The Power of Poop

by Anonymous (not verified) on

By Steve Paglia, ZSL Thailand Country Manager

Ever wonder how wildlife biologists get those awesome photographs of all sorts of species in their camera trap arrays?  

I could tell you it is due our extensive experience in the field and the years we spend studying the behaviours and ecology of the animals, but I wouldn’t be telling you the whole truth.

To be frank, we cheat: we stack the deck in our favour by using bait. Baits can take many forms depending on the animal you are trying to attract.  It might be food, a certain call, or a scent.

In Thailand, ZSL is currently conducting a tiger study using camera traps.  Camera traps are being deployed across a landscape, at the core of which are four protected areas. For the first year of the study, fish sauce and fermented fish paste were used to attract animals to the camera trap.  Researchers recorded numerous species of animals, but no tigers. 

Rangers and ZSL Thailand tiger team setting up a camera trap

(Above) Rangers and members of ZSL's tiger team set up a camera trap in the forest.

Camera trap images of Asian elephants in Thailand

(Above) Asian elephants congregate around a camera trap baited with fish sauce.

Camera trap image of a yellow bellied pine martin, Thailand

In these photos, both the yellow bellied pine marten (above) and macaque (below) seem to be saying "What stinks?!" as they approach a camera trap baited with fermented fish.

Camera trap image of a macaque, Thailand

After almost a year of trapping without successfully documenting the presence of a tiger, Kittiwara, the ZSL Tiger Programme Manager, sat down with me to brainstorm how to change the project protocol to increase the probability of recording a tiger.  We discussed various aspects of camera trapping, such as habitat selection, camera location, camera spacing and finally I asked her, “What are you using for bait?”  She responded that “We sometimes use fish sauce or fermented fish, sometimes we use nothing at all.”  I asked her “Have you ever used tiger scat or urine?” She responded no and after about 15 minutes of discussion, it was decided that on our next survey trip we would use tiger scat as a scent bait.

A week later, Kittiwara and the tiger team headed out to set up their camera trap array, which was now covered with tiger scat.  After waiting a month to see if our new bait was successful, we were happy to discover the first recorded camera trap evidence of tigers in the landscape we are studying.

Male tiger inspecting camera trap, Thailand

(Above) A male tiger inspecting a camera trap baited with tiger scat.

Camera trap image of a female tiger, Thailand

(Above) A female tiger approaching a scent station baited with tiger scat.

Ever since that trip, the tiger team has been baiting the camera trap array with tiger scat and has now recorded tigers in three out of the four protected areas in the landscape.  We have also noticed an increase in the number photos of cats and other large carnivores.

Camera trap image of leopard sniffing a tree stump, Thailand

(Above and below) Leopard sniffing a scent station scented with tiger scat.

Camera trap image of leopard showing flehmen response, Thailand

Scientists can explain this attraction to the tiger scat by noting that the tigers are territorial or in search of a mate. They will talk about pheromones and predator avoidance, but here in Thailand we simply call it the power of poop.

*Please note that the techniques described above are intended for very specific applications, primarily during scoping studies.

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