Camera Trapping for BioMAPping!

If you enjoy wildlife documentaries or scientific articles, you’ve probably seen photos or video taken by “camera traps.” Remote cameras have been used for years by scientists studying or documenting wildlife numbers and behaviour in sometimes difficult or inaccessible terrain. A camera trap is just like an ordinary digital camera except that you don’t have to press a button for a photo to be take, instead the camera is triggered by movement or heat from animals.  Camera traps are super handy tools for mapping mammals, they are like little spies in the bush!

Camera trapping has proved to be a very effective way of finding out which elusive and, especially, nocturnal animals are in an area. It’s also an effective way to find out how animals are utilising an area.

Porcupines coming for a drink with a Kudu strolling on by

There is an Animal Demography Unit project for which camera traps play an absolutely crucial role and that is MammalMAP. MammalMAP is the Atlas of African Mammals. The aim of MammalMAP is to update the distribution records for all of Africa’s wild mammals — the small ones, the big ones, the dry ones and the wet ones.

“Surely we know the distributions of Africa’s mammals? These are flagships species for tourism in Africa.” Sadly, the answer is “no” —  the distributions are changing due to habitat destruction and climate change. Developing these 21st century distribution maps is filling a critical gap in conservation needs. To effectively manage and conserve wildlife we need to know where they are and we need to understand why they are there. But the reality is that across Africa, our knowledge of the whereabouts of many mammals is, at best – outdated, and, at worst – based on unverified anecdotes. Filling this crucial gap in our knowledge is the main aim of MammalMAP. If you are keen to help us map Africa’s wonderful mammals then setting up a few camera traps is a fun and effective way to do so.

A few tips on setting up camera traps:

  • It is very important to pick the right site for your camera trap. It helps to be quite sure that an animal will pass by the camera at some stage
  • Well-used game paths, hiking trails, quiet jeep tracks, dry watercourses and the bottom of ravines are all good places to set up your camera traps
  • For close shots, like on game paths, at watering holes or food sources set the camera up at no higher than waist height (if you are focusing on smaller animals it is better to set the camera up at a lower position)
  • If you are in an area where elephants, hyenas or large predators occur, make sure that your hands are free from any unusual or attractive odours e.g. food, perfumes etc. as this might tempt these animals to inspect the source of the odour — and they may just have a pull or a bite at the camera trap to see if its to their liking
  • Another important factor to keep in mind is the direction of the rising and setting sun. Occasionally when a subject triggers the camera when it is pointed towards the sun as the sun is rising or setting (typically heavy activity hours) this can lead to overexposed or ‘washed-out’ pictures
A leopard caught on camera mid hunt!

You can upload your camera trap photos to MammalMAP at — have fun!

Bushpig taking a stroll
Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan is our communications, social media and citizen science coordinator. Prior to her work for the BDI, she coordinated OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata. A citizen science project run by the Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town and funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. She also coordinated LepiMAP, which is the Atlas on African Lepidoptera. Megan is passionate about biodiversity conservation. She is a firm believer in the power of citizen science and getting the public involved in nature conservation.

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