Bearly Started: New Bear Program in Peru

The town of Qince Mil lies at the boundary between the jaguar-dominated Amazon lowlands and the realm of the Andean bear in the cloud forests above.I’m back in Peru again after a six-year absence. I haven’t spent much time in this country, but I have to say it’s among my favorites. My first trip, in 2002, was mostly recreational, but I did stop by to see an Andean bear reserve in Chaparri in northern Peru. Ever since, I’ve wanted the San Diego Zoo to establish a field conservation program to help save this charismatic species that gets so much less attention than its more famous cousins, the panda and the polar bear. Not too long ago I was able to pursue this goal by hiring Dr. Russ Van Horn to do the job. Russ has spent the past few months here in Peru trying to get this project up and running. Russ has laid the groundwork for the project to fulfill our highest expectations for sound science and meaningful conservation. (See Russ’ most recent blog, Andean Bears: Cloud Forest of Peru.)

Where’s the bear? Somewhere in these cloud forests resides the elusive Andean bear. We hope to find more evidence for, and learn about, these bears using new technologies such as camera traps, fecal DNA, and ultimately GPS satellite collars. After a brief stopover in Cusco, at over 11,000 feet (3,400 meters), we descended the single-lane dirt road to the little jungle town of Quince Mil. A 10-hour trip, the road passes through spectacular high Andes scenery, through the cloud forests inhabited by the Andean bear, to the Amazon basin below. Sadly, the Andean bear’s long-term prospects are not much better than those for pandas and polars, as its habitat is rapidly diminishing as the human population expands in the region. But here, above Quince Mil, the land is still wild. A few farmhouses and pepper fields line the road, but just up and over the ridges to either side is untouched wilderness. And it is here that Russ and his collaborators were taking me.

Russ was smart enough not to try to go it alone on this project and has already made strong ties with a team of botanists led by John Janovec of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT). John, sporting the longest beard I’ve seen in recent years, is a passionate conservationist who has devoted his life to the preservation of this ecoregion and this particular patch of land connecting the Andes to the Amazon. He knows this land and he knows its people. He is an inspirational figure, and he will be an invaluable collaborator, connecting us to the local people and helping us understand the habitat needs of the bear. Together, our teams hope to make a difference for the conservation of this region, one of the most biodiverse on the globe.

Russ has set a camera trap on a ridgetop, some 2,700 feet (800 meters) above the road, in an area where they have found a bear sign—remnants of a half-eaten bromeliad that these bears relish. On the trail, recently cut by John’s team, my sea level-adapted lungs struggled to suck in enough oxygen as we climbed to about 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). Fortunately, the surreal views of the expanse of lush cloud forest across the valley make a good excuse to pause every so often to catch my breath! And then with every step we found some other new botanical wonder. Even John, who’s been working in the area for years, is surprised by the diversity of plant species in this transitional zone from Amazon basin to high mountains. He’s like a kid in a candy shop, exclaiming about each small plant miracle we pass along the trail.

Captured by one of our “camera traps,” an ocelot peers out of the night. This species is just one of many we expect to find in this incredibly diverse region. The camera trap is set next to a large tree with a massive network of roots with a bear-sized hollow underneath. Actually, there was room for several bears. Eagerly, Russ fumbled with the camera, viewing the photos to see what he captured since his last visit. First a tinamou, a ground-dwelling bird the size of a small chicken. Then, an opossum. Last, an ocelot! Not the bear we hoped for, but a beautiful animal and so exciting to know that these ancient forests still provide good habitat for this species. Russ replaced the batteries and the memory card, and we headed back down the mountain, hoping for a bear next time.

Soon Russ hopes to establish a network of these cameras in several sites containing suitable bear habitat. Because Andean bears have highly individualistic “spectacles” (hence their other name, spectacled bear), we can use these photos to recognize individual bears and obtain an estimate of the number of bears in the area. Of course, the camera is not bear-specific, so we will be getting images of all the medium- to large-sized denizens of these forests. Dr. Mathias Tobler—a mammalian ecologist working for BRIT in the area—will help us to study the mammalian diversity of the area and understand the habitat needs of these other species important to this ecosystem. Russ has other big plans for this project. He’ll collect feces for DNA extraction as another method of counting bears, and he’ll study the genetic diversity of these bears. Ultimately, he hopes to place GPS satellite collars on bears—as we have done for giant pandas in China—so he can learn more about their ecology and behavior.

Stay tuned, this project is sure to stimulate many interesting reports in the future.

Ron Swaisgood is head of the San Diego Zoo’s Applied Animal Ecology Division.