger paw prints, but when a young Ullas Karanth began studying tigers, in 1986, he spotted a serious flaw.
ULLAS KARANTH: It’s almost impossible to identify each tiger individually from its track shape, because the speed at which the animal is walking, the soil on which it’s walking, all these make massive differences and distort the shape. It is impossible to wander across hundreds of square kilometers of tiger habitat in a couple of weeks and find the tracks of every tiger. So, it simply didn’t work.
NARRATOR: Ullas had a better idea. Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, no two are alike. Why not count tigers by photographing them?
ULLAS KARANTH: What camera trapping allows you to do is to photographically capture a very large number of tigers over very vast landscapes, which you cannot do with any other technique.
The stripes on two sides are very different, so, you need two cameras, so that you get both sides of the animal and identify it permanently. Once you have a permanent identification, any single flank picture also can be pinned down to that tiger.
NARRATOR: As the database grew, Ullas faced a new challenge. How do you compare each new tiger image to thousands of others?
ULLAS KARANTH: See, you have to compare the same side…
NARRATOR: So Ullas turned to scientists, who pioneered a new way to identify individual animals. This program examines each tiger stripe pattern as a series of squares. In minutes, its algorithm compares this series to thousands of others, until it hits a match.
ULLAS KARANTH: Once the model is matched, then it’s very easy to identify.
NARRATOR: Ullas ran decades’ worth of tiger photos through the software. What emerged were hundreds of matches for individual tigers.
ULLAS KARANTH: It adds up to a lot of knowledge about tigers, how they are spread across the land. And using that data we can know not only how many tigers there are, we can estimate how those numbers are changing. We can get to know what proportion of tigers are surviving, how many new tigers are getting to the population. All this adds up to knowledge that is critical for saving tigers.
NARRATOR: The pictures have revealed how far a tiger can range from its birthplace: up to 100 miles. In some instances, Ullas’ data has been used to convict poachers.
Camera traps are now widely used for tracking tigers in India. In Karnataka state alone, Ullas has generated 25 years’ worth of data, information that could give conservationists a clearer idea of where to focus their efforts, now and in the future.
ULLAS KARANTH: This powerful looking animal is so fragile ecologically. It can disappear so fast. The pieces of knowledge that are needed to make it survive are critical.
NARRATOR: Today, cameras are revealing more about our planet’s wildlife than we could ever see with the naked eye. In the Pacific, off Vancouver Island, unmanned cameras are 7,000 feet down, filming fantastic creatures few people have ever heard of, let alone seen.
At this bat cave, high-speed thermal cameras shed light on an otherwise pitch black world. Slowed down, the images allow scientists to track individuals, count wing beats, even watch the bats interact.
This 36-hour time lapse in the savannah shows us just how many animals are fed by a single kill.
Remote cameras can be left behind in the coldest places on Earth, like in Antarctica, where Penguin Watch uses a network of 75 weather-proof, solar-powered cameras to record the secret lives of penguins and the impact of climate change on their world.
Frame by frame, cameras document a changing planet and the risks facing its most vulnerable creatures.
SARAH FORTUNE: Someone whose daily life isn’t really affected by environmental change, to be able to see imagery of the animals that are reliant on their natural environment is really powerful, and I think that’s one of the, the benefits of this technology.
NARRATOR: Cameras are playing a major role in conservation. From the Arctic Circle to deepest Africa, their data could help save species from extinction.
CRAIG PACKER: Unless we can really say that there are growing populations of wildebeests, zebra, impala, etcetera, we can’t really be sure whether these places are truly succeeding.
ART RODGERS: You could spend all the time in the world trying to track these animals on foot through the bush and never get close enough to, to observe these things.
ULLAS KARANTH: When so much is invested in tiger conservation, people even sacrificing their lives for tigers, we need to know accurately whether what we are doing is working.
NARRATOR: And with each new image, cameras give us another chance to connect with the natural world.
ARNAUD DESBIEZ: These images help us reach people’s minds through their hearts. We can show people, “Look, here is this incredible species, and it’s right here, right now, and if we don’t do something we will lose it.”
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- Arnaud Desbiez, Sarah Fortune, Ullas Karanth, Bill Koski, Craig Packer, Art Rodgers, Liana Zanette