Citizen Science and the Tapir

We’re out to check a camera trap. It’s one of 130 remote cameras in our largest Amazonian monitoring project yet, taking pictures of anything their sensors detect. The cameras are positioned on an expansive system of new trails that cross two reserves and connect the remote Tambopata Research Centre with Refugio Amazonas - the lodge in which we are based. And this camera is at the start of it all, just a kilometer from our base amid the trails frequented by the clients of the lodge.

But what are we going to find on such well-used trails? With so many people around, one might think, surely the wildlife stays away?

That theory lasts as long as it takes to open the camera and slide the memory card into a phone.

A tapir, the largest animal in the forest, stares out from the screen its eyes glowing in the infra-red lights emitted by the cameras cryptic flash. I swipe left, and she is still there, sniffing gently around the camera, swipe again and she’s licking the cameras sensor: perhaps she’s after the salt - biologists can get rather sweaty while setting cameras in the stifling heat of the dry season! In any case she does not seem alarmed by the strange object in her territory and it takes several more swipes before I get to the next animals – agouti, deer, more agouties and then a jaguar, first the head, then the shoulders and the body, just a few feet in front to the camera.

This last sequence causes a significant stir behind me and it’s only then that I remember that I am not alone.

I am accompanied by a small group of enthusiastic visitors from the lodge, fulfilling their dream of seeing research first-hand in the forest. This monitoring program is supported and sustained by a forward-thinking ecotourism operation. Our partners Rainforest Expeditions have undertaken the monumental task of cutting the trails on our carefully designed and impressively ambitious sampling grid, and have furnished it with the camera traps that are collecting the data we will analyze to map the distributions of animals.

The cameras close to the lodge will connect us directly to this steady stream of interested "citizen scientists" and hopefully their interest will persist. Perhaps, when they return to their homes across the US and the rest of the world, they will log onto the project website from time to time to see what else the cameras have discovered. They will delve into the catalogue of images and be the first to lay eyes on some of the thousands of images constantly generated by our cameras. They will join an army of volunteers from all walks of life; students, office workers and retirees, among others, who help us identify the animals in the photographs and allow us to solve our conservation research problems faster and more efficiently.

Our team just got a whole lot bigger and we like it this way!