Of marbled cats and wedding hats

Recently, Julie and I shared our 25th wedding anniversary. It was a startling reminder of the onrushing progress of time. Sure, plenty has happened in those 25 years, children have been born and graduated from university, pets have come and gone, hundreds of students have been taught, research has been competed, earthquakes have been endured, cricket has be coached. But the wedding,  as I am required to say, that most important day of my life, seems so recent. I remember it like it was yesterday. Until, that is, Julie and I started to look through our wedding albums.

The best day of my life. Also, no hats.  Image from Adrian Paterson.

Staring out of these photos are younger versions of friends and family. We chuckled about these changes and moved on. But then there are the glimpses of people that didn’t really ring a bell. Who is that? Ooh was that so and so’s boyfriend at the time? There are absenses. I’m sure uncle and auntie X and Y came. Maybe not. There’s no evidence of them there. I know my brothers were their and there are plenty of my youngest. But where are the pictures of my other brother? Finally, he turns up in the side of a photo.

The photo albums of the wedding are a record of a time and place. They tell us who was there as they were captured by the camera. They don’t necessarily capture everyone who was there. They tell you something about behaviour. About fashions. Wedding hats are a fairly big thing, normally. But it appears that no-one wore one to our wedding! It was definitely hot and sunny enough, but clearly hats weren’t the thing that year. Overall, the photos are just snapshots of what occured in a very hot Masterton at St Lukes and Church/Solway Hotel on January 8th, 1994.

Cameras are an increasingly important and crucial piece of technology in our modern world, whether in CCTV footage or on your smart phone. Cameras are also becoming more frequently used in the world of science. In ecology and behaviour we make the most of the fact that taking a photo of an animal confirms that it was in that particular place at that particular time.

Obviously, how you set up a camera will determine how effective it is in detecting and recording an image of an animal. Too high off the ground and many animals will walk underneath a triggering beam. Too low and the radius of detection may be too small. How much light is required? How much vegetation should be removed to avoid false triggering? And so on.

There are times, though, when simply taking a picture is enough.

Sonam Lama, as part of his Master of International Nature Conservation research, is interested in the diversity of large mammals in eastern Nepal. Sonam has worked on Red Panda conservation for a decade and wanted to know which species the red pandas share their forest habitat with.

The elusive marbled cat… Image by Sonam Lama.

Sonam, working with Adrian Paterson and James Ross from Lincoln University and others from Nepalese-based NGOs, placed trail cameras out in an area of eastern Nepal on the border with India. Sonam set up 63 trail cameras in a grid pattern near the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. The cameras were left out for about a month at each site before they were moved on.

Overall, there were 3000 trap days spread throughout winter and spring over 100 sites. Over 5000 images of medium to large mammals were taken. The results have been published in the journal Nature Conservation. The most common mammals were the northern red muntjac Muntiacus vaginalis and the orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel Dremomys lokriah.

Of particular interest were the cat species that were detected, common leopard Panthera pardus, Asiatic golden-cat Catopuma temminckii and leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis. A fourth species, the marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata, was also detected at one site on one day. The marbled cat is a near threatened species that has not been definitively recorded from Nepal before.

There were three images of the cat, with its characteristic large bushy tail. Three out of 5000 images of animals. In one sense this species barely registered its presence. In another, the confirmation that this species is present in mountain forest outside of a national park area and in Nepal, is a very exciting finding. Not finding a species doesn’t mean it isn’t actually there, just that you didn’t detect it. Detecting a species, on the other hand, is definitive. It is there.

The marbled cat is struggling throughout its range. This new detection extends its known range. It adds to the conservation load of Nepal but does imply that there may be more of these cats in the wild than we currently think.

Photographic images have a great power to record events in space and time, whether this is the style of wedding hats or the wandering of marbled cats.

Many other mammals were recorded on our cameras… red panda! Image from Sonam Lama.

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