Where are the cats? Camera-trapping in Northeast India with André Silva

There are PhDs and PhDs… Every person who has tried to finish one should feel proud of that, but holly molly… some deserve proper admiration.
 
 That’s the case of my friend André Silva, a young biologist from Lisbon, Portugal. André and I worked together at Uppsala University, although, most of the time, one of us was somewhere on the other side of the world.
 
 And, very often, his usual side of the world was much cooler than mine! André studies small wild cats in India!

I’m sure many of our readers are of the adventurous type and would love to do something similar. But, do you really know what it entails? Let’s ask André!

Photo credits: Surabhi Nadig

Hi André, could you tell us a bit about your PhD Project?

Hi! The main idea behind the project is to understand how rare species respond to environmental modifications like climate change and forest loss. This information can then be used to ensure that conservation mechanisms, like protected areas, are and will be efficient in the future.

Unfortunately, this approach requires comprehensive datasets that are often unavailable for rare species like wild cats. Since India is one of the world hotspots for wild cat species and also has areas with climate-change rates higher than the global average I focused my doctoral project on four species of Indian small wild cats: the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), jungle cat (Felis chaus), rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) and the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus).

To do it, I have travelled during 3 years, trekking through the jungle, setting camera traps in protected areas of Northeast India, doing laboratory work and building species distribution models.

Leopard Cat captured on camera-trap in the Himalayan lowlands. Photo credits: André P. Silva and Surabhi Nadig.

When did you know you wanted to study wildlife and conservation? Any specific moment of realization?

I knew it pretty early, probably when I was 13–14 years-old. There are sport hunting traditions in my family and since very young I used to go hunting with my father. Soon it was obvious that I would not continue with the family tradition. After many hours in the field watching animals (mainly birds) I developed a sense of protection towards wildlife that guided my future choices.

Navya R and Surabhi Nadig setting-up camera-traps in Northeast India. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

Apart from your formal education, what helped you to get where you are now?

I did a lot of volunteering, between the age of 17–21, in research projects to learn different sampling techniques. This included a lot of fieldwork, for instance, field interviews to obtain species sightings, camera-trapping, live-trapping, species monitoring based on tracks and signs, but also laboratory work, like DNA extraction… During this period, I also worked at the Lisbon Zoo as an educator. This experience put me in contact with species from every corner of the planet and trained me to communicate science, engaging younger generations for wildlife conservation. I was learning and teaching simultaneously! Another important step was when, at the age of 19, I got a grant for initiation to research from the Amadeu Dias Foundation in Portugal. For the first time, I participated in a research project and studied the wolf distribution in Central Portugal. Years later, for my master thesis, I had the opportunity to join the Scottish wildcat project at Oxford University and understand how an extensive camera-trapping project could be carried out. And that was my start! Interestingly, while from the technical point of view these were very important experiences what I think really makes the difference were the values I got at home because they shape the response to every challenge I faced.

Young André, in May 2010, looking out for Brown Bears in the Cantabrian Mountains, Spain. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

How was this doctoral project born?

In 2012, after a training period on population genetics in Portugal, I had the opportunity to apply for a PhD scholarship from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). I was interested in studying protected area efficiency in biodiversity hotspots. To look at this question from the ecological and genetic point of view I would need to work on species for which already some information on their distribution and genetic resources were available. My co-supervisor in Portugal (Carlos Fernandes) was in contact with researchers in India (Shomita Mukherjee and Uma Ramakrishnan) already studying small wild cats which matched my previous background on carnivores. The species rarity and charismatic appeal could also help with funding, which was crucial since I was not part of a wider research project with secured funding. At the time, I was also looking for a research department with a solid knowledge of animal ecology and genetics, where I could learn and develop basic scientific skills. I sent out emails to several principal investigators and Mats Björklund at Uppsala University (Sweden) was one of the most interested. I had good references about the department from previous students so, after some discussions, we went for it. Looking back, the fact that I had good fieldwork and laboratory experience, a well-structured project (that although ambitious was feasible) and that I was able to secure my own scholarship were probably the winning points.

Wild cats. Many other species were detected during our surveys including (clockwise) Marbled Cat, Golden Cat, Leopard and Clouded Leopard. Photo credits: André P. Silva and Surabhi Nadig.

Awesome trajectory! What are you most proud of so far?

I see the doctoral period as a training phase, therefore I think is difficult for me or anyone at this stage to have great scientific achievements. I feel, however, that having the opportunity of starting a project from scratch, defining scientific questions, methods, to set up and manage a team in challenging and remote places while being part of a research department with a high scientific level are, all together, not so common for a doctoral student. Developing a project in India exposed me to a totally different culture and opened my perspectives about many global environmental and social issues. I think the experience can pay off in the long-term.

I can imagine! And you collected so many unique moments!

So many, so many! Sleeping in police stations, being asked an unreasonable amount of money to cross the Brahmaputra river in a ferry, trekking during the night in remote forests of Nagaland, setting up camp in a trail with leopard, bear, elephant and gaur (the Indian bison) tracks, seeing melanistic leopards crossing a river in the Himalayan lowlands, being caught in a sudden heavy storm while camping on top of a boat in the middle of the Brahmaputra, forest guards almost chopping one of my fingers out with a dao (a kind of sword). I could write pages about it, it is endless, almost every day was unique!

Trekking through rivers was the only way to reach many camera-trap places. The upper you go the narrower it gets. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

And, as we know, there is a strong correlation between the number of unique moments and sciencing difficulty… What are the most challenging aspects of your project?

I have to start by saying that this type of project cannot be carried out alone. There are so many challenges that only teamwork can overcome the obstacles. In this case, it was even more challenging because it was a totally new terrain and social environment for me. I was only able to carry out the work thanks to researchers like Krishnapriya Tamma, Navya Ramesh, Sahila Kudalkar and Surabhi Nadig, who taught me how things like bureaucracies, terrain logistics, communication with local people could be done. Then we also had a large group of research assistants, master students and volunteers who were crucial to maintain the fieldwork running non-stop except during the monsoon season. Without them, this project would have been impossible.

Group photo at the end of one camera-trap survey. The group was composed by forest department staff, volunteers, project coordinators and research collaborators. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

From the scientific point of view, I would say that obtaining a large enough sample size and a proper sampling design are extremely difficult, due to the species secretiveness and the terrain profile. Without good data, one cannot make good science. So there is an incompatibility here. Species that require more protection are often the ones for which is almost impossible to have good data; consequently, it is difficult to understand their requirements and suggest conservation guidelines.

Even in lowlands, the terrain topography can be a challenge. Setting up cameras up and down the valleys can be extenuating, except when we stop to admire the landscape. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

Health in remote places was also a main issue. In many places, access to healthcare facilities is several hours or days away and we might not make it in time. Snake bites, for instance, might be a very serious problem, but something theoretically “simple”, like breaking a leg, could be a huge problem in a remote forest. Prevention, I think, is the best approach but sometimes can be difficult to make others see it in advance. Unfortunately, we saw local people with very serious health conditions and that was when we truly realized the risks we were exposed to. Just simple fever or looseness might make one unable to work causing frustration. It can be painful and other team members might be waiting and getting bored because they are not able to work either. I was always very careful with what I drank and ate but sometimes is not easy. For instance, exchanging food or going for dinner can be an indication of respect and welcome reception, so it is not polite to refuse it. At one such dinner, at our field assistants’ place, I was struggling with the naga chilli (one of the hottest chilli), though they made the food less spicy especifically for me. They asked me if I was feeling well because I was sweating and my face was extremely red. I said yes, but the truth is that on my way back home the pain in my stomach and intestines was so intense that I was unable to walk. Next morning when meeting our host, I said the dinner was pleasant and delicious! Being out of the comfort zone can be a big challenge. Often there is an opportunity to have unique experiences (the places you visit, the species you see, the people you talk) but these can come mixed with unpleasant experiences and safety risks… The physical and mental fatigue caused by the work toughness sometimes coupled with the lack of privacy (we share every minute of the day with the team) and being isolated in a forest for long periods can lead to bad sensations. The limit is different for every person but is important to have team members with similar tolerance.

Breakfast is getting ready. While it is an amazing experience to camp in remote forests living conditions in campsites are often very basic. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

These projects can also involve frequent travelling. While this has the potential to expose you to unique experiences, again there are costs. If one moves very frequently it can undermine existing professional or personal relationships and make difficult to make new ones. I would say this a general problem with mobility periods abroad in science but people within projects requiring a considerable amount of fieldwork, sometimes in different regions or countries, can be more susceptible. This, I feel, is a problem often not considered but their costs in the longer term can be high. It is also important to adapt to be well understood. However, cultural adaptation is not easy, people in different cultures and societies interact in different ways. India is perhaps an extreme example. The diversity of cultures is so immense that in short distances people’s values, language, religion and diet can change. At another level, India as a whole is very different from my Southern European culture and even more from the Scandinavian culture I found in Sweden. One needs to quickly realize the environment and adapt its posture — but it is easier to say than to do it. I have a simple example at a field assistants’ house. They had lovely dogs and at some point, while playing with one, I asked if the rumour that people in the region can eat dogs was true. The answer I got was “why do you think we have so many around the house?”! That is when I had to understand I was in a different culture.

Fortunately, accommodation is not always extremely rough. The forest department staff was often kind to share their accommodation with us, such as in this elevated protection camp. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

How do you work? Can you describe a normal day in the field and in the office?

The project has an immense set of tasks. During fieldwork or laboratory work I try to be focused only on those activities. The remaining time, usually, when I am in Uppsala, I work on planning, logistics and bureaucracies of future fieldwork, laboratory tasks, grant applications and reports, student supervision, courses and workshops, data analyses, paper reading and writing (the amount of time allocated to each depends on deadlines and priorities). In between and whenever possible, I try to attend a few scientific conferences.

The logistics and equipment needed to conduct camera-trap surveys are immense. It is a hard job to keep everything in order and ready to be used. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

In the field

Every day in the field was unpredictable. Theoretically, a normal day would involve waking up early in the morning (5–6 AM) have a heavy breakfast such as rice porridge or rice with lentils and start trekking between 7–8 AM. Then the rest of the day is dedicated to set up or checking camera traps with small breaks for food. Usually 1 to 2 hours before dusk we would start returning to the campsite. The walking distance varies in every study site depending if dirt roads are available or functional. In some areas, we would trek in forest trails and dry rivers for 5–10 km per day in forest trails and dry rivers while in more remote regions it can go up to 25–30 km. We then return to the campsite to prepare the plan and equipment for the next day, take a quick bath (if possible) and have a filling dinner. The dinner and small breaks throughout the day are the moments when we all socialize, frequently listening to our field assistants’ stories. By 8–9 PM we would be exhausted and fall asleep. However, this routine is often interrupted by the car getting stuck in muddy roads, unexpected heavy rain or heat, boat motors breaking down, camera traps not working, stolen or damaged by elephants so we end up spending a lot of time talking with the forest department and villagers to help us with the logistics.

Trying to find the way to a camera-trap site. In this area, we were lucky to have a car to move up and down in the only road available within the park. However, the camera setup, checking and removal were predominantly done on foot. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

In the office

A typical day in Uppsala starts with the highest priority work and answering urgent emails between 9–12h30 AM. Then a quick lunch followed by 1 or 2 hours of, depending on the days, skype meetings with collaborators in India, lab meeting, meeting with students, invited talks at the department or other project logistics/bureaucracies.. After 2–3 PM, I completely focus on data analysis or writing and by 5PM I usually go swimming (two or three times a week). I finish the day re-checking my emails.

Fighting my R scripts. After fieldwork, it is exciting to look at the data but thorough analyses can be a long process. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

Where next? Fieldwork soon?

I would love to! But unfortunately not. Next couple of years at least I will be dedicated to data analysis and writing. It will be a time to understand the data collected during the last years. Where do you see yourself in the future? Is there a scientific question you’d like to answer? Right now I’m focused on developing basic skills that will potentiate my future success as a conservation biologist. I tend to see the development of a scientist as a marathon, a long-term process for which training and resilience are key. I also think it is necessary to work on a myriad of interconnected questions. I see a conservation scientist as a person who needs flexibility to understand several different backgrounds (e.g. politics, social science, evolutionary biology, ecology, science communication etc…). I am still in a development process so my aim, for now, is to try different fields to be well equipped for a useful contribution in the long term. In the end, I will be happy if I can contribute to biodiversity conservation. This can be within the academic sphere or outside, for instance, working on on-ground conservation organizations. I am mainly motivated by the thrill of discovery and I want to develop strategies for biodiversity conservation. The fields of conservation planning and sustainability are some I would like to explore in the near future. I do not exclude, however, other possibilities. For instance, science communication is crucial for biodiversity conservation and I particularly like it.

Is there a person whose steps you’d like to follow?

I don’t have a specific person that I follow but I tend to read biographies to learn from other people’s experiences. These include personalities from very different contexts (for instance sports, cinema, entrepreneurship, politics, wildlife conservation). The problems and solutions for biodiversity conservation are people-related so from every field strongly linked with human relationships I feel I can extract useful ideas. If you ask me to mention people related to wildlife conservation I would say three names immediately come to my mind: David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and George Schaller. They are now over 80 years old and still active — that is fascinating! What I admire in them is that at some point they understood they could contribute even more to biodiversity conservation by using their public role to take key environmental topics to the political sphere. At the same time, one of their priorities is to work on the education of young generations so I think their influence will be a long-lasting one.

What about papers or books? What do you recommend?

To better understand several aspects surrounding fieldwork in remote areas there are two interesting books I read recently and found interesting (Amazon affiliate links: maybe one day we can share a coffee from the profits :D):

Life in the valley of death — Alan Rabinowitz

The last panda — George Schaller

What are the main meetings and conferences in your field?

Conservation-related I would say there are few major conferences, for instance, the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB), the regional meetings from the Society for Conservation Biology and the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

But is also useful to keep an eye on conferences related to disciplines that are a pillar to conservation science such as the meetings of the British and American Ecological societies as well as the Evolution meetings.

Some links to look for jobs and opportunities

Some questions from friends on Facebook

Are locals concerned with wildlife conservation? @Bruna Brunetti@Essined Lo @Wulfand Vaughan Andy

Wonderful question! In many places, bushmeat is a tradition. Currently, most settlements have domesticated animals and do not depend on bushmeat for survival however the practice remains because of tradition. Interestingly, I observed that several species, including big predators like leopards and tigers that sometimes can prey on domestic animals, are admired. Nevertheless, there is an element of fear that they can attack humans. Overall, local people are aware that their survival will depend on how healthy the forest is… The older generations have observed a drastic reduction of animals in the forest throughout their lives so much better than us they know what is happening and were keen to listen to our suggestions.

What do you mean by “remote”, no human populations of any type? @Pedro Alonso

Here I considered remote villages those where phone network is very poor and connection with other small towns is made through rough dirt roads. These villages can be isolated during the monsoon season. Then, inside the protected areas, we visited places a few days away (trekking) from the closest human settlement.

A remote village in Nagaland where the team was based for about two months. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

Did you have any contact with poachers or illegal activities? @Essined Lo

Yes, we had encounters with illegal loggers. It can be a risky situation when they see the forest department staff with us. In one particular situation, we were going upriver and a small boat with loggers was coming down. As soon as they saw us they jumped into the water, abandoning the boat, swam to the river bank and hid in the forest. The presence of illegal activities is also a problem for our camera-traps as they can be destroyed.

In more risky regions special protection was given to us. Photo credits: André P. Silva.

Have you ever felt fear (caused by people or animals) during your sampling? @Judh Crao Ruz

Yes, definitely! I think only those that are not aware of the risks do not feel fear. I confess that although we had some scary encounter with bears, elephants and snakes I was always more concerned with people. Usually, if one make sure to mark its own presence (for instance campfires) animals will keep distance most of the time with people, especially in areas where there were insurgency activities going on, it is unpredictable.

Local support. From basic bits of advice on where to camp, what to eat to the best places where to set up camera-traps, help from the forest department staff was critical. Photo credits: André P. Silva

What are the necessary requisites to participate in this type of project? @Mar Ina

There is not only one path to participate in this type of projects. There is an immense set of skills that are necessary to carry out such projects and the most important thing is to see how your skills can be useful. For instance, you can contribute as a researcher, research assistant, photographer, logistics coordinator, grant writer or science communicator.

Where can we follow you and see your publications? @Essined Lo

You can follow me on Twitter (@PintodaSilvaA) and Instagram (@pintodasilva.a)!


Originally published at www.bioblogia.net on January 11, 2019.