Camera traps are a great way to monitor the forest without actually being there.

In order to get more information about the forest here at the Sikundur research station in North Sumatra, I’ve set up four camera traps, which I’m using to get a better look at the wildlife around the site.

The traps have been so successful in such a short time period that together with another graduate student, John Abernethy of Liverpool John Moores University, and Matthew Nowak of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, we’ve decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign over at Experiment, which you can support here. Hopefully the campaign will be a success, and periodically I’ll post the best of my pictures so you can see how unbelievable animal life in the forest is in Sumatra!

Camera traps are great, because a lot of animals will run from humans or are nocturnal, meaning that we’d never get to see them otherwise. I’m using the idiot proof but slightly cumbersome Primos TruthCam and the more complicated but compact Bushnell TrophyCam, which I attach to trees using locks to prevent them from being stolen. In the daytime the cameras shoot bursts of three color photos and at night they produce an infrared flash allowing for night vision without scaring the animals. Typically, with eight-rechargeable-AA or four-D batteries the units can be left for around a month, though I’ve been switching the batteries and memory cards every three weeks or to be on the safe side.

The cameras are attached to trees in clearings on game trails and left to run on their own. The batteries and memory cards are changed every three to four weeks.

So, what have I got so far? A lot is the simple answer!

To start with, I have a ridiculous number of pictures of great argus pheasants, since the sites of their mating dances make ideal locations for my camera traps. The males of this odd looking bird will wander around cleaning their chosen spot while making a very distinctive two-tone “Woo-woo” sound to try and attract a female. When a female arrives the male will puff up its wings in a display showing off the hundreds of “eyes” on its beautiful plumage.

The male great argus pheasant, Argusanius argus, possesses a spectacularly long tail and secondary wing feathers that are decorated with hundreds of ocelli. He clears a spot in the forest to dance for females, which also makes the perfect location for a camera trap!

As for mammals, the cameras are a big draw for groups of terrestrial pig-tailed macaques, which love to play with them and strike hilarious poses, much to the delight of my field assistants, who I think might enjoy looking at the pictures more than I do!

Southern pig-tailed macaques, Macaca nemestrina, love to play with the camera traps and will often spend hours sitting in front of this strange object teasing and slapping it around. As of yet they haven’t done any real damage.

On one occasion, I’ve also captured pics of a few individuals of another primate species, the endemic Thomas’s leaf monkey, also known as Thomas’s langur, which was cool, since they don’t spend much time on the ground. However, as of yet, I haven’t photographed any orangutans, which fits in with the idea that the threat of predation by tigers keeps the Sumatran species largely arboreal.

The Thomas’ langur, Presbytis thomasi, is a striking endemic leaf monkey found only in North Sumatra. Here a mother grasps her infant while resting in front of the camera trap, which her troop came to investigate.

At night, the pheasant clearings seem to attract Sumatran porcupines, which lumber around in twos and threes. Their appearance was a big shock, since I didn’t know porcupines live in the jungle!

The Sumatran porcupine, Hystrix sumatrae, is a large rodent, common across the island, and is hunted for food.

The pheasant clearings are all on our trail system, which is commonly used by jungle pigs, along with their incredibly adorable, though extremely well camouflaged piglets!

The western bearded pig, Sus barbatus oi, lives in family groups in the Sumatran rainforest. These piglets are incredibly well camouflaged for the dry forest environment at Sikundur.

The big stars in Sumatra that everyone wants to see are the elusive and rare cat species, including tigers, and the bigger mammals like sun bears, rhinos (not present at Sikundur, sadly) and forest elephants.

I haven’t been lucky enough to get any tigers yet, but I’m cautiously optimistic that by moving the cameras away from human habitation they’ll show up sooner or later! I did, however, photograph beautiful clouded leopards on two occasions, although one images is heavily over-exposed, so I can’t tell if it’s the same individual.

The Sunda clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi, is an endangered cat species found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. They’re found in low densities on Sumatra, most likely due to sympatric competition with tigers. These two photos highlight one of the difficulties with camera trapping: if an animal gets too close to the IR flash or moves too quickly, the cameras are likely to lose a lot of detail.

I’ve also encountered just the one sun bear to date, though again I’m hopeful that when I place the cameras away from the village, they’ll appear more regularly.

The sun bear, Helarctus melayanus, is an endangered bear found in the rainforests of South East Asia. It’s the smallest species of bear in the world, and is threatened by deforestation and commercial hunting for eating, traditional medicine, the pet trade and bile farming.

The best photos I’ve taken so far came from a group of forest elephants that spent three hours in front of my camera before smashing it! I’m hopeful the camera can be salvaged, however, and the photos are so good that I’m totally fine with junking the camera if not!

The Sumatran elephant, Elephas maximus sumatranus, is a critically endangered subspecies of the Asian elephant native to Sumatra. They’re critically endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation, which puts them into direct conflict with human agriculture and makes them susceptible to poaching for ivory. Half of the population has been lost in the past 25 years—just one generation for an elephant—along with 70 of its habitat. At Sikundur, we commonly encounter groups of elephants in the lowland forest since this is their ideal habitat. However, we also hear the sound of gunfire being used every single day to scare the elephants away from raiding the nearby agricultural plantations. A matriarch leads this particular group with only juvenile males present.

Based on the success of just four camera traps in these first few months, we definitely want to set up a larger system, using rigorous methods to accurately measure the densities and locations of the amazing taxa found in this incredible forest! These pictures, the best of over 2,500 the cameras have taken in less than 100 trap nights, highlight just how diverse our small chunk of Gunung Leuser National Park is (imagine what the areas without anthropogenic disturbance must be like!) and how vital it is that we fight to conserve every last patch of forest that remains.

To support James’ crowdfunding campaign, visit his page at