Wildlife camera trapping

A wildlife camera trap is a camera left at a location, rigged so that any approaching wild animal will automatically trigger the shutter release and take one or more photos or video sequences, without the photographer being present. 

The first attempts to do this were made as early as 1877. In 1906, camera trap photos were seen widely for the first time when George Shiras published photos of free-living wildlife in the National Geographic Magazine.

In the early years camera trapping was rather a specialist and limited activity, mainly because the equipment was bulky and difficult to use, involving weighty cameras and arrays of trip wires. But although the equipment was clumsy by modern standards, from the outset images obtained this way were especially attractive for the often candid and relaxed behaviour that was captured.

Camera trap image of leopard sniffing baited scent station in Thailand
Amur tiger caught on camera trap.

Why are we camera trapping?

Today camera trapping has been transformed by technology to become a major tool for conservation organisations like ZSL. Miniaturised heat and motion sensors have replaced wires and pressures pads. Invisible infra-red flash units provide night time monchrome images without the startling effect of conventional flash. Very large numbers of high quality digital images can be stored and modern batteries allow these devices to operate unsupervised night and day in remote locations for months at a time. This gives us the opportunity to learn new things about elusive wild animals and some of the problems they face.

The images emerging from these projects are often engaging and useful in their own right, but we also need strong data management systems and robust analytical methods to turn the many 100s of thousands of images generated into scientifically valid conclusions. The development of new analysis tools has not so far kept pace with the potential created by the new technology. ZSL is working to develop the statistical theory behind new methods that make full use of the information emerging from camera trap surveys. We are also developing new software tools that make it easy to manage camera trap data and produce information that is relevant to critical conservation questions.

Key Species we camera trap

We typically use arrays of camera traps spaced across large areas to assess the distribution and abundance of key species of conservation concern and conduct biodiversity surveys, or to understand the impact of humans on whole animal communities. However, we also sometime target key locations with cameras, such as dens or nest sites, to provide a history of the activity and behaviour of a target species. ZSL is carrying out camera trapping surveys like these across the globe, including projects in Europe, Africa, the Americas, South and South-East Asia, targeting iconic species such as tigers and okapi, as well as a huge range of lesser known wildlife.

Advanced Camera Trapping Technology

At ZSL the Conservation Technology Unit (CTU) has used funding from the Google Impact Award to build the world’s first satellite enabled camera trap for anti-poaching and remote monitoring. Read more on the Instant Detect page.

Publications from our camera trapping

Rajan Amin, Samuel A. Andanje, Bernard Ogwonka, Abdullahi H. Ali, Andrew E. Bowkett, Mohamed Omar and Tim Wacher (2014). The northern coastal forests of Kenya are nationally and globally important for the conservation of Aders' duiker Cephalophus adersi and other antelope species.  Biodiversity and Conservation. Biodiversity Conservation. DOI 10.1007/s10531-014-0842-z

Andanje, S.A., Bowkett, A.E., Agwanda, B.R., Ngaruita, G.W., Polwman, A.B., Wacher, T. and Amin, R. (2011) A new population of Critically Endangered Aders’ duiker Cephalophus adersi confirmed from northern coastal Kenya. Oryx, Short Communication, 45(3), 444-447.

Caravaggi, A., P. Banks, C. Burton, C. M. V. Finlay, P. M. Haswell, M. Hayward, J. M. Rowcliffe, and M. Wood. in press. A review of camera trapping for conservation behaviour research. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

Carbone, C., Christie, S., Coulson, T., Franklin, N., Ginsberg, J.R., Griffiths, M., Holden, J., Kawanishi, K., Kinnaird, M.F., Laidlaw, R., Lynam, A., Macdonald, D.W., Martyr, D., McDougal, C., Nath, L., Obrien, T., Seidensticker, J., Smith, D.J.L., Sunquist, M., Tilson, R. & Wan Shahruddin, W.N. (2001) The use of photographic rates to estimate densities of tigers and other cryptic mammals. Animal Conservation, 4, 75-79.

Cusack, J. J., A. J. Dickman, M. Kalyahe, J. M. Rowcliffe, C. Carbone, D. W. Macdonald, and T. Coulson. 2017. Revealing kleptoparasitic and predatory tendencies in an African mammal community using camera traps: a comparison of spatiotemporal approaches. Oikos 126:812-822.

Cusack, J. J., A. J. Dickman, J. M. Rowcliffe, C. Carbone, D. W. Macdonald, and T. Coulson. 2015. Random versus trail-based camera trap placement strategy for monitoring terrestrial mammal communities. PloS One 10:e0126373.

Cusack, J. J., A. Swanson, T. Coulson, C. Packer, C. Carbone, A. Dickman, M. Kosmala, C. Lintott, and J. M. Rowcliffe. 2015. Applying a random encounter model to estimate lion Panthera leo density from camera traps in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Journal of Wildlife Management 79:1014–1021.

Durant, S.M., Craft, M.E., Foley, C., Hampson, K., Lobora, A.L., Msuha, M., Eblate, E., Bukombe, J., McHetto, J. & Pettorelli, N. (2010) Does size matter? An investigation of habitat use across a carnivore assemblage in the Serengeti, Tanzania. Journal of Animal Ecology, 79, 1012–1022.

Hofmeester, T. R., P. A. Jansen, and J. M. Rowcliffe. in press. Quantifying the availability of vertebrate hosts to ticks: a camera-trapping approach. Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Hofmeester, T. R., J. M. Rowcliffe, and P. A. Jansen. 2017. A simple method for estimating the effective detection distance of camera traps. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation 3:81-89.

Kays, R., Tilak, S., Crofoot, M., Fountain, T., Obando, D., Ortega, A., Kuemmeth, F., Mandel, J., Swenson, G., Lambert, T., Hirsch1, B. & Wikelski, M. (2011) Tracking animal location and activity with an automated radio telemetry system in a tropical rainforest. The Computer Journal, 54, 1931-1948.

Manzo, E., Bartolommei, P., Rowcliffe, J.M. & Cozzolino, R. (2012) Estimation of population density of European pine marten in Central Italy using camera trapping. Acta Theriologica, 57, 165-172.

McCallum, J.W., Rowcliffe, J.M. & Cuthill, I.C. (2014) Conservation on international boundaries: the impact of security barriers on terrestrial mammals and humans in four protected areas in Arizona, USA. PloS One, 9, e93679.

Msuha, M. J., Carbone, C., Pettorelli, N., & Durant, S. M. (2012). Conserving biodiversity in a changing world: land use change and species richness in northern Tanzania. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21(11), 2747–2759. doi:10.1007/s10531-012-0331-1.

Pettorelli, N., Lobora, A.L., Msuha, M.J., Foley, C. & Durant, S.M. (2010) Carnivore biodiversity in Tanzania: revealing the distribution patterns of secretive mammals using camera traps. Animal Conservation, 13, 131-139.

Rowcliffe, J.M. & Carbone, C. (2008) Surveys using camera traps: are we looking to a brighter future? Animal Conservation, 11, 185-186. 

Rowcliffe, J.M., Carbone, C., Jansen, P.A., Kays, R. & Kranstauber, B. (2011) Quantifying the sensitivity of camera traps: an adapted distance sampling approach. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2, 464-476.

Rowcliffe, J. M., C. Carbone, R. Kays, and B. Kranstauber. 2014. Density estimation using camera trap surveys: the Random Encounter Model. Pages 317-324 in P. D. Meek, P. J. S. Fleming, A. G. Ballard, P. B. Banks, A. W. Claridge, J. G. Sanderson, and D. E. Swann, editors. Camera Trapping in Wildlife Research and Management CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.

Rowcliffe, J.M., Carbone, C., Kays, R., Kranstauber, B. & Jansen, P.A. (2012) Bias in estimating animal travel distance: the effect of sampling frequency. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 3, 653-662.
Rowcliffe, J.M., Field, J., Turvey, S.T. & Carbone, C. (2008) Estimating animal density using camera traps without the need for individual recognition. Journal of Applied Ecology, 45, 1228-1236.
Rowcliffe, J.M., Kays, R., Carbone, C. & Jansen, P.A. (2013) Clarifying assumptions behind the estimation of animal density from camera trap rates. Journal of Wildlife Management, 77, 876.

Rowcliffe, J.M., Carbone, C., Jansen, P.A., Kays, R. & Kranstauber, B. (2011) Quantifying the sensitivity of camera traps: an adapted distance sampling approach. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2, 464-476.
Rowcliffe, J.M., Kays, R., Kranstauber, B., Carbone, C. & Jansen, P.A. (2014) Quantifying levels of animal activity using camera-trap data. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 5, 1170-1179.

Rowcliffe, J. M., P. A. Jansen, R. Kays, B. Kranstauber, and C. Carbone. 2016. Wildlife speed cameras: measuring animal travel speed and day range using camera traps. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation 2:84-94.

Steenweg, R., M. Hebblewhite, R. Kays, J. Ahumada, J. T. Fisher, C. Burton, S. E. Townsend, C. Carbone, J. M. Rowcliffe, J. Whittington, J. Brodie, J. A. Royle, A. Switalski, A. P. Clevenger, N. Heim, and L. N. Rich. 2017. Scaling up camera traps — monitoring the planet's biodiversity with networks of remote sensors. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15:26-34.

Suselbeek, L., Emsens, W.-J., Hirsch, B.T., Kays, R., Rowcliffe, J.M., Zamora-Gutierrez, V. & Jansen, P.A. (2014) Food acqusition and predator avoidance in a Neotropical rodent. Animal Behaviour, 88, 41-48.

Wearn, O.R., Rowcliffe, M.J., Carbone, C., Bernard, H., Ewers, R,M. (2013) Assessing the Status of Wild Felids in a Highly-Disturbed Commercial Forest Reserve in Borneo and the Implications of Camera Trap Survey Design. PLoS ONE 8(11): e77598.

Wearn, O. R., J. M. Rowcliffe, C. Carbone, M. Pfeifer, H. Bernard, and R. M. Ewers. 2017. Mammalian species abundance across a gradient of tropical land-use intensity: a hierarchical multi-species modelling approach. Biological Conservation 212:162-171.

Wearn, O. R., C. Carbone, J. M. Rowcliffe, H. Bernard, and R. M. Ewers. 2016. Grain-dependent responses of mammalian diversity to land-use and the implications for conservation set-aside. Ecological Applications 26:1409–1420.

Monitoring wildlife

  • Camera trap image of leopard sniffing baited scent station in Thailand
    Camera trap data management and analysis package

    Camera trap software

    Camera-trap surveys resulting in overwhelming amounts of data, but we are introducing software make conservation more efficient.

  • Conservationists pplying Smart tool
    Conservation tech

    SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool)

    Our SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) approach is a combination of software, training materials and patrolling standards to help conservation managers monitor animals, identify threats and make patrols more effective.

  • Galapagos Marine Iguanas sunbathing on volcanic rocks in Puerto Egas (Egas port) Santiago island, Ecuador
    Building a nature-positive society

    The Red List Index Project

    The results of the global LPI are published biennially in WWF's Living Planet Report, a leading science-based publication on the state of the planet and associated challenges and solutions.

  • Grizzly bear catching salmon in a river during the salmon run
    Evidence-based conservation action

    Global biodiversity monitoring

    To recover restore wildlife, we first need to understand where it most needs our help. Our evidence-based approach enables us to target the species and ecosystems most in need of support.

  • Monitoring and technology