How do you photograph a wild elephant? With 1,100 pounds of gear.
How do you protect a delicate camera while photographing a powerful yet sometimes skittish animal? That was the dilemma faced by Jasper Doest last year when he was in Gabon to cover the effects of climate change on forest elephants. (One of the resulting images also appears in our 2022 Pictures of the Year story.) He needed a way to capture the foraging pachyderms without frightening them away from their food source. For help, Doest turned to National Geographic photo engineer Tom O’Brien, who designs and builds solutions for all kinds of field assignment hurdles. In this case, that meant developing an extraordinarily strong camera trap that wouldn’t disturb the elephants or the area’s protected trees, and making multiples of everything as backup. Camera-trap housings To withstand the pokes and prods of elephants, the world’s largest land animal, O’Brien made steel rainproof containers that weighed 35 pounds when “fully loaded,” he says. Picture of elephant resistant camera trap housing: from left to right we have the camera, then the wireless, weather resistant housing which then sits inside the steel, weather resistant outer armor. Each camera was placed inside an initial protective housing, which then went into a steel, weather-resistant outer armor. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION Ratchet straps Instead of screws that might harm the trees, straps secured the traps. Picture of two rolled up straps––one yellow, one orange––with metal hooks and clasps at the ends. Wireless strobes Infrared flashes illuminated the elephants without scaring them away. Picture of exploded view of an elephant proof camera trap strobe. The wireless strobe units consisted of (left to right) a black rubber cap reinforced with fiberglass, an aluminum ring that slipped over the strobe, the strobe itself, and a housing strengthened with thick pieces of aluminum, steel, and polycarbonate. Beam-break motion sensors This two-part tool sent infrared light across a trail. When an animal broke the beam, that triggered the camera to take a photo. Picture of set of one full set of trap parts, including five elephant proof strobes, one elephant resistant camera housing and one pair of motionsensors. Five wireless strobe units, a pair of motion sensors, and the housing-shielded camera made up one complete camera trap. The assignment required multiple traps to be made and used. Ball heads They held the strobe to a mounting device. Picture of 12 ball-shaped objects with two knobs extending outwards Trail cameras These off-the-shelf items helped monitor the custom camera traps, but they were “getting smashed and tusked,” O’Brien says. Picture of five small cameras lined up in a row. One is painted with a grayish-green camouflage print. The other four are an orange and gray camouflage. Passive infrared motion sensors After detecting infrared energy emitted from an animal’s body, they fired the camera shutter. Picture of two black rectangular objects with blue labels and wires extending from the bottom Batteries Sixty lithium ones powered the traps and strobes. Picture of several small blue boxes with wires extending from them Mounts O’Brien welded heavy-duty supports for the traps. In total, the gear he designed for Doest tipped the scales at roughly 1,100 pounds.