Candid Camera

For a photographer trying to document the elusive wildlife of Panama's Barro Colorado Island, camera traps provide an unblinking eye into a hidden animal world

08-01-2007 // Christian Ziegler
Candid Camera - Magazine Layout - Ocelot Camera Trap
IT IS CLOSE TO NIGHTFALL when I reach my destination. Twilight is even more advanced under the rain forest canopy in Panama, and I need a headlamp to find my way there and back. As shadows grow and the forest understory gets denser with greenery, fireflies leave trails of green and orange blinks. In the distance, a tinamou is singing its lonely song. I know that this is the hour when ocelots usually start their hunt. I love this time of day: the change of shifts in the forest. My excuse to be out right now is to check on my camera trap, a digital camera rigged to an infrared trigger beam that allows me to photograph animals - such as the ocelot - that would otherwise be nearly impossible to find. For almost a half year now, I have been working on a photo project to capture images of the elusive ocelot here on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), the 3,707-acre principal field site of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama's Canal Zone.

With ocelots, as with other shy or nocturnal forest creatures, photo traps offer a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of their natural lives, to open a window into what usually can't be seen by humans. I have been walking trails at night for almost three months - three to five miles almost every night - and encountered ocelots only three times.

A trap consists of a camera that is connected to a trigger system. If an animal steps into the path of the infrared beam, it activates the system and the camera takes an image - simple enough. Things get slightly more complicated when the trap is located up in a tree in a rain forest, where the photographer battles the lack of light, the ever-present humidity and--since the camera is as high as 12 feet off the ground - gravity. My standard setup, for example, consists of a digital camera in a watertight box, three flash strobes, the infrared trigger unit and two car batteries to power everything.

Camera traps are one of my favorite ways to photograph animals. It comes very close to our very definition of wildlife; these images show animals in their natural environment without the presence of humans. That evening in Panama, I am in for a nice surprise: I discover that Yara, one of the female ocelots on BCI, visited my site and took a wonderful and peaceful portrait of herself. Most exciting of all: According to the digital file, she did this only minutes before I arrived. As I look at her image on the camera, she is probably still out there in the forest, watching me from a distance.

Tropical ecologist Christian Ziegler specializes in photo stories on wildlife and science, mainly in tropical ecosystems. He splits his time between Princeton, New Jersey, and Panama, where he spent seven months "camera trapping" for an article on ocelots.


Candid Camera - Magazine Layout - Ocelot Camera TrapPhoto by Christian Ziegler

I LOVE THE MOMENT when I click through the images for the first time (the author, setting up a site, below left). Everything is possible: Maybe that one perfect picture of an ocelot finally happened (opening spread, top of web page); maybe a capuchin monkey (above left) was smiling at my lens. The fact that camera traps record everything that passes by, any time of day, makes them invaluable for scientists.

In order to be successful, a photographer must dive deeply into the target species' biology and get into the animal's mind. Reading tracks and understanding behavioral patterns are key to setting up the camera in the right place. Readying the trap to photograph a three-foot-long, tree-climbing ocelot (below left) is very different from preparing for a smaller, terrestrial agouti (above right). Camera traps have helped biologists to gather data on the distribution of species and have become an important tool for conservation as well, establishing the existence of rare species in an area and helping to justify their protection.


Candid Camera - Magazine Layout - Falcon Camera TrapPhoto by Christian Ziegler

MANY THINGS can go wrong here and - at least for me - they do. It can take months before a camera trap yields anything useful, and the reasons for disaster are numerous and diverse. One of the many cable connections can frizzle in the moisture; a lash may break; the camera may malfunction. There is potential for failure on the animal end as well. One imagines the target species approaching the camera in a certain artistic way, but of course that hardly ever happens. More often, something or someone else triggers the system. My "ocelot" photo traps took images of opossums (above), tapirs, agoutis and researchers' feet. And there is always a chance that a young barred forest falcon (below) will take 150 pictures of itself while staring at its reflection in the lens.

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