Andean Bears: Back to Peru

Quincemil, District of Camanti, southeast Peru
I’ve returned to the cloud forest of southeast Peru, on the east slope of the Andes, between the cities of Cusco and Puerto Maldonado to continue my research on Andean bears. It’s good to be back. Things have changed in the area due to the construction of the interoceanic highway, but they haven’t changed as much yet as I imagined they would have, or as they will. I’ve encountered many familiar faces, but other people have moved on, looking for opportunities elsewhere. (Read previous post, Andean Bear Collaboration.)

There’s a construction boom in Quincemil, and several new restaurants have opened to serve the expanding market driven by construction of the highway. To my surprise, there aren’t nearly as many frogs calling every night; apparently this is their quiet season. Based on my past experiences here, I thought these frogs called every evening, year round! Fewer frogs calling make conversations easier, so I’m not complaining.

I’ve been told the growing human population sometimes overwhelms the recently repaired hydroelectric system, leading to rolling blackouts, but I haven’t experienced this familiar scenario yet this year. Just to be on the safe side, power consumption is reduced by leaving the street lights turned off, and I always carry a headlamp after dark.

This will be a short trip for me, and I’ll only spend about three weeks here. I have three primary goals for this trip to the field. First, I want to revisit some promising sites where we conducted reconnaissance during the latter half of last year. The maize crop in this area is almost completely harvested, and I’d like to see whether there is evidence of bears using areas where we didn’t find bear signs last year. Second, I’d like to talk again with local landowners to verify that they’re still amenable to the idea of having researchers working in the area. Third, I’d like to further pursue agreements with some communities for us to work on their lands. Without the consent or support of local people, this work, and bear conservation, cannot progress.

During this trip, I’m spending a bit more time than usual in Lima, the capitol of Peru. Like my goals in the field, my goals in Lima are aimed at forming a solid basis for future work. While in Lima on my way here, I met with two Peruvian biologists conducting research on bears in other parts of Peru, and I visited a potential collaborator at a university in Lima. I think there’s great potential for us to work together, and I hope we can have Peruvian students involved in the program within the next year. While in Lima I also did all that I could to ensure that our research proposal is ready for approval by the Peruvian government. Understandably, the government’s representatives need to verify that researchers are conducting scientifically valid, appropriate, and ethical work consistent with Peruvian and international law. Fortunately, I have the assistance of my collaborator’s (Botanical Research Institute of Texas) agent in Lima to help me with this process. I hardly understand legalese in English, let alone in Spanish!

Well, we need to start making arrangements for our next trip to the high country. Rumor has it we can pay for a lift in a pickup from a village on the main road to the village nearest to our destination. The last time we visited this place, however, the best we could do was rent a horse. Whether we start out with a few hundred horsepower, or the power of one horse, at the end we rely on our boots.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.