Camera traps hidden in the woods are making animals angry.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Aug. 14 2008 4:17 PM

Paparazzi in the Woods

Hidden surveillance cameras are making the wilderness less wild.

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Today's wilderness advocates aren't tackling that question, but it's one that has a venerable history within the wilderness movement. In the 1960s, Adolph Murie, a wildlife biologist and wilderness activist, mounted a campaign against the use of wildlife radio tags and collars in national parks and wilderness areas. Murie had no problem with wildlife tagging per se—he had tagged hundreds of animals for his own research—but he saw parks and wilderness areas as places with a special cultural mission, one that was threatened by the unrestrained use of modern technology. People visited wilderness areas because they wanted to experience the natural world on its own terms—not to encounter radio-collared animals and the scientists who managed them.

Murie's was one of the first of a series of protests against hands-on, high-tech research methods. Those protests, which reached their peak of intensity during the 1970s and early 1980s, spurred the development of less invasive techniques such as camera trapping. But by the mid-1980s, the environmental movement had changed. The cultural and experiential concerns that had motivated Murie were overshadowed by a new focus on biodiversity and quantitative science. The possibility that there might be too much research—that the costs of knowledge might outweigh the benefits—became virtually unthinkable.

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Camera traps are a good thing. They have already enriched our understanding of the species with which we share the planet and cause less disturbance than many other research methods. Used thoughtfully, they can give us a deep sense of connection to nature, not just the kind of alienation that Murie feared. And along with other surveillance technologies, from high-resolution satellite imaging to miniature radio tags, they will be crucial tools for preserving what's left of the world's biodiversity. We live in a thoroughly humanized world, and the networks of environmental surveillance with which we are quilting the planet will help keep it habitable—or at least let us know how quickly it's going to hell.

Still, as we expand the culture of surveillance into nature's last redoubts, it might be worth keeping some of Murie's concerns in mind: namely, that the means we use to promote biodiversity can undermine our purposes and that a technology that's right for one place isn't necessarily right for all places. Wilderness activists of the last century believed it was crucial to maintain a few places where one could hike for days without encountering cars or roads. This wasn't because they hated automobiles—after all, it was cars that made wilderness areas widely accessible for the first time—but because they believed that certain valuable experiences could be had only in their absence. Wilderness activists of this century would do well to consider whether it's worth having a few places where you'll never find a surveillance camera strapped to a nearby tree.

Correction, Aug. 14: This article originally depicted a snow leopard prowling "through the jungle." Snow leopards, of course, do not live in the jungle. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Etienne Benson is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Harvard History of Science Department. He studies the history and politics of wildlife research and can be reached at esbenson@gmail.com.