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Hunting wild animals – with cameras

Paparazzi naturalists catch nature in the act with strategically placed motion-sensitive cameras.

Douglas Fox

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Reno Taini and Chris Wemmer wade through banks of fern and wild blackberry on this February morning. A crisscross of shadows, cast by gnarled oaks, sweeps over their gray heads and denim shirts as they move. They follow a faint trail, just the type that might lead to a stash of trashed beer bottles and Twinkie wrappers – but this is no human trail.

"These are all animal trails," says Mr. Taini, pointing to several tracks that snake across the steep slope. Deer, pigs, and the like have worn these trails – not humans.

Taini and Mr. Wemmer read the trails as they walk, choosing branches to follow. They've come to this wilderness area to trap the animals that travel them – not with snares, but with cameras.

Wemmer has spent his life learning to think like animals, from Tasmanian devils to Burmese brow-antlered deer; he conducted research at the Conservation and Research Center at the National Zoo in Virginia until retiring in 2004. Today he and his friend Taini search for the right spot to mount a camera so that whatever beasts prowl these hills will voluntarily strike a pose for a photo. They'll leave four cameras here for a month; infrared motion sensors will trigger the shutters.

Biologists have used camera traps for decades to estimate populations of rare animals, such as Asiatic cheetahs. And in February researchers reported a new species of elephant shrew discovered by camera trapping in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania.

The technique has also gone mainstream: Hunters mount cameras on trees to scope out the movements of big-racked bucks months before shooting season starts, and hobbyists like Wemmer use them, motivated by a mishmash of animal voyeurism, artistic portraiture, and sport.

Wemmer and Taini pause where the trail dips into a stream. "This is such a busy intersection," says Wemmer. He holds a camera against the slender waist of a young redwood. "If you put [the camera] here, they're going to stop to drink water with their body long-wise."

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