Navigating the Ethics of Camera Trapping

A new paper authored by Snow Leopard Trust’s Charu Mishra and Koustubh Sharma discusses the ethics of camera trapping. UPDATE: This paper recently received the Editor's Choice from The Applied Ecologist! Congratulations to all the authors and contributors!

As one year rolls over to the next, it often brings with it an air of hope, a promise of a fresh start, if not marked by anything but the date itself. The resolutions we set allow us to be proud of what we have accomplished but also offer an opportunity to reset, and not from scratch, but rather with the benefit of having lessons learned. They enable us to set goals for what we want the future to bring, and we must look back to look forward. 

These moments of reflection happen within our research programs as well. 

Camera trapping is a widely employed tool in wildlife research, used to estimate animal abundances, understand animal movement, assess species richness and understand animal behavior. In addition to images of wild animals, camera traps often record human images, inadvertently capturing behaviors ranging from innocuous actions to potentially serious crimes. However, with the increasing use of camera traps comes an urgent need to consider how researchers should deal with human images caught on cameras. 

A human caught by a camera trap.

“As researchers, we often face both legal and ethical dilemmas when faced with human images caught by camera traps”, says Snow Leopard Trust Senior Scientist, Dr. Koustubh Sharma. He goes on to add, “On the one hand, it is important to respect the privacy of the individuals in these photos, while on the other, there is a larger public duty to report illegal activity. Navigating these issues can be a tightrope walk for researchers.”

Snow Leopard Trust Executive Director, Dr. Charu Mishra, continues by saying, ““Living with wildlife comes at a cost, both direct and indirect, which is usually borne by local people living near key biodiversity areas. Wildlife conservation efforts have often marginalized these local communities – and if poorly handled, camera trap images of humans can further alienate or harm people.”

A New Code

Based on our extensive and collaborative history of conducting camera‐trap research on snow leopards, the Snow Leopard Trust along with our key partners outlined a general code of conduct to help form the foundation for more comprehensive codes of conduct for researchers using camera traps. It is our hope that these informed recommendations will assist in improving the general practice of camera trap based research while respecting the rights and interests of local communities.

These guidelines identify and explore seven basic concepts and principles including permission, purpose limitation, disclosure, legality, privacy, participation, and sharing. 

An unidentified person caught by a camera trap.

This approach evolves from the Snow Leopard Trust’s framework for ethically and respectfully engaging with local communities for nature conservation. Known widely as PARTNERS Principles, this framework is being shared proactively for researchers and conservation practitioners around the world through an extensive capacity building program. “What we do for snow leopards and biodiversity matters, but how we do it matters ever more”, says Dr. Mishra, underlining the thinking behind these approaches.

PARTNERS Principles in action

The PARTNERS Principles are also increasingly employed through the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), an intergovernmental alliance of all 12 snow leopard range countries. “The GSLEP program is driving an ambitious program on Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards (PAWS), which aims to reliably estimate the global population of snow leopards in the wild. Camera trapping is a key tool to estimate populations of these elusive cats.  Dr. Sharma emphasizes. “The technical aspects of camera trapping are widely discussed, but the ethical dilemmas less so. We encourage the diverse teams working on PAWS and beyond to discuss and consider how these principles play out in their context,” shares Justine Shanti Alexander, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Regional Ecologist.

You can view the guidelines and read the paper in its entirety here. As Charu beautifully sums up, “we strongly believe in empowering local communities for conservation. Our article, which builds on years of hands-on experience and knowledge of practicing field researchers, social scientists, and legal minds, is a step towards an ethical code of conduct for researchers and wildlife managers working with research cameras. We hope that it will help improve the practice of camera trapping worldwide”.

As we say goodbye to 2020, one of the most transformative years in recent history, we welcome a new year filled with inclusivity, hard work, hope, and best practices as we navigate how best to protect our communities and our natural world together. 

Dr. Mishra and Dr. Sharma authored this important paper along with several co-authors who are leading experts in the field, including Mr. Matthias Fiechter, Dr. Juliette Young, Mr. Todd George, Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander, Dr. Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi and Mr. Ajay Bijoor. We are grateful to all of the authors along with Dr. Stephen Redpath, Dr. M.D. Madhusudan, Mr. Sanjay Gubbi, Mr. Sundar Sarukkai and Dr. Anindya Sinha for valuable discussions and comments. We acknowledge the Whitley Fund for Nature that has been a long‐term supporter of our research and conservation efforts. We would also like to thank the two reviewers who provided very constructive advice on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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