Seeing what's out there: Camera in traps in Paraguay

By Nicholas Gengler
Aug. 31, 2015

A footprint in the sand, a distant call at dusk or an all-too-brief glimpse of an escaping tail is sometimes all a Volunteer will see of Paraguayan wildlife around their community. 

Getting that glorious, clear look of a big predatory cat like a jaguar is nearly impossible anywhere in the world, but the severely degraded habitat and high level of human disturbance in eastern Paraguay makes it even more difficult here. Older community members remember when seeing monkeys or greater rheas was common, but many people in rural Paraguay now only ever see a few adaptable bird species and wild hares. Already in my Peace Corps service, I have found that demonstrating the presence of previously unknown local animals, with clear photos of their uninhibited behavior in the wilderness, is a priceless experience.

I am able to get these photos through the use of a camera trap. Like any camera, the camera trap has a lens, digital memory and takes photos or film. But the camera trap is different in that it is designed to be left in the wilderness for extended periods of time, automatically taking photos of anything that moves in front of it. 

For its motion detector, my camera, and most others, emits a grid of lasers, and when anything with a different temperature than the surrounding air (such as body heat) interrupts the path of one of the lasers, the camera activates and starts taking photos. When triggered at night, my camera switches to black and white infrared vision and emits a flash invisible to animals, leaving the camera undetected and the animal undisturbed.

Demonstrating how a camera trap works
Demonstrating how a camera trap works

The results can be remarkable. Lizards nearly the size of alligators and rodents the size of sheep, photographed in their habitat only a few kilometers from home, have a real power to captivate people. Community members have expressed surprise at photos of wild cats, similar to ocelots, which no one has seen in person for years.

I came to Paraguay with two of these camera traps and thanks to Peace Corps Paraguay’s Ahecha photography program, I am lending them out to any Volunteer who would like to use it. A Volunteer can sign up to use the camera trap kit for five weeks. We keep an online species log of every identifiable animal photographed and this information, accumulated over months and in a variety of locations, could contain helpful hints to conservation biologists conducting professional studies.

It has been famously stated that we only protect what we love and that we only love what we know. Getting to know wildlife has never been easier than with camera traps. In my community it has created great opportunities for discussions about ecology and conservation, and may be the basis of a school-wide project putting together a guild catalog of the local wildlife species. Park guards and university professors have also shown interest in using the camera.

While these photos are far from the excitement of live animal sighting, seeing the photo of a nocturnal anteater casually meandering through a familiar forest will give you quite a thrill.

Nicholas Gengler