Camera-trap study captures Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards, other rare beasts

Documenting a community of terrestrial animals.


Rapid and widespread biodiversity losses around the world make it important to survey and monitor endangered species, especially in biodiversity hotspots. Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBSNP) is one of the largest conserved areas on the island of Sumatra and is essential for the conservation of many threatened species.

To get detail insight on how abundant the species are, scientists deployed motion-sensitive camera traps across a 50-square-mile swath of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in southern Sumatra and, over eight years, recorded the haunts and habits of dozens of species, including the Sumatran tiger and other rare and endangered wildlife. Their observation also revealed how smaller creatures avoid being eaten by tigers and other carnivores.

Max Allen, a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey who led the research, said, “A lot of my research focuses on natural history, where I’m trying to understand behaviors and aspects of ecology that no one has been able to record before. And camera traps are a good way to document a community of terrestrial animals.”

A total of 39 animals had been captured, including critically endangered Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and Sunda pangolins, as well as carnivores including Asian golden cats, marbled cats, Sunda clouded leopards, Malayan sun bears and masked palm civets.

Camera sightings revealed that tigers are more likely to be active during day time with the majority of sightings in midday.

The species that compete with tigers as top carnivores appeared to be doing their best to avoid going out during the Tigers’ peak activity times. For example, Sumatran clouded leopards – which are not strictly nocturnal – dropped off precipitously in the hours before noon and picked up a bit in the late evening, when tigers were rarely seen.

However, smaller cats found to stay fearless and actively avoid tigers.

Allen said, “The daytime activity of the marbled cat, for example, actually overlaps highly with that of the tigers. It’s likely the marbled cats are small enough to be eating prey – like rodents – that is of no consequence to tigers.”

The camera traps recorded 28 species not seen in earlier surveys, including the critically endangered Sunda pangolin, and the endangered dhole and otter civet. Surveys from previous studies captured eight species that the camera traps missed, however. These include the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, the endangered dark-handed gibbon, and the endangered hairy-nosed otter.

  • Researchers tracked wildlife over eight years in a 50-square-mile region of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, near the coast of southern Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Max Allen
  • Most of Sumatra’s wildlife persist in its national parks, the only wild areas left on the island. Photo by Max Allen
  • Over a period of eight years, Allen’s camera traps captured Sumatran tigers an average of six times during annual 30-day monitoring periods. Photo courtesy Max Allen
  • The dhole (Cuon alpinus). Photo by Johan Spaedtke
  • The Asian golden cat (Catopuma temminckii). Photo by Karen Stout, CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Illinois Natural History Survey wildlife ecologist Max Allen uses camera traps to study wildlife around the world. Here, he is emerging from a brown bear den in Slovenia. Photo courtesy Max Allen

Allen said, “Despite their limitations, camera traps often capture things that people surveying in the wild will miss.”

“There are a lot of interesting behaviors that we can’t capture through classic field methods that camera trapping allows us to document. For example, in an earlier camera-trap study of Sunda clouded leopards in Borneo, Allen and his colleagues discovered that the male clouded leopards would scent mark, scratching and urinating to establish their territory and to attract mates – something other researchers had never observed before.”

“There are gaps in our knowledge that camera traps can fill. It would be difficult to document these behaviors and interactions by other means.”

Conservation International, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society, Gordon, and Betty Moore Foundation and INHS contributed to this research.

The paper describing the study is published in the journal Animal Biodiversity and Conservation.

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