A tiger pawed through the forest in northern Myanmar, swinging its tail in the dappled light of the understory of the Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary. Days later, a clouded leopard crossed the same path. The two felines may never have known that they passed by each other, but David Macdonald broke into a smile immediately when he saw their two pictures side by side weeks later.
Sweaty and swarmed by mosquitos, days up twisting rivers in narrow boats, expectations were running high on Macdonald’s team and the researchers’ spirits were immediately lifted by the sight of the noble cats. The team had hidden a network of 160 cameras in a 50,000 acre grid to catch a glimpse of the dearly endangered and practically unstudied clouded leopard. But, with the snap of the shutter, they had also confirmed that the worryingly small population of tigers in Myanmar was still alive.
“For me, the big moments are just that glimpse of an animal in the binoculars,” reflected Macdonald, “but there’s a higher level reward when you see a pattern.”
Macdonald is searching for patterns on a massive scale. The cameras in Htamanthi were helping piece together essential data about the elusive clouded leopard, but they also acted as a big net that was helping Macdonald and his WildCRU team build a rich portrait of the unique ecosystem in northwestern Myanmar. Alone, the results of that camera grid would be interesting, but Macdonald and his team had also built similar camera grids in 66 other sites across the entire known range of the clouded leopard, including both the mainland species, Neofelis nebulosa, in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Thailand, India, Malaysia and Bhutan, and also the Sunda clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi, which is unique to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
These leopards happen to live in the fastest shrinking patches of forest on earth, so studying the cats has put Macdonald’s finger on the pulse of the last wild places across thousands of miles of diverse terrain.
After downloading the pictures of the tiger and the leopard on David's laptop, the Myanmar team (which included three Oxford trained nationals) put the card back in the camera, replaced the battery and shouldered their packs. The team had 159 more cameras to check and miles of dense forest to push through.
Back at his home in England, Macdonald sits inside, looking over his garden and drinking tea from a mug with red foxes on it. “I’m a backwoodsman,” he says, bobbing his thick, grey beard, “what I care about is conservation action on the ground.”
This is a simple statement, but devilishly difficult in the details, requiring a mastery of backwoods fieldcraft but also academia (“a blood sport of its own,” he says), fundraising and even international diplomacy. The Oxford Professor seems to always have his mind in many places at once, bringing a range of perspectives to any question, from the most minute details of animal behavior to the ways in which Sino-American policy might impact a new conservation project. This ability allowed him to imagine and then succeed in building the largest camera trapping survey in history.
“It’s quite easy to be interesting, but exceedingly difficult to be useful,” he is fond of saying.
Macdonald began his career researching foxes and published a pair of popular books on the subject that inspired documentaries and, eventually, a BBC series. At the time, conservation biology didn’t exist as a unique academic discipline but then, in 1986, he founded the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) – a part of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology - , which has become a world leader in complex, long term conservation projects that leverage biological research to influence policy. In 2011, he started to realize that a project he was working on about clouded leopards in Borneo’s Sabah State was part of a bigger picture.
“I saw coming together an opportunity to study a species that was, in a sense, unknown,” Macdonald explains. Clouded leopards live deep in the wild and are notoriously hard to track, but their habitat across Southeast Asia is shrinking faster than any other forest on the planet. So, Macdonald thought that if he could reveal the secrets of the charismatic cats, while also doing some ground-breaking ecological science, he might be able to attract public and government-level attention to combat the viral growth of poaching, logging, palm oil plantations and raging fires that are destroying the clouded leopard’s previously unseen empire.
“Camera trapping was in its infancy. And, more to the point, the techniques of analyzing camera trapping data were in their infancy, I mean not even out of nappies,” he laughed, but he recognized that they were the perfect tool.
With enough cameras combined with computer analysis and modeling, the WildCRU team could do the work of many researchers in a relatively short time on a massive scale. “The idea is that the total should be greater than the sum of its parts,” he says, “the policy decisions that humanity has to make are at a much bigger scale, with multiple species interacting on multiple scales embracing neighborhoods, countries and regions.”
He started courting private donors and put together the biggest proposal of his life. In 2012, he got the go-ahead to build the first grid of cameras in Sumatra and a second grid in Borneo. Aided by the experience of key team-member and Borneo backwoodsman, Andrew Hearn, the grueling fieldwork advanced. Initially, they were plagued with problems like ants invading camera housings and poachers stealing cameras.
“For the first year or two, I didn’t know whether it would be worth the investment, whether in money or time or blood,” Macdonald remembers, but slowly results started to come in.
They caught a photo of a clouded leopard in Borneo’s Sebangau peat-swamp forest, which was the first scientific evidence of the species in that region. In 2014, they recorded the first yellow-bellied spotted weasel in Cambodia, dramatically expanding the range of the rare animal. They saw the last known tiger in Laos in 2014 and the cameras documented Indochinese leopards disappearing from 94% of their territory in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia.
Hundreds of people have participated along the way, including some who started as field-hands but have since earned their doctorates at Oxford. Saw Htun, who helped set the camera traps in Htamanthi, got a WildCRU diploma and is now the Wildlife Conservations Society’s country director in Myanmar.
Finally, in 2018 and 2019, Macdonald’s WildCRU team and family of collaborators published major articles analyzing the entire clouded leopard habitat. They identified emergent threats from poachers and loggers to dams and palm oil groves, but also mapped opportunities for new preserves and conservation corridors that will connect them to protect the long range health of the many species who live there.
“I didn’t know if we could pull it off,” says Macdonald. Now, with a database of more than ten million photographs and growing, his team has the scope of understanding to be able to tackle large, trans-border conservation challenges. With top analysts like Sam Cushman and Zaneta Kaszta they have built toolkits to optimize conservation strategies alongside large scale developments, like China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In Myanmar, their research helped make the case for Htamanthi to become an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Heritage Park, bringing in new resources to preserve habitat for the charismatic tigers and the clouded leopards, but also for the many other species who live there.
Macdonald isn’t done, though. There are still opportunities for more camera grids, many papers to be published and thousands of acres that could be saved from destruction. But he takes a moment, sipping his tea, to reflect on his work.
“It’s the dawning of understanding,” he smiles, before you can see his mind speed off to the next destination.