The forests have spies; guardians that try to detangle the mysteries guarded by the woods, to understand their dynamics and through knowledge and science protect the most sacred and mystic places on the planet. Custodians in the form of biologists, ecologists and other students of life spy on the creatures that move among the leaves, the canopy and the ground.
Investigation work in a humid tropical forest like Mashpi’s is no easy feat.
Everything in this ecosystem is camouflaged and designed, with sharpened senses, for survival. To detangle these mysteries, resources are required, plus bravery, a good eye for detail, and more than anything: patience by the truck-load. Years could go by in search of a particular species within the rainforest without finding it. Biologists and ecologists who work in places like this have had to be very creative and to use complicated formulas and mathematic models to find answers to their questions. They’ve had to spend hours in on the field, registering tracks in mud among fallen leaves to be able to know which species inhabit each forest and only with a lot of luck are they able to come face to face with one of the elusive creatures of the forest.
Because of this so much remains unknown, but with the help of technology, huge advances have been made in a short space of time, obtaining information that before had taken 10, or even 20 years, or perhaps had never even been managed.
Camera traps have provided incredible support to ecology, biology and conservation in places like Mashpi and are without doubt the most efficient tools in biological espionage
Traps have been a widely-used methodology in these fields of science for decades, centuries perhaps. Sometimes the only way to see the species of interest was to physically entrap them with cages and bait. It was a challenge to avoid frightening off species with a heightened sense of smell and hearing designed to detect the presence of any danger, including the presence of humans.
In the past, that was the only way to observe many species, and still is used for specific studies. But this type of sampling is logistically complicated, needs resources and also implies the risk of physically manipulating forest life.
When roll-film cameras appeared, a new world opened up for trappers, who set about creating the first camera traps in robust boxes and adapting them to complex sensors and battery packs, minimizing and even eliminating the need to manipulate animals and entering hidden into forest life – like a spy.
The birth of photo-trapping paved the way for many investigations that before were unimaginable and were impossible to execute due to the difficulty of observing the animals in question, particularly mammals of the Andean humid tropical forest.
In the last decade, with the development of digital cameras and even more with the existence of commercial camera traps, a photo-trapping boom has taken place and in this way new discoveries and advances for conservation have been made. The first camera traps could not be found on sale, they had to be designed and constructed by each individual investigator. Now there are all kinds of camera traps on the market to suit each and every study and budget. With these marvellous tools, samples of biodiversity can be made and the presence of threatened or extremely elusive species confirmed. The abundance of species and individuals can be measured when they have unique characteristics that differentiate them from the rest. Density can be measured, as well as the survival rate of each individual or species; even the ranges of life can be estimated as well as the migration of species that before were only known in fiction books because they were impossible to see in “real life”. Camera traps are an incredible tool to measure the health of forests and to support their protection.
The Mashpi Reserve also is part of this great trap revolution, where the spies that are dedicated to observing the life of the reserve have placed cameras where they subtly monitor all types of mammals that roam around the under-forest, from the small rodents to the great cats like pumas. They also register distinct species from the birds that roam this stratus of the forest. Many camouflaged cameras have been placed at ground level in key places, identified by the observation of distinctive tracks.