28 November 2013

Thiefs In The Night

In general I try to steer this blog clear of social and political issues in South Africa, but when the ever rising crime rate starts to impact my camera trapping it becomes more difficult to do so...

I've been camera trapping, on and off, at Tygerberg for about 4 years now. During this time I've photographed very little "suspicious" activity, until recently.

Thief (Dief - Homo sapiens latro) passing by the camera with, interestingly enough, untied shoelaces...

In September I placed my two Cuddeback camera traps on a road running along the top of Tygerberg. Since this area of the reserve is behind a locked gate I was accompanied by some rangers from the reserve to unlock the gate for me. The plan was to only leave the camera in such a risky place for one week, but after only 4 days I was contacted by the reserve. They informed me that there was a some criminal activity that took place the night before in the same vicinity. Apparently, amongst other things, the culprits cut the chain on the gate using a pair of bolt cutters. My cameras were only a few meters away from the gate, so I rushed to the reserve during lunch time expecting the worst.

In recent month the general Tygerberg area has seen a huge increase in criminal activity. However I think it is important to note that the criminals only seem to travel through the reserve, cutting holes in the fence to get access to the houses bordering the reserve. I feel the reserve itself is still a wonderful and extremely safe place to visit, especially during the day. I'm convinced that you are in more danger at your favourite shopping mall than at the reserve itself.

Still, I was worried about my cameras and didn't want to take any further chances, so I went to fetch them. Luckily both were still right where I left them, but when I viewed the photographs I was unpleasantly surprised.

The criminals passed right by the cameras! To make things worse these are normal white-flash cameras. The flash is very noticeable when it goes off, no matter what direction you are facing.

The Cuddeback takes about 30 seconds to recover between photographs. The first camera the burglars walked past had taken two photographs, 1 minute apart . They must have stood right in front of the camera for at least a minute, trying to figure out what was going on! I'm sure they would have stolen or damaged the camera if they could figure out where the flash was coming from, but luckily they didn't. The night was dark and the moon wasn't out yet.

I usually place my cameras close to the ground since most animals around here are on the small side. The thieves probably didn't realise the camera was only about knee high and almost right in front of them.

My trusty old Cuddeback Capture

I placed my other camera a short distance up the slope, at a T-junction. By the time the second camera flashed the culprits didn't hang around for long and must have skedaddled rather quickly, since I didn't get any other photographs of them.

My not so trusty and not so old Cuddeback Attack

Placing a camera trap on a road or large path might seem like the obvious thing to do, but I usually steer clear of such location. I won't place my cameras on a road if it seems to be frequented by people. If I really feel the risk is worth it, then I'll only leave it out for a very short time.

Another reason I'm not very keen on placing too many cameras on roads is that I believe that some animals might either avoid roads, or only travel along them reluctantly. My theory is that many creatures are shy and reclusive by nature and avoid coming out into the open as much as possible. For them a wide open road is a scary thing and they'll try to stick as close to cover as possible. You have a better chance of photographing such animals on a smaller game trail or at other landmarks.

Porcupine (Ystervark - Hystrix africaeaustralis) zipping past

Not only did the thieves not damage or steal the camera traps, but they presented me with an interesting opportunity. I noticed that a Caracal, Honey Badger and Porcupine all walked past the camera in nearly the same position as the criminals. This makes it interesting to compare the different sizes of each animal to the two humans.

Overlay showing a Caracal, Honey Badger and two thieves

I also created an animated GIF for easy comparison.

Animated GIF showing the Porcupine, Carcal, Honey Badger and two thieves

Readers of this blog might easily forget just how small Tygerberg Nature Reserve is and that it is surrounded on three sides by urban development. The city lights in the background of this Caracal photograph shows just how "urban" the reserve is.

Caracal (Rooikat - Caracal caracal) with the suburbs of Plattekloof and Panorama in the background


  1. Anyone walking around with gloves and a bolt-cutter is not just an opportunistic criminal. Lucky you've still got your cameras!

  2. Very lucky indeed!

    I would have been very sad to loose the old Cuddeback Capture, since it's my best white flash camera trap and I don't know where to get another one since they don't make them anymore.

  3. I'm shocked and relieved that you didn't get your camera stolen.

    Also, that last caracal shot is very cool. Seems a nice representation of the plight facing wildlife from human encroachment....