A forest full of fieldwork

Harriet Ibbett

Slap. Ouch. I’ve just been thwacked in the face by bamboo. Again. I’m on all fours, crawling through a rather dense thicket of bamboo. It’s around me, it’s above me, and its also really rather itchy. You are probably questioning what exactly I am doing; I know I certainly am. The answer is…fieldwork.

View of the forest from the river.
View of the forest from the river. 

Aside from getting stuck in complex mazes of bamboo and pondering how exactly my team members have managed to squeeze through impossibly small gaps (sometimes it feels like I’m doing a tropical version of the limbo, except with the addition of a rucksack), I’m actually searching for snares. But not just any snares, these are ‘fake’ snares…and I’ve asked other team members to set them, specifically so we could try to find them. I better explain.

Hunting with snares is one of the greatest threats to wildlife, particularly in tropical forests. A snare is a loop, usually made from wire cable which varies in thickness from a bicycle brake cable to electricity cable. To set a snare you need some wire, a trigger and a pole of some sort. When the trigger is released, a wire loop will tighten around an animals’ limb entrapping them. If the animal is lucky it may escape, probably with an injury. If it is unlucky, the animal will remain in the trap until the hunter arrives, or until it dies of starvation, dehydration or infection; whichever comes first.

Snare hunting is extremely popular. This is because snares are cheap, easy to set and extremely effective. They can be set in high densities, we’re talking hundreds per hunter, and they are indiscriminate; catching anything from a peafowl to an elephant.

From a law enforcement perspective, the biggest challenge to removing snares is their invisibility. Snares are designed for disguise, thus detecting and removing them is extremely difficult. Well-trained and highly experienced rangers can be within 5 metres of a wire snare and still fail to see it. Moreover, it's hard work. Rangers can walk many kilometres a day in tough terrain and, despite their best efforts, they may only remove a tiny proportion of the total snares present.

A real wire snare, set in bamboo habitat.
A real wire snare, set in bamboo habitat.

Conservation is often limited by resources. Protected Areas can cover huge expanses and staff numbers are low, so it is impossible to search everywhere. So how should we allocate search effort when removing snares? What search methodology should we use? Should teams search only along probable trap sites such as animal trails and water sources? Or should they systematically sweep a whole area using a grid system? How much time and money should be invested in searching? And does detection change in different habitat types, seasons, and with different search teams? Moreover, how do factors such as morale, experience and motivation affect detection performance? These are all important questions, to which we currently have few answers; hence I find myself in the middle of a bamboo thicket.

I’m in Cambodia working with a dedicated team from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Our field site is Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, a 3,000km2 reserve situated along the eastern border with Vietnam. The forest here is highly diverse, ranging from leech infested dense evergreen jungle, to open deciduous dipterocarp forest. Wildlife populations are relatively good, with elephant, gaur, banteng and several globally threatened primate species still present. However, sustained and prolonged hunting, mainly with snares, is decimating the remaining wildlife.

I’m working in an area of mixed forest, and using an experimental methodology to set ‘fake’ snares. Our snares look like real snares, but they’re actually made from string instead of wire, and the trigger mechanism is disabled, so no animals can be hurt, plus we remove all snares we set. I’ve marked transects through the forest, each one 3.25km long and comprised of 12 x 500m2 squares. In each square I ask one team to set a random number of snares, the square is then searched by three other teams for a set period, which ranges from 15 to 90 minutes. During each search, teams record their route and any detections using GPS. Whilst setting and searching for snares I accompany teams and question them about their hunting and searching decisions in order to understand hunting techniques. 

Setting fake snares and recording their locations.
Setting fake snares and recording their locations.

I’ve been in the field for 2.5 months already, refining the methodology, training teams and collecting data. Aside from the obvious communication challenges that naturally arise when working with a team that speaks little English (my charade skills have been improved no end), the research is going well. We’re walking up to 60km per transect and despite the long, hot days, the bamboo and the repetitive rice diet there’s always something to laugh at and the end goal; to provide practical recommendations to WCS about how to reduce hunting, is a strong motivator.

Results will provide an indication of detection probability (the % of snares teams find) for different habitat conditions, which we can then use to estimate the total abundance of snares in the reserve and to identify hunting hotspots where enhanced protection is needed. Whilst the results of the analysis won’t be finalised until the wet season data has been collected the surveys are already having an impact by providing snares teams with opportunities to learn about local hunting methods from local guides and to practice different search strategies in the forest, which can only be a good thing!

The research is being conducted as part of a wider NERC funded project entitled “Learning from observational data to improve protected area management”. It’s a 3-year, collaborative research effort between WCS Cambodia and the Universities of York, Edinburgh and Oxford.

 

Harriet in the field
Harriet in the field

More about Harriet here