How to observe nocturnal animals in tropical forest?


Nocturnal animals are still fairly unknown and forest at night is magical

It is constant surprise for me how little is known about nocturnal animals. Especially the ones living in the forests of Africa and other tropical forests.

It is because they are difficult to find, and previously forests might have been too dangerous to spend time at in the night.

This small Suni antilope (Neotragus moschatus) (height only 33-38 cm) can’t see red light and if observed silently, it may come really close. This female had a calf with her. She also goes to villages and gardens with her calf. This is dangerous as this tiny antilope is easy pray for dogs that are everywhere outside forests. Photo Hanna Rosti Taita Hills 2021.

Now many new modern technology devices make it possible to find and follow nocturnal animals.

Following nocturnal animals at night is, at least to me, way more exiting than at daytime.

Forest is mysterious and magical, sounds are loud. There is constant symphony of sounds competing with one another.

At night animals are often not afraid of people. If animals have not been harassed or killed by people, they are indifferent towards humans, and they may also be curious towards humans. This makes forests incredibly unique places to be at night.

I have had amazing encounters with dwarf and greater galagos, genets, owls, rats and birds at night.

Taita white eye (Zosterops silvanus) is endemic to Taita Hills. In this rare photo, three Taita white eyes are sleeping in the branch. Photo Hanna Rosti, Taita Hills 2021.

Animal observation at night in the forests is animal welfare friendly. Humans are just visitors that they can avoid just by climbing in to the canopy or out of sight.

Sometimes even entire forests are being cleared, with no consideration of the animals that used to have their home in the forest.

As almost all forests in the tropics are under a threat, nocturnal animals need people who will speak for their conservation. Humans have to be the voice these animals don’t have.

Hyperolius glandicolor from Taita Hills 2021. Photo Hanna Rosti.

What devices to use?

Red light is invisible to many animals, and even to those species who can see it, it is not as disturbing as the white light.

  1. Red flash light or head torch

I use Fenix TK25 flashlights with rechargeable batteries. I also have a smaller red head torch by Petzl. It is important to use red light only. If white light is used it will reduce significantly number of animals you are going to see, and it will disturb the animals. There are many different options to use.

2. Night vision binoculars

There are many different night vision binoculars available. Many come with possibility to take video and photographs. To my experience they are not as good as high quality thermal imaging camera. However it can be used to take nice videos at very moderate price.

3. Thermal imaging camera

After I began working with thermal imaging camera, it increased animal sightings 95 %. The one I have been using is Pulsar Helion Pro. With this camera it is also possible to take videos and photographs.

Here is youtube video from Taita Hills. Try if you can identify animals from thermal imaging camera!

4. Camera with flashlight

Camera with flashlight, to use with care. Just for documenting the animals and then leaving them as they were.

Taita tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax sp.) climbing in climbers, Taita Hills 2021.

How to find the animals

These are tips that I have personally found to work through trial and error.

  1. Use existing paths for safety and silence

If you use outside paths, you will create so much disturbance, that you will not see much. From animal perspective, human walking through forest is very strange thing, large, noisy and smelly. More silent you can be the better.

You can walk same paths repeatedly. Animals have their favourite places in the forest. In one site you may encounter animals almost all the time you are there, and in other places you never see any animals. It does take some time before behaviors and favourite places of animals began to unravel.

Genet (Genetta genetta) Taita Hills 2021.

Paths are also good way to avoid large spider webs and snakes. In dense forest it is almost impossible to see all spider webs, and then these large spiders may be crawling on you. Or you may take a hold on branch, and it turns out not to be a branch, but a snake.

Risk of getting lost is reduced in paths, it may still happen and do happen, as paths may disappear. However getting back to track is easier.

  1. Be still and silent, wait for animals to come to you

Animals that can not see the red light may literally bump into humans. In Taita forests, these are genets and rats. Galagos and tree hyraxes can see red light, and they may come to see humans, just because they are curious.

Permits and guide

Find out if you need permit to go to the forest. A guide is also needed. In some areas it has been a tabu to go to the forest at night. Guide has to be someone who has previously worked in the forest at night. There are always risks when working in forests at night. How to get to the forest and back safely is very important.

Rats cant see red light, and if observe is silent, they can come really close. Southern giant pouched rat (Cricetomys ansorgei). Taita Hills 2021, photo Hanna Rosti.

Mites in Taita forests

In Taita forests, worse danger that I have personally experienced many times are mites. These are mites that go under the skin and burrow holes and lay eggs. Some locals are not infected by them, some are. I believe that these are mites that are also living in tree hyraxes. They resemble human scabies.

Once they cause human infection, in cause horrible itch and, at least for me, fever for few days. I have treated this mite infection with scabies cream, but only once I am back home. This means that most of the time, I have worked in the forests, I have been suffering from mite infection.

In Taita Hills, we always wear rubber boots. And sticky tape is rolled around the rubber boot twice. One slightly under than the other roll. Mites can not crawl through that tape. We use two tapes, as one may be covered with leaves or something. Even a small crack in the rubber boot may lead to mite infection. Problem is worse after the rain.

Because of these mites, I never sit on the ground. Only on the rocks far away from the trees.

There are always some bite marks when you are in the tropics. Mite infection can be recognized by bites that are in the row. Sometimes tunnel that mite has used can also be seen as a red line under the skin between bite marks.

These mites can lay eggs and live in humans as well, but in most cases they die in about two weeks. It is worth to wait before using some cream meant for human scabies. Using local lotions or sprays don’t work. Whole body has be treated, otherwise they just change their location.

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