Andean Bear Country

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Russ Van Horn has been studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Still Elusive.

By the time you read this I’ll be back in San Diego, trying to stay disciplined enough to practice my Spanish and begin learning a few phrases in Quechua. My Spanish is still weak, but my Quechua is limited to a dozen words, which I probably mispronounce.

During the time I spent in the area above Quince Mil, Peru, I repeatedly heard that every year the people living in the village of Quico have trouble with Andean bears raiding their maize. I’d also heard that the people of that area were much more traditional and conservative than people living closer to the main road. For example, the first, and preferred, language of the people of Quico is Quechua, not Spanish. So, it didn’t seem wise to just show up there before establishing a connection to the community.

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

By late November, we had the personal contacts and the time available to make the trip. It was a beautiful day’s hike from the main road to the village of Quico, but I was very glad that we’d rented a packhorse to carry most of our gear. After spending most of the last few months at below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) elevation, the trail to 4,800 meters (15,800 feet) literally took my breath away!

Another day’s hike took us down into the next valley, below Quico, to a chain of small fields set in primary cloud forest. Once again, there were obvious differences in the vegetation between this forest and the other sites I’ve seen at the same elevation, not very far away. Because the corn in this watershed won’t be ripe until late June, the farmers told us not to expect to find much evidence of bears. However, after only a few hours in the forest above the fields, we found as much evidence of bears as we’ve found in all the other sites we’ve visited!

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

I guess I’d better spend a lot of time at the gym over the next few months, preparing my cardiovascular system for a return visit to Quico. I wonder if I can find some Quechua language audio lessons and multitask my way toward two objectives?

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Peru, but it doesn’t make sense to return as long as the rains are heavy in the south, and they last through March. I’ll post another entry when my travel plans are settled. In the meantime, thank you for reading these ramblings!

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo.