Camera Trap Pioneers: Charles McDougal
Charles “Chuck” McDougal began photographing tigers with camera traps in the late 1970s. Not since F.W. Champion’s camera trapping achievements 40 years earlier had anyone pursued this kind of photography with such devotion.
McDougal was trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado and developed a keen interest in tigers and Nepalese natural history during Ph. D. research on the Rai people of eastern Nepal.
With fluency in Nepali and Rai, he was well prepared for work in the terai after graduate school.
That led to several years of hunting problem tigers in the late 1960s. With the passage of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1972 the era of sport hunting tigers came to an end.
McDougal devoted himself to scientific studies of tigers when he became the Director of Research at Tiger Tops in the 1970s. At the time, Tiger Tops had the distinction of being the only lodge in a national park where tourists could bank on seeing tigers in the course of a few days.
In my own experience at the time, tiger viewing at Tiger Tops usually interrupted happy hour or dinner.
When the bell rang, tipsy tourists gleefully scuttled into waiting Land Rovers. A tiger or leopard had just killed or returned to the bait — a buffalo calf.
Ten minutes later they were deposited on a sandy trail in the jungle, where the guide requested you to remove your shoes and remain silent. (I believe the banishment of clodhoppers was a brilliant marketing ploy.)
Then they padded up a sandy jungle path, and five minutes later were viewing the tiger feeding in the light of a torch 100 feet away.
Chuck had been studying tigers in the vicinity of the Lodge when the Smithsonian Nepal Tiger Ecology Project commenced in 1973, and in due course he became a key collaborator with the young American and Nepali scientists who studied tigers and their prey in the park.
McDougal’s initial investigations were based on jungle lore — tracking animals by their pugmarks as popularized by the legendary colonial naturalist Jim Corbett.
Most footprints of young animals are not sufficiently distinct for irrefutable identification of individual tigers. His studies required the ability to individually identify the members of the tiger population. Camera traps were the logical solution.
Tigers left their pugmarks on trails, jeep tracks, and riverbanks throughout the park. Getting pictures was only a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sooner or later a tiger would amble down the path again.
Chuck’s earliest camera trap was a Nikon F2. The model had an accessory electronic shutter release, and this he wired to a switch in a home-made pressure plate. It was built from two wooden planks from the local sal tree (Shorea robusta), and compression springs held the electrical contact apart.
He buried the pressure pad in a shallow depression on a game trail. When an animal stepped on the wooden pad the battery-powered circuit was closed, triggering the camera and its flash.
Here’s the story in Chuck’s words.
“In early 1972, I started working at Tiger Tops. In 1977, inspired by Champion’s tiger photos from the 1920s Mike Price, a Anglia Survial cameraman and still phographer started using a Nikon F2 linked up to a homemade pressure pad. I continued this after he left a few months later and photographed about 20 different tigers in the course of a few years.
“I started using Trailmasters in 1995. The first one I had I put out on the ridge behind Tiger Tops, and I left it there for 3 days. When I went to collect it I found that the tripod had been knocked over and the camera was missing. A young but large male tiger had attacked and carried the camera in his jaws about 80 meters down the path before dropping it. The slide had been knocked off and the camera had canine dents in it. But the photo of the tiger, giving the camera a dirty look before attacking it, came out fine. I sent it to Bill Goodson who put it on his website and gave me a new camera. I still have 2 guys on my payroll camera trapping with the Trailmasters.”
Chuck steadfastly improved the system to capture truly outstanding images. He eliminated, for example, the flat appearance rendered by head-on lighting of the electronic flash by placing a slave-activated flash at a 45-degree angle to the trail.
I recall my befuddlement in 1981 when he completed the preparation of a camera set on a trail near the Lodge. He dressed the camera in two quilted mufflers, which made it look like a black effigy on a tripod. The mufflers were beautifully made by the local tailor and stuffed with the unseeded fiber of the local simal or silk cotton tree. (And like all locally made pillows, the muffler was highly attractive to rats hungry for oily seeds.)
Why make the camera look like a black scarecrow?
Well, it solved a vexing problem. In the ‘pre-muffler period’ Chuck noticed that tigers were often photographed in unflattering moments. They were either frozen in motion veering away from the camera, or they had that unmistakable look of the ‘possum-in-the-headlights’.
These responses were testimony to the tiger’s lightning reflexes. The big cats actually reacted within microseconds to the sound of the camera’s shutter.
As for the pillow-headed scarecrow on the side of the trail, the big cats didn’t seem to notice.
Chuck and his team of two Nepalese camera trappers tallied 8,683 trap-nights of effort and identified 119 individual tigers. They captured a total of 1,309 tiger photos. Most photos were of resident males and females, but each year new tigers appeared, some for a fleeting period and never to seen again, others to challenge and defeat incumbent territory holders.
Over the years he also accumulated an impressive inventory of other wildlife, including yellow-throated martens, several species of civets, and striped hyenas. The rarest find perhaps was a ratel or honey badger. Nowadays it’s an extremely rare species in the subcontinent.
Dave Smith and Chuck McDougal will soon have their book published on the ecology of Nepal’s tigers, and I am sure some of Chuck’s photos will adorn the pages.
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