While trawling through camera-trap photos, one may encounter an array of startling images. In our experience, that can include shy, nocturnal animals that are seldom seen in the field, endangered species, inquisitive creatures inspecting (and sometimes trying to eat) the cameras and oddly enough, the occasional naked human.
Add to that photographs documenting unexpected interactions between species (for example, a genet hitching a ride on rhino and buffalo) and it is little wonder that camera-trap images (of wildlife, not naked humans) can prompt levels of excitement among researchers usually associated with a toddler given access to fistfuls of chocolate cake, puppies and a terrifically noisy toy.
More importantly though, the photos captured during our systematic camera-trap surveys enable us to generate reliable estimates of population densities and trends for leopards as well as other individually identifiable species. By repeating the surveys at regular intervals, we can track changes in populations over time and work with local management authorities and our partners on the ground to implement conservation strategies based on what we know about a specific population.
In southern Africa’s Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area, leopard are the primary focus of our camera-trap surveys. However, our surveys often yield a great deal of other important information—poacher and hunting dog sightings, the presence of livestock herds and records of other threatened species including lion, cheetah, African wild dog and rhino. Such information is shared with management staff, partner organizations and fellow researchers. These photographs can be particularly useful when the animals captured by the camera traps are not seen on a regular basis, they have dispersed from another protected area, or exhibit signs of being afflicted by disease, snaring or other forms of serious injury.
Unfortunately, our surveys indicate that leopard population densities at many of our study sites have declined substantially since 2013. As we continue to gather data and investigate the cause of these declines, we work closely with other organisations in an effort to conserve leopard and other threatened species. Conservation is undoubtedly a team effort, and we are lucky to have committed partners—and citizen scientists like you—on our side.