Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mammal camera traps and conservation refugees

Conservation International has a project to place cameras in tropical forests to photograph mammals:
Although conservationists are concerned about tropical forest mammals, there is very little information on what is actually happening to most of these mammal communities as the threats of climate change and deforestation loom over them. But now we have system to gather it: the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network.

TEAM has the largest monitoring system for terrestrial vertebrates on the planet. Instead of having people walking around the forest looking for mammals — which is very inefficient, as these animals are usually rare and hard to spot — TEAM deploys camera traps over large areas of forest all over the tropics (eight monitoring sites in Latin America, five in Africa and Madagascar and four in Southeast Asia).
They have 52,000 photos, and the ones they've made publicly available are cool:

The part that worries me is what follows:
At each monitoring site, these camera traps work 24/7 for one month, taking pictures of everything that crosses their path — including hunters. These hunter images could potentially be used by park authorities to help control poaching in these areas.
This picture is labelled "Poacher caught on camera in Uganda":

First, I don't know about the legality of photographing people in this way or using the photos for this purpose. More generally, though, I'm concerned about the identification of these people as criminal "poachers." I worry that some may be (not that these are necessarily mutually exclusive categories) local people, including members of indigenous groups who've been forced off their lands, trying to survive. I have a problem with wealthy BINGOs like CI, who themselves partner with the very corporations responsible for massive environmental destruction in these areas, portraying poor local people as villains for local governments and their international audience. I recommend Mark Dowie's Conservation Refugees. From an article by Dowie about the book:
“We are arrogant,” was the confession of a CI executive working in South America, who asked me not to identify her. I was heartened by her admission until she went on to suggest that this was merely a minor character flaw. In fact, arrogance was cited by almost all of the nearly one hundred indigenous leaders I met with as a major impediment to constructive communication with big conservation.

If field observations and field workers’ sentiments trickle up to the headquarters of CI and the other BINGOs, there could be a happy ending to this story. There are already positive working models of socially sensitive conservation on every continent, particularly in Australia, Bolivia, Nepal, and Canada, where national laws that protect native land rights leave foreign conservationists no choice but to join hands with indigenous communities and work out creative ways to protect wildlife habitat and sustain biodiversity while allowing indigenous citizens to thrive in their traditional settlements.

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