Bill McShea has traveled to China more than 20 times as a research ecologist in search of pandas—or at least signs of them—while working with conservation parks eager to monitor their wildlife. In all that time, he has seen a panda, with his own eyes, twice. The unglamorous career of an ecologist more often involves scavenging for scat or animal tracks, the evidence left behind.
"That’s my living. You’d be surprised how few wildlife I see," says McShea, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "You just never see them. If you are wildlife living in some place like Asia, you’re running for your life every day of the week. You’re not standing around waiting for somebody to take a picture of you or get you in their gun sights."
McShea’s job, however, is changing, and along with it our understanding of wildlife populations and behavior that scientists seldom get to lay eyes on. McShea runs the Smithsonian’s Wild program from a research station in Front Royal, an hour west of Washington in Virginia black bear country. Through the project, the Smithsonian has already gathered more than 200,000 images of giant pandas, bobcats, cougars, water buffalo, and more surreptitiously snapped by motion-trigger cameras hiding all over the world. Many of the animals appear, eyes blazing in the dark, as if they’ve been caught red-handed on a convenience-store camera.
Together, these images represent a modern collection for the nation’s museum. "We’re just talking about collecting a different kind of museum specimen," McShea says. "Instead of having it be a skin in a drawer, it’s a photograph. But that photograph has a date and a place and a time and species identification and a collection ID. It has much of the information that the original specimen had."
It has just about everything but the DNA. In other ways, this collection is even more valuable than the old dust-gathering kind. This image database contains vastly more data, and photos today are much easier to transport across national borders than physical bits of animals. McShea can now compare the conservation strategies of different parks across the world. (How do you know, for instance, if a Chinese park is low on pandas, or just short on experts who know how to track them?) And this project can now definitively document species where we weren’t sure they existed, or—worse—identify where they seem to have disappeared. "The advent of these cameras was just a godsend," McShea says.
Wildlife photographers have been at this since the 1920s, trying to fashion more rudimentary motion triggers. (Here’s a popular one: Wait until an animal tugs at a piece of bait attached to a string that pulls the shutter of a camera closed.) A later generation of wildlife cameras was powered by car batteries in the 1980s. And then there was the problem of shooting in places like the steamy tropics on actual film. "It would get all mushy," McShea recalls.
Ironically, deer hunters have largely pushed the development of this technology that’s today used for conservation. Over the last eight years or so, most of these cameras have gone digital. And they now have infrared flashes that don’t daze the animals. Most of the time, the wildlife never even know the cameras are there, mounted, at about the size of a children’s lunch box, onto the sides of trees. Okay, some of the animals notice, elephants and bears in particular. "Elephants are smart enough to say ‘that’s not natural over there,’" McShea says. "They just go out of their way to step on it and squash it."
The project now includes images taken by partner researchers and organizations far from the Smithsonian. Give them your images, McShea says, and the museum will keep them forever. He hopes soon that the project will become even bigger, including more partnerships and rigorous submissions from citizen-scientists. In the meantime, the camera technology is likely to only get better. Today, researchers still have to troop out into the forest to pull memory cards from cameras that run on AA batteries. Perhaps cell phone technology will enable the cameras to instantly upload images in the future.
Some of what we’ll learn from the project will inevitably discourage us, as researchers are able to better document our true impact on nature. But other snapshots will surprise us. The Wild program received one image of a snow leopard from a wildlife reserve in China.
"There aren’t supposed to be any snow leopards in this whole province, and here is one in this one reserve, and that’s fantastic," McShea says. "And the reserve is far happier than I am. They have old guys there saying ‘yes, we have snow leopards here!’ And nobody believed them."