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Camera CATalogue: Help Cat Conservation Without Going to Africa

A new wildlife photo website that Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, launched recently is called Camera CATalogue.  “We’ve launched this with our partners at Zooniverse as a platform that houses tens of thousands of Panthera’s camera trap photos and engages with citizen scientists and wildlife lovers around the world, asking that they help identify the big cats and other fascinating animals pictured in these photos,” says Ross Pitman, Leopard Monitoring Coordinator for Panthera. “The idea is that the more we know about the number of big cats and their prey populations, where they live and roam, and how our efforts are helping to protect them using these images, the better.”

Fancying myself as a bit of a wildlife spotter, especially in Africa, where I have visited more than three dozen sanctuaries, including the iconic Kruger, Okavango, Hwange, and Serengeti national parks, I tried out Camera CATalogue. It’s quite addictive, and I had to tear myself away after identifying a hundred or more animals. It’s also fascinating to “observe” what animals get up to when people are not around.

Ross Pitman was kind enough to answer a few questions about Camera CATalogue and how this kind of citizen science helps conservation, even if those of us who engage with it are on the other side of the world.

Ross Pitman
Ross Pitman

DB: How does this citizen science project help protect big cats? It’s presumably not only about monitoring species and numbers of cats, but also prey base and threats (vehicles and people) in their range?

Camera CATalogue has two main objectives with regards to monitoring wild cats across vast landscapes using camera traps. First, it’s a platform that provides people from around the world (even those that have never visited Africa) with the opportunity to engage with wildlife and actively contribute to wildlife conservation. Second, and by no means less important, Camera CATalogue allows Panthera’s scientists to monitor larger areas than ever before, but without the time-consuming challenge of identifying every species within each camera trap photo. By engaging the wider community, Camera CATalogue helps us identify animals more accurately, simply because each image is viewed by so many people.

Since we’re now able to camera-trap across far larger areas and still accurately process all the data, we’re able to ask many more questions and provide many more answers relating to wildlife conservation. A suite of important questions center around indices of prey abundance and prey quality. Is there enough prey around to support carnivores in the area? And if not, what are the primary causes of prey decline? These prey-focused questions might generate more questions related to human pressure, perhaps from poachers or subsistence farmers. How are the animals in the area—both carnivores and herbivores—responding to human disturbance? Are animals actively avoiding densely populated areas, and what are the conservation implications for these animals or the financial repercussions (through ecotourism) for people? We can also go further and ask far broader questions about how wildlife use their habitat at a landscape scale and how they interact with each other. These questions have significant conservation implications and importance, and need answers soon if we’re to curb the precipitous declines faced by many wild cats, and wildlife more generally.

Camera CATalogue provides a means of making research more efficient, and therefore, more effective. This ultimately allows scientists to focus on more pressing conservation concerns—with the added benefit of hopefully encouraging budding citizen scientists to pursue a career in wildlife conservation.

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This image was taken at Makalali Private Game Reserve, in 2014. This is the largest male leopard we’ve ever captured on camera in Limpopo Province, South Africa. He’s so elusive that not even the guides, rangers, or lodge managers knew he lived in the area! Credit: Ross Pitman/Panthera/Siyafunda.

How many photos are in the database? How many cameras are used? How are they secured?

Camera CATalogue’s database currently holds around 160,000 images. This first batch of images represents a tenth of the total images we need identified in the coming weeks and months. It’s easy to see why we so desperately need the help of thousands of citizen scientists across the world! In addition, we are constantly expanding our research footprint across the world, and usually take on a few new surveillance sites every year.

In terms of cameras and their setup, we typically use 80 PantheraCams (a Panthera custom-made camera trap) set up in pairs across roads or animal paths in order to photograph both flanks of an animal as it walks past our PantheraCams. Some animals, like spotted cats, have unique coat patterns, and photographing both flanks enables us to identify each individual. We then use this information to run complex analyses to robustly determine their population densities across the survey area, which gives us the data so urgently needed to inform sound, science-based management and conservation decisions.

One major challenge with using camera traps to monitor wildlife is that our PantheraCams are often stolen, either by animals (like elephants!) or by people. To reduce theft, we secure the PantheraCams to trees or metal posts (hammered deep into the ground) using cable ties or bungee cord and connect the PantheraCams to steel cables that are linked to the tree or post. Although not 100% secure, we have noticed a reduction in theft—primarily from elephants who find it annoying to walk around with a PantheraCam that’s still attached to a metal post.

Credit: Wai-Ming Wong/Panthera
Credit: Wai-Ming Wong/Panthera

How many photos remain to be sorted and identified?

Camera CATalogue was launched on August 4th, 2016, and in the first 24 hours over 8,000 citizen scientists cumulatively identified 170,000 images! Each image is shown to 10 citizen scientists to ensure identification accuracy, which means this current database is approximately 10 percentcomplete.

What have you already learned from this project?

The biggest take-home message from the launch of Camera CATalogue was in realizing how much people enjoy identifying wildlife, and are willing to spend their own time to help our conservation efforts. It’s a fantastic feeling to know we have the support and assistance of so many citizen scientists around the world.

What do you still hope to find out?

The biggest what-if would be to know if this initial interest in Camera CATalogue will be sustained. There is so much data to process that we could use this level of response to constantly assist our scientists. Our PantheraCams take such amazing photos though, so we’re hopeful that citizen scientists will flock to Camera Catalogue for a long time to come.

Do you have any funny/unusual photos you can share?

One of the most amazing photographs taken by the PantheraCams shows a genet (a small mongoose/weasel-like mammal) on the back of a rhino. The genet proceeded to hitch a ride on the rhino for quite some time! It’s these sorts of species interactions that make camera trapping such an amazing surveillance tool.

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Credit: Panthera/ Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife/Wildlife ACT

How can this citizen science project be used to educate people and help them become better stewards of the planet, even if they live half a world away from where these photos are made?

By allowing citizen scientists the opportunity to actively participate in wildlife research, Camera CATalogue will hopefully raise people’s excitement about conserving these precious species and the habitats in which they live. Even for those that have previously visited these wild places, Camera CATalogue provides a way of re-experiencing the magic of viewing animals in the wild. This constant engagement with wildlife will help to engender a sense of ownership and compassion towards animals and ultimately generate a more conservation-aware community.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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