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Up-Close with Snow Leopards : Camera Trapping Workshops

An Intro to Camera Trapping Snow Leopards

Voygr has extensive expedition infrastructure in place to spend time to see and photograph some of the rarest wildlife on the planet including snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, Siberian tigers and Amur leopards. However since most guests can only take away a week or two to spend time photographing these elusive predators, camera trapping can be an exponential force-multiplier, working for months at a time for the right chance to capture an up-close behavioral shot. Learn more about camera trapping below and add one of our camera trapping services to your snow leopard expedition.

Voygr’s Camera Trapping Services

Our expert guides and location specialists have assisted the world’s top wildlife film-making crews and photographers including the BBC, National Geographic, Netflix, and Amazon to capture exceptional footage in the Himalayas and the Russian Far-East.

Camera Trapping snow leopards with Voygr combines this locational expertise with regular monitoring, swapping batteries, replacing memory cards, troubleshooting, and uploading images to our clients. Our crew also has significant experience using the newest tech for camera trapping.

Getting great images on remote camera equipment can take months of trial and error to master and a phenomenal understanding of local wildlife routes, trails, behaviors, and more. Through our camera trapping services, you can take advantage of both.

Here’s how the process works. Most infrastructure for camera trapping snow leopards is set on high ridges that have almost no human traffic but are on known snow leopard trails. Voygr will take you to ideal locations (tried and tested) to set up camera traps. Most locations have three or four background/landscape options and a few spots on routes commonly used by snow leopards. If you’re setting up for a short period, under 3 months, identify one spot and then get set-up. If you’re setting up for a longer period, you can choose a few spots so that the camera can be moved and relocated after 2 months. This will give you some diversity with regards to backgrounds and landscapes and even introduce new species into the images.

When setting up, a Voygr camera trapping expert will help with settings, testing the sensors, and getting everything ready. Once complete, head back down. Now the trap will be monitored monthly with a Voygr expert ensuring that everything is operating as it should. Batteries and memory cards will be swapped, and data will be sorted. Any images with wildlife on them will be uploaded and transferred to the Client.

It is important to note that environmental conditions, lighting, and weather can have negative effects or cause malfunctions to camera trapping equipment. Usually these manifest in false triggers that fill up cards and drain the batteries. Other times wildlife can disturb, knock-over, or even destroy camera trapping equipment. These risks are part and parcel of camera trapping snow leopards. It should also be noted that even though the equipment is incredibly remote and quite inaccessible, theft may occur. Voygr and its partners are not responsible for any loss or damage to equipment when camera trapping snow leopards. We recommend insuring all equipment.

Understanding Camera Trapping

Do you need dozens of traps to get an iconic image? Not necessarily. Read on below.

To capture his iconic snow leopard images, it took Steve Winter of National Geographic 13 months and 14 cameras with three flashguns. He used 14 inexpensive Canon EOS 350D bodies equipped with an EFS-10-22mm f/3.4-4.5 USM zoom lenses. They were wired with TrailMaster passive infrared triggers that would fire every time something would cross the beam. While Steve did the initial arduous hard work of setting up the cameras with his team, he left the monitoring of the cameras and reascending the high ridges to the team, a few of whom are also part of ours.

Duncan Parker, award-winning filmmaker for the BBC, NatGeo, Netflix, is also the man in charge of the BBC’s Natural History Units in-house technology department that builds camera traps for some incredible uses. To capture snow leopards for the BBC’s Planet Earth II and NatGeo’s Hostile Planet, Duncan set up a series of Canon 650Ds (Planet Earth II), and Sony A7s (Hostile Planet) on 5 different ridges in Hemis National park for 8 months. Join Duncan on a snow leopard expedition in March 2020.

On the other hand, Voygr’s resident snow leopard expert and photographer, Behzad Larry, used just one DSLR camera trap (Nikon D800, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8) in one location for 6 months to capture a rare image of a snow leopard at night with a moon-lit landscape, and a few spectacular portraits of snow leopards. Additionally, the trail with the DSLR had two TrailCams within 100ft of the DSLR to understand animal movement in the area. In a month the TrailCams detected 4 snow leopards, hundreds of blue-sheep, stone marten, and fox. The DSLR did not capture any of these animals. 

Snow leopard in moonlit landscape. By Behzad Larry.

A snow leopard with a moonlit landscape. By Behzad Larry. 2019.

Footage from the TrailCams helped to understand how the animals used the trail and the DSLRs infrared sensors were repositioned to create a choke-point on the trail thus narrowing the path the animals used where the camera was set-up. On the next visit, the DSLR had successfully captured a snow leopard and dozens of blue sheep.

So while many cameras on many known trails is definitely recommended for surety, especially when it’s for big productions, a camera in the right place with structured information can also land an iconic image. Of course, the longer you can leave the set-up in place, the better your chances of camera trapping snow leopards.

Equipment Needed

There are two main types of cameras used for trapping. Off-the-shelf game cameras (which we will refer to as TrailCams) and customized DSLRs.

Off the shelf game cameras

These are the easiest place to begin if you’re just starting with camera trapping snow leopards. Called game cameras or trail cameras, and are used by hunters, conservation groups, and research agencies, these cameras are purpose built for long-term use in difficult environments. They are small, usually under 9 inches in length, and run on AA batteries. These self-contained units have a motion sensor, infrared LEDs for night-time lighting, and small screens to help set-up and for play-back. Pricing and image quality run a wide gamut from cheap no brand $40 units to $600.

These, then, are great stand-alone cameras to capture animal behavior, understand trails, and do recon work. Paired with a DSLR as the main unit, these trail cams can help capture a wealth of information to help your trapping team reposition the DSLR, create choke-points on a trail to alter animal paths, and capture what the main unit is missing.

Browning Recon Force 4K. 4K UHD video and images up to 32MP. – $250

Browning Recon Force Advantage. Full HD video with 20MP images. – $150

DSLR/ Mirrorless Camera Traps.

To get the best quality images or video, consumer or professional cameras rigged to trigger using infrared sensors are ideal. While setups can also use mirrorless cameras. we’ll just refer to this category in short as DSLR. This adds complexity to the set-up as multiple independent units need to communicate with each other to capture an image and also increases the cost of each unit as you need a DSLR, big lithium batteries, infrared sensors, pelican cases to protect the DSLR, a tripod or stand to hold the unit, and smaller tripods or stands to mount the sensors. Depending on the set-up and sensors used, it can also involve dozens of feet of cabling. The image quality, however, can be phenomenal, especially if the unit uses a professional camera body. And the good news is, we know exactly how to set these up with you in the field.

A snow leopard on a high ridge. By Behzad Larry.

A snow leopard walks on a high ridge. By Behzad Larry, 2019.

Camera body + lens.

A lot of camera trappers, especially when operating multiple cameras, tend to buy used bodies. For under $900, you can often pick up a used full frame Nikon D800 or Canon 6D. For under $600, a Nikon D7100 or Canon Rebel T6s. If buying used, we recommend checking out the used sections of B&H and Adorama.

But, look for lenses that are short as longer lenses may be harder to fit into pre-made tubes. Ideally use a fixed length prime such as 28mm or 35mm. You can also use some kit zoom lenses like the 18-55mm if you’re using a crop sensor camera.

Housing and Sensors

For using a DSLR setup for camera trapping snow leopards we highly recommend using plug and play systems manufactured by Cognisys. If ordering Cognisys equipment (listed below), use the coupon code “voygr” all lower-case at checkout to get a 5% discount.

For each unit, you will need

  1. Camera Box. This Pelican style case houses the camera body.
    1. Camera mount : Choose from pick-n-pluck foam options where you create a negative space in the housing for your camera body by removing the foam, or a quick release unit, which functions like a tripod plate. We recommend the quick release option.
    2. Lens tube length. Measure how much your lens protrudes from your camera body and pick a suitable length. You want as short as possible so you don’t get any of the tube rim in your images.
    3. Battery pack : Select the Li-on battery pack kit. Li-on batteries are ideal. You will need 2 batteries as well. You will not need extra camera batteries that fit your camera as they will run on these big Li-ons.
    4. Camera box hood. This prevents lens flares and keeps snow and rain off your lens.
  2. Scout Trail Monitor Set. This is set of 1 active infrared transmitter and 1 receiver. Paired with the Cognisys camera box above, they can function completely wirelessly and trigger the camera.
    1. The Scout sensors use 6 AA’s per unit. We ONLY recommend Lithium AAs and not alkaline as lithium batteries are rated to -40º. The sensors usually last 100 days on 12 AAs. So plan accordingly.
  3. Shutter interface cable. Choose the correct one for each camera you will use.
  4. Tripod to mount the camera box on. This should ideally be without a central column so that it can be lowered to the ground without any obstruction.
  5. 2 mini tripods for each of the sensors such as a Manfrotto Pixi.
  6. Memory cards. Get a few big cards (128gb+). False triggers, caused by sunlight, storms, or other natural phenomena can quickly fill up a card. Our crews cannot transfer from a filled card on high ridges and can only swap full ones for empty ones.

For every DSLR setup we recommend having 1 or 2 TrailCams installed nearby to help monitor the main unit. For those that want a much lower foot-print option, we can also just help you set-up and maintain TrailCams without a DSLR. Pricing for both options are listed below.

Then, at the end of their selected term, Clients can choose to either fly back to Ladakh to retrieve their equipment or choose to have their equipment shipped to them. Please note that batteries will not be shipped as lithium is barred from aircraft cargo holds. The client is responsible for bearing all shipping, packaging, insurance, and customs duties related to shipping (if applicable).

The fees listed above include the following services:

  1. Installing camera traps, including transporting equipment to ridges with additional porters (if needed) to haul equipment up mountain.
  2. Scheduled visits as per plan to Hemis National Park from Leh, and treks to all cameras installed by Voygr camera trapping crew member along with replacement of batteries, memory cards, and any needed trouble shooting.
  3. Upload and transfer of any images with wildlife on them to client.
  4. Securing permission for all filming and photography permits associated with remote camera installations in the park.
  5. Removal of camera equipment to Leh once terms ends.

Pricing for Camera Trapping Services as Extension to a Snow Leopard Expedition

Pricing for first camera

DSLR

TrailCams to monitor DSLR trail

Monitoring visits

TrailCams (No DSLR)

Monitoring visits

2 Months

$1,440

$336 for 2 cams

2 times

$1,152

1 time

4 Months

$2,160

$672 for 2 cams

4 times

$1,452

2 times

6 Months

$2,520

$1,008 for 2 cams

6 times

$1,752

3 times

8 Months

$3,360

$1,356 for 2 cams

8 times

$2,052

4 times

10 Months

$4,200

$1,680 for 2 cams

10 times

$2,352

5 times

1 Year

$5,040

$2,016 for 2 cams

12 times

$2,652

6 times

Monitoring Visits

These are the number of times a Voygr Camera Trapper will visit your set-up to ensure it is operational, conduct maintenance, swap cards, etc. Standard visits are monthly.

Relocation

If a camera is set-up for over 3 months, it can be relocated to a different pre-determined location to capture a new background/landscape, or species. Cameras can be relocated and re-set up for $350 per camera. For camera trapping durations under 3 months, we do not recommend relocating the camera.

Additional Cameras

For each additional DSLR camera, the pricing per camera will be 50% of first camera if the other cameras are within a 2 hour trek or 20 minute drive of the first camera. The ideal combination is to set-up a DSLR as the main camera, with 2 or more trail cameras to monitor the trail the DSLR is set-up on. This allows fine-tuning of the DSLR in case wildlife is showing up on the easily triggered trail cams, but not triggering the more precise beams of the DSLR set-up.  There is no discount for additional TrailCam to monitor additional DSLR set-ups.

Equipment

All necessary equipment, including batteries, must be provided by the Client. Please refer to the camera trapping equipment section below.

Theft/ Loss/ Destruction

While we do our utmost to ensure all equipment is protected, there is no way to secure the equipment against theft besides camouflage. Cameras are left on incredibly high ridges and very remote locations where very few people are likely to venture. They are not installed on routes that are heavily trafficked by people. Additionally, in certain locations, wildlife such as bears, can destroy equipment. We recommend insuring all of your equipment, in the unlikely event of theft, loss, or destruction.

Interested in adding a camera trapping snow leopards? Then add this as a component to your snow leopard trip. Just let us know when you book your snow leopard expedition.

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