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Capturing Mammals

Exchange program alumnus Rahul Khot involves schoolchildren in India’s rural areas in documenting animals and rare species.

Citizen science is a global movement that promotes the participation of amateur or nonprofessional scientists in examining and recording scientific phenomena. One example is eMammal, which encourages scientists and citizen scientists to join in the fun and discovery of camera trapping. The collection, storage and review of the photos help address important scientific and conservation issues, and provide a unique view of the hidden world of wildlife. One of its projects connects citizen scientists with researchers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina State University to document mammals in the mid-Atlantic region.

In 2015, Rahul Khot, a curator at the Natural History Collection Department of the Bombay Natural History Society, implemented the project in India among schoolchildren in rural areas. The Bombay Natural History Society is a wildlife research organization that promotes the cause of nature conservation.

The eMammal project in India is part of the eMammal International project which is funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the American Alliance of Museums.

The project employs camera traps near schools to document animal population sizes, activation patterns and habitat use. These photos help researchers answer questions about mammal distribution and abundance, and use this information for conservation studies. The results, uploaded on the eMammal website (http://emammal.si.edu), are accessible to a network of scientists worldwide and help generate global awareness and understanding of biodiversity.

Involving the young
“Involving people, especially young people, in such activities is very important,” says Khot. “It encourages awareness and a love for nature.”

In 2014, Khot participated in Museums Connect, a museum-based exchange program of the U.S. Department of State and the American Alliance of Museums. The program links U.S. communities with others around the world through museum-based exchanges, which are designed to foster cultural understanding among community members, especially young people, through the exploration of different topics like nature, social inclusion and empowerment.

“The year we applied [for Museum Connect], only nine out of 66 applications were selected,” says Khot. “We, the Bombay Natural History Society, collaborated with the North Carolina State University Museum and the Museo de Paleontología de Guadalajara, Mexico.”

The first meeting in Washington, D.C., was all about understanding the objectives of the grant. “We discussed the implementation of the program in India,” says Khot. “I started working on the ideas discussed when I got back to India.” Selecting the schools was the first step. “We selected three schools from Maharashtra for the first phase—Union English School in Amboli, Sindhudurg district; Jay Seva Adarsh High School in Pawni, Nagpur district; and S. G. M. Bhadange High School in Waki, Palghar district,” he says.

Choosing rural schools over urban schools was a conscious choice. “These schools lack basic networks of Internet and most available phones are ordinary [non-smartphone] ones. Things we take for granted in urban areas are missing here,” says Khot.

In implementing the project, Khot learned some valuable lessons. “The project uses sophisticated technologies like camera traps with heat and motion sensor controls,” he says. “Data sheets with the recordings need to be filled. I was worried these children, aged between 11 and 14, would find it difficult.” But, three days of training was all they needed. “They learned fast and were soon pros at ensuring data sheets were kept up to date,” says Khot. Teachers were trained to monitor the project and ensure help was available in case the students ran into difficulties, he adds.

In Pawni village in the Nagpur district of Maharashtra, the data collected by the camera traps of students from Jay Seva Adarsh High School showed, although their village was not considered an area tigers frequented, they used the same walking paths as humans at night. “Through this project, we were able to reach 200 kids directly in the selected schools,” says Khot.

The recorded images showed that India has 20 unique species of animals, and among these, dhole and tiger are endangered. The Bombay Natural History Society is now adding 20 more schools to this program, with financial support from ICICI Bank and a partner nongovernmental organization, Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, based in Chiplun in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.


Information and more
“The eMammal project is a vibrant site of information exchange,” says Khot. “Children here uploaded the data the cameras recorded as well as the cultural programs they had in school. For children in the U.S., this was perhaps their first time seeing how closely humans and animals interact in India.” At the end of 2015, selected teachers and two students traveled to the United States, along with Khot, to share their experiences. “They were very excited by the homestays in the U.S.,” he says.

The project was useful in targeting children at the grassroots level to ensure they grew up aware about ecology and conservation. “It’s harder to change minds in adults,” says Khot. “It’s not that they didn’t know about animals before, but through the cameras, they realized how closely animals and humans interact.”


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.