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.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.