Andean Bears: Field Research Continues

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Cusco cowboys are ready for a parade.

Cusco boys in cowboy costumes prepare to march in a procession.

I’ve left the field and spent some time on vacation around Cusco, Peru, before returning to the U.S. This was a short trip to southern Peru, but it was as productive as I could expect, and I believe it will prove beneficial later this year (see previous post, Andean Bears: Back to Peru). With the help of Pedro Centeno, a colleague from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, I left some camera traps for 10 days at the same sites we monitored last October through December (see post, Andean Bears: Ready for Their Closeup?)

When we left the cameras, the fig trees were fruiting, and the bamboo was flowering nearby, so we expected to see that different animals would pass by. To our great surprise, when we downloaded the photos we found fewer photos per day than in the past. The photos were primarily of clouds and fog moving through the dense forest, but there were also snapshots of agoutis and ocelots.

Once we’d spent a few days walking in the forest and had convinced ourselves that we were ready to hike at higher elevations, Pedro and I set off for a more distant, and logistically challenging, valley. I believe that in my last post.

I spoke of hoping to rent a pickup truck for part of the trip. Well, our timing was nearly perfect. Perfectly bad, that is. I’d thought the festival of Qoyllor Rit’i, which takes place just over the crest of the Andes near the town of Ocongate, would take place a week after our trip. Unfortunately, it took place earlier. In the future I obviously need to pay more attention to the passing of time. Qoyllor Rit’i is a major annual event in this part of Peru, and many people leave their villages to attend the festival, especially people who have ready means of transportation, like pickups. So, we were unable to rent a vehicle, and once again we took a packhorse up the valley.

Considering that I’ve been based in San Diego for the last several months, I don’t think I did too badly on the trail, but it became obvious that we weren’t going to reach our destination before dark. Since this is wintertime here, and it can drop below freezing at night at these elevations, hiking after dark was not exactly something to look forward to with eager anticipation. Fortunately, we met a villager who just happened to have some riding horses with him, available for immediate rental. It must have been funny to see me riding bareback on one of the small horses, with my big feet dangling down. It definitely cheered me up!

Over the next two days we met with members of the local community government and members of the local community and discussed the possibilities for conducting bear research in the area. The community leaders and all the people we talked to were receptive to our working on their lands, which was good news for us. As often seems to happen, good news was followed by bad news. We visited the community’s cornfields and saw first-hand the damage that wild animals were causing to the crop. Based on one quick transect, I estimated that about 25 percent of the crop has been damaged by birds, small mammals, and bears, and there’s still a month to go before all the corn is harvested!
I didn’t see a bear eating corn. I did, however, see a young bear in a tree next to the fields. This is the second wild Andean bear that I’ve seen, and both bears were in or near cornfields. Not all Andean bears eat corn, but conflict with humans is definitely an issue for their conservation.

In order to speed our progress, we rented riding horses for the trip back to the main road. This time there were saddles, although I couldn’t have gotten my hands into the stirrups, let alone my boots. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. My parents have photos of me with a grin stretching from one jug-handle ear to the other, wearing a western-style shirt and cowboy hat, gifts I received for my birthday. On this trip I was forcefully reminded that I’m still no cowboy, but I am gaining a better appreciation for why cowboys are bow-legged!

I plan to return to Peru in around two months to build on the relationships we’re forming with local people and begin collecting some real data. Until then, happy trails to y’all.

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