Wildlife documentaries filmed by wildlife

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Love this idea: Wildlife film-making outsourced to Indian…elephants? Nature documentary producer/director John Downer trained elephants in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, India, to carry HD cameras while following tigers through the jungle. Looks like some pretty fascinating footage. The film, entitled Tiger – Spy in the Jungle, will be shown on BBC on March 30.

The camera setup looks high-budget and somewhat unwieldy, relying on trained elephants, active remote camera manipulation, and retrieval of the cameras — it’s currently suitable only for a BBC-type wildlife documentary project. However, it is worth remembering that the technology involved is getting better and better — cameras are shrinking, GPS units are becoming more accurate and powerful, and both are getting cheaper. While this indicates a bright future for nature documentaries, there will surely be conservation applications as well.

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This kind of video footage (uh, the kind shot by elephants) is essentially anecdotal, vs. fixed cameras used by researchers to record activity in a particular location. However, this “embedded” roving footage can provide confirmed sightings of species for which there may otherwise be scant evidence — see stills from the Downer footage interspersed here for species variety and image quality.

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It’s only a matter of time before the technology curves enable a) simultaneous video, wireless transmittal, and GPS triangulation, b) longer battery life, and c) smaller unit size to be mounted on smaller animals. As there is not a huge market for wildlife research and film-making, most likely we’ll see development come from other fields and sources first – to be applied later to wildlife science and conservation.

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One new angle on tackling these technology challenges comes from Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, who has launched a project called DIY Drones to encourage the development of amateur unmanned aerial vehicles. Many of these UAVs have the same technology requirements as wildlife GPS and video: light weight, autonomous operation, long battery life, and reliable remote camera/video transmittal. Between the big-budget film-makers, individual scientific researchers, forward-thinking conservation organizations, and hobbyist communities, we should see some interesting developments in this particular niche of the ICT for conservation (ICT4C) space.

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