ESE Editor’s Choice 1:2 – An ethical framework for using camera traps in the field

How should you react if you unintentionally capture illegal activity in photos from a wildlife camera trap? Associate Editor Dave Augeri introduces our latest Editor’s Choice article by Sharma et al. which addresses the ethics of using camera traps in wildlife research.

Ethical principles are so fundamental to our work in conservation science that we often take it for granted. However, while we may naturally follow ethical norms in terms of scientific standards, honest analyses and reporting of results, cooperative data sharing, co-authorships, and the like, Sharma and colleagues remind us that substantive dialogue regarding ethical codes of conduct for practitioners in the field is an important and evolving necessity.

In this article, the authors initiate such a discourse regarding the use of remote cameras relative to the privacy of local community members, suspected poachers, trespassers, and anyone else unknowingly photographed during the course of field research. Clearly, this creates dilemmas and a code of conduct framework is provided to assist other researchers to navigate what could potentially be ethical and legal minefields.

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Snow Leopard approaching a camera trap ©SLT/NCF/HPFD, India

Sharma et al. duly note that conservation efforts in various regions are sometimes a burdensome top-down or foreign imposition and, in some cases, even “coercive”.  Those of us who have entered situations after such impositions have witnessed the extreme injustices these actions can cause and experience the difficulties in rebuilding trust. Adding remote cameras in the name of science to the mix, regardless of how sincere and honest the intent, can not only enflame distrust and cause further injustices, but also threaten already delicate and complex relationships vital for the conservation process.

As the authors remind us, the implications of camera trapping strongly indicate that the cameras, along with the research and conservation processes they are intended for, must be employed in the most ethically appropriate and socially sensitive manners possible.

The authors also raise some serious questions.

For example, what should researchers do when suspected poachers or trespassers are photographed by remote cameras during the course of their research? While it may be vital to safeguard individual privacy, it may also be necessary to provide evidence to local law enforcement depending on researcher obligations in their MOU or contract with the authorities or according to their responsibilities to local and national laws. Any of these obligations may also include statutes regarding individual privacy, freedom of movement, and personal autonomy.

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People captured with a gun on camera traps ©SLT/Panthera/SLCF/MNET, Mongolia

Even if individual freedoms and privacy are not legally covered locally or nationally, the authors remind us that researchers should always respect the UN General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ‘principle of empathy’, which “requires that researchers or managers try to understand and address the nuances and sensitivities that local communities are likely to perceive in relation to camera-trapping research in any area”.

Indeed, respecting these guidelines should not only be core principles of every field biologist for the benefit of local communities regardless of their research, but it would also benefit the researchers themselves. As Pettorelli et al. suggested, sometimes the use of such field methods could endanger the researchers when their work or presence are misinterpreted or distrusted by the same people they are intending to help.

To address these and other potential dilemmas that may arise through remote camera trapping, Sharma et al. suggest a pragmatic seven-point framework for an ethical code of conduct. These suggested best practices encompass: (1) Permission, (2) Purpose Limitation, (3) Disclosure, (4) Legality, (5) Privacy, (6) Participation, and (7) Sharing. By following this framework, the authors rightly conclude it will enable researchers to improve the ethics of camera trap-based research and better navigate many of the dilemmas that may arise. The inherent result will be strengthened trust and relationships, both locally and nationally, leading to improved science and more robust and enduring conservation.

Read the full Editor’s Choice article: “Conservation and people: Towards an ethical code of conduct for the use of camera traps in wildlife research” in Issue 1:2 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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