ARBOREAL CAMERA TRAPPING: A CONSERVATION ADVENTURE
ARBOREAL CAMERA TRAPPING: A CONSERVATION ADVENTURE

ARBOREAL CAMERA TRAPPING: A CONSERVATION ADVENTURE

Arboreal Camera Trapping: A Conservation Adventure

By Patrick Ross, Biologist

Embarking on a journey from the heart of Antananarivo to the vibrant coastal city of Sambava and then into the expansive tropical forest of Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve (ASSR), I spent my December on an expedition dedicated to lemur research and rainforest conservation.

My name is Patrick Ross, and I am an independent biologist and friend of Wildlife Madagascar’s Chief Conservation Officer, Dr. Tim Eppley. I have previously led multiple research projects in and around ASSR in northeast Madagascar, which happens to be Wildlife Madagascar’s first conservation field site! My current project aims to investigate some of the ecological dynamics—for example, species population trends and ecological interactions—within ASSR, with a particular focus on the Critically Endangered silky sifaka, as well as the local carnivore community, much of which is also threatened.

Patrick in the forest canopy

This exciting and novel project is funded by Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) and organized with Dr. Erik Patel, LCF’s Director of Conservation and Research, in collaboration with Wildlife Madagascar and Dr. Tim Eppley; Dr. Zach Farris, Associate Professor at Appalachian State University and Co-founder of Mad Dog Initiative; and Dr. Luke Dollar, Professor/Chair of the Department of Environment and Sustainability at Catawba College.

What We Hope to Achieve

Our first objective is to determine the presence or absence of silky sifaka within ASSR. By installing camera traps in the tree canopy, we can noninvasively “capture” data on arboreal species (and others) that are otherwise difficult to collect. These data will allow us to generate occupancy models that are effective in tracking population trends. They can provide valuable insights into the health of the silky sifaka population in ASSR, as well as being helpful for implementing targeted conservation measures.

Silky sifaka

The second objective is to evaluate any recent shifts among the local carnivore community within ASSR by comparing with a previous study of mine, as well as whether carnivore distribution has any effect on lemurs in the canopy. For this, we will install camera traps near the ground that will be matched with the arboreal camera traps.

As you can imagine, setting up camera traps in the tree canopy of a remote rainforest is no easy task. I’d like to introduce some of the amazing people that helped make this project a success. I was joined from the United States by a biology graduate student at Cal State Long Beach, Mackenzie Clark, who also happens to be my girlfriend. Once in Antananarivo (Tana for short), Mackenzie and I were joined by Masoandro, a recent graduate from the University of Antananarivo, and two expert climbers from Andasibe: Eddy (lead climber) and Paul (support climber).

Getting Started

Tana can be extremely busy and cramped, so I am usually quick to escape the hustle and get into the forests. Tana certainly has the charm of history and culture, and if I wasn’t so consumed by the country’s incredible natural wonders, I might be persuaded to spend more time there. However, time was of the essence on this trip! Having only a day in the city, I collected our equipment and research permit from the Malagasy Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments (MICET) and quickly sent my many hardware store, heavy-duty plastic tote bins to our collaborators in Sambava via air freight. 

The next day, we flew to the bustling coastal town of Sambava via a twin prop plane. From above, Madagascar’s diverse landscapes unfolded like a mural. From the deep red and barren hills of Antananarivo to vibrant rice paddies, charming villages, and verdant forests, the view seemed painted on such a clear day.

View of ASSR forest

Arrival in Sambava

Sambava is a coastal gem, and we landed on a gorgeous day. The sun was beaming, and I kept my fingers crossed that the weather would follow us to our field site. We were welcomed by warm tropical breezes, humid air, and the smells of vanilla, which have made this region famous around the world. We were met at the airport by Joxe Jaofeno, LCF’s Madagascar Program Manager, and two LCF trucks for transporting the large team and our many pounds of equipment. We all then retired to our accommodations with plans to meet at dawn to prepare for the upcoming project.

By 6 am, Sambava was fully awake, and everyone was on the move. With my jetlag, I started with a coffee from Mimy Resto, which has some of the best coffee in town. Mackenzie and I took a three-wheeled taxi (also known as a tuk-tuk) to the office, where we met Joxe and the rest of the LCF staff, including Gerlain Raherison and Guy Raoloniana, who would be joining us in the field. I was excited to see Guy again—this is the third project he and I have worked on together. Our day was filled with lots of unpacking and repacking as we prepared for the journey to Camp Indri in ASSR. Eddy and Paul, the climbers from Andasibe, checked the dozens of climbing components that they brought. As I unpacked around 80 trail cameras for inspection and cleaning, Guy and Gerlain were off to the market to purchase the food and other small items we would need to fuel our month of research at Camp Indri. From food to markers, seasoning, charcoal, and toilet paper, there is a lot that goes into keeping a research camp running. We were lucky to have local assistance for the logistics.

The Trek to Camp Indri

Once the climbing equipment, camera traps, perishables, clothes, and batteries were loaded into the two 4×4 trucks, we buckled in and drove from Sambava to the town of Andapa. Andapa is a unique town surrounded by a low-lying and productive agricultural basin and tall, mountainous rainforest, most of which has a formal protected status. These rainforests provide ample water for the farms and bountiful rice paddies that surround the town. We had a meal, bought a few hundred pounds of rice and eight chickens, and then set off for Befingotra, which is the closest settlement to ASSR that the trucks can drive to.

Once in Befingotra, we engaged in the typical negotiations with the local porters guild, as they wanted a slightly higher rate for the carrying of equipment to camp. We were on a tight schedule, so we helped pack the equipment onto bicycles, carrying racks, and dirt bikes. We set off hiking, and with a few stops along the way, the last of us arrived in camp just around nightfall.

Setting Up the Cameras

The next day, our plans developed over the morning’s coffee, rice, and bananas. Reviewing laminated maps, we discussed setting up two sampling stations slowly and methodically so that everyone could get up to speed on what the next month would entail. Both these sampling stations were close to camp. After a few training sessions like this, the setup of each sampling station fell into a routine of recipe-like steps that proceeded like this:

  • Hike to the predetermined station location in the reserve.
  • Begin searching for known favorite trees of silky sifaka, preferably close to the predetermined location.
  • Use the “Bigshot” —a comically large slingshot—to shoot a lightweight line into the canopy of the ideal tree, up and over a healthy and substantial-enough branch to safely hold the weight of the climber(s).
  • While the climber is ascending to a branch that will provide a view for spotting primates, the rest of the team gets to work recording relevant environmental data from that location.
  • While the settings of the camera in the canopy are adjusted, the camera view on the ground is cleared of grasses and other brush that could cause “false” captures, since these waste camera battery and memory space.
  • Measure the height that the camera is placed above the ground, as well as the distance to the peak of the tree canopy crown.
  • Strap the camera to the tree and take a photo with a white board that details key information such as start time, location, camera name, and station name.
  • Descend from the canopy and collect and reorganize all equipment for transport to the next station location.
  • Move on to the next site and repeat!
View of the campsite taken by a drone

Our Time at Camp Indri

Nestled within the reserve, Camp Indri quickly became our temporary home, and the symphony of wildlife served as a backdrop to the scientific routine. Days were filled with spotting lemurs, birds, and herps while hiking to remote sampling points that required ground and canopy camera placement. After a few days of intensive training, the team was working like a well-oiled machine. We averaged 3 stations per day, which even included the rainy days when we walked 15km on slippery hills.

Indri

By the end of the project, however, we did encounter some challenges that tested our adaptability and resilience. One ground camera was stolen, so we had to replace it discreetly and relocate it off the trail. Additionally, the drone I had been using to capture aerial images of the sampling stations became inoperable halfway through the project, with a broken gimbal cable likely caused by rough transport.

Despite these setbacks, the primary objective of the project unfolded smoothly. We successfully deployed a total of 74 motion-activated cameras across approximately 850 hectares of rainforest, initiating the first-ever canopy camera trapping project within the reserve. These cameras were strategically paired with both terrestrial and arboreal counterparts and are now operating 24/7 inside the forest to capture a comprehensive view of the ecosystem.

Lasting Partnerships

As I reflect on this adventure, the memories we created and the wildlife we saw are the true highlights of the experience. Our team’s camaraderie, built through the camera trapping training and mastering canopy access, proved invaluable. Laughter resonated during spirited games of dominos at night, creating enduring bonds. The experience was not only about acquiring knowledge and skills—it was a journey of fostering connections and forming lasting partnerships. As I return home, I reflect on not just a successful research project but also the team’s heartfelt commitment to the preservation of Madagascar’s incredible forests and wildlife that we are lucky enough to share this planet with.