There are a few things that are in the front of my mind when I hop out of the truck and start walking into the forest doing a camera trap project. I don’t want to step on any snakes, I don’t want to fall and break a bone, I don’t want to be stung by anything, and I don’t want to get lost. Unfortunately, sometimes one of those things happens.
I got lost on one particular day because of something that I did a month earlier. Or, more specifically, something that I didn’t do.
I didn’t do all of the things that I normally do in order to not get lost. Usually I stay on obvious trails and if I leave a trail, I’ll mark trees with my machete every so often or hang a little piece of cloth on a twig, so I can follow those little clues and find my way out. My version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb strategy.
On this occasion, I was working on a sugarcane plantation. I had a single camera trap to place in an approximately 100 acre patch of forest that was surrounded by fields of sugarcane. It was roughly shaped like a square with small canals around all four edges of the forest. The canals are used to control the amount of water in the sugarcane fields, and on this day the water levels were quite high due to the recent rains. The only access to the forest was a little rickety bridge.
I pulled over the little bridge and parked right next to what appeared to be a sugarcane-chopping-guy dude-fest. There were about 12 guys of different ages lazing about in the shade of the trees at the beginning of the trail into the forest, obviously taking a break from a long morning of hard, physical labor.
As I swing open the truck door and become the thing that all 12 men are looking at, I have two options:
- Walk right by and say ‘Hola’ and be that super random gringo that just showed up and walked into the forest
- I can say hi and tell them what I’m up to
I’ve done both in similar situations in the past, but on this particular day, I decided on option 2. I said hello, I showed them a camera trap, and told them how it worked. They were all properly impressed and told me some stories about wildlife that they’d seen on the farm. All good.
As I leave the dude-fest and walk into the forest, it occurs to me that I just told a pack of strangers that I’m walking into the forest to put expensive electronics on the trees. As far as ‘camera safety’ goes, not a great idea.
So I decide to be more stealthy. Instead of sticking to the main trail, I’m going to venture off to the left in this gap in the underbrush, near the scraggly tree. Instead of marking the trees, I’m going to just remember where I went.
Using my ‘stealth plan,’ I found what looked like a collared peccary mud wallow that seemed like a great place for a camera trap. I set up the camera, found my way back out, and thought, ‘I’ll definitely remember where that camera is.’
Fast forward a month later. It’s raining steadily, and I splash through puddles to reach my same parking spot. This time the place is deserted.
I walk by the even more flooded canals and think, ‘I wouldn’t want to fall in there. It’s probably full of crocodiles.’ I enter the forest and start thinking about the camera location… something about a scraggly tree. I step off of the main trail and notice that there’s been so much rain that there’s at least 6 inches of standing water in the large majority of the forest.
As I walk, I try to replay what I saw when I placed the camera – there’s a Guanacaste tree that fell over with its roots sticking up in the air, there’s that dead tree that’s broken off at the top where you saw a black-bellied whistling duck last time, and so on.
I start getting lost before I even locate the camera. Was that the dead Guanacaste tree or did it look different? Everything looked a little different with a layer of water everywhere. Just as I’m about to give up on the camera and start focusing on getting back to the truck, I stumble upon the suspected peccary wallow, now a little pond with all of the rain.
I grab the camera and lean over it, using my body to block the rain drops. I open the little door to look at the small LCD screen to see what I’ve captured. A whole lot of water pours out and the camera refuses to turn on. Not a great sign.
I throw the camera in my backpack and start looking for the landmarks that will lead me back to the truck. I think you can tell from the title of this article that it didn’t go well. I stumbled around in the flooded forest for a while. Then I started passing the same stuff that I had passed a while ago, confirming that I was going in circles. At that point I started getting that panicky heart pain that you feel when you really start to get worried and began moving too fast, crashing through tangles of vines that I would have walked around if I had been calmer.
Eventually, I make myself sit down on a little hill that isn’t flooded and calm down. I try to use the GPS on my phone to figure out my location, but my fingers are so wet from the rain that my phone screen won’t respond to my touch. With that I think ‘This forest isn’t that big. Pick a direction and just go straight.’
So I pick a direction and trudge through the sometimes thigh-high forest water. My heart screams with joy as I eventually come to the forest’s edge and reach one of the surrounding canals. With no bridge in sight I think, ‘You’re out of the forest! Screw it! Jump!’ and I don’t even come close to making it across and land neck-deep into the middle of the canal that I had previously thought was probably full of crocodiles.
After a frantic shimmy up the other side of the canal, I sit in the middle of the interior farm dirt road that’s not 100 meters from the little bridge that leads to my truck and think about how stupid I am.
Sitting at my little desk in my home office later that evening, I pop the SD card from that camera into my computer to see what I’ve recorded. There are a grand total of two videos on the card, both of me chopping weeds in front of the camera the day that I set it. That whole adventure was for a camera that had stopped working almost immediately after I placed it.
About the Author
Vincent Losasso, founder of Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring, is a biologist who works with camera traps throughout Costa Rica. Learn more about his projects on facebook or instagram. You can also email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org