Dry-forest Bears of Peru

Setting out. Destination: the top of that mountain. Weight of pack: a lot! Think food and water for five days.

Setting out. Destination: the top of that mountain. Weight of pack: a lot! Think food and water for five days.

The San Diego Zoo has two researchers studying bear habitat in Peru. Read a previous post, Andean Bears and Cameras.

Slowly, slowly, we trudge up the makeshift trail, recently machetted along the ridge. The sun beats down, the thorns scratch our arms, our calf muscles strain to carry us up another 100 feet, then another. But our spirits lift as we rise higher and higher, leaving behind civilization in the valley below, and enter the domain of the spectacled bear.

Nonprofit headquarters. The Spectacled Bear Conservation Society built two buildings in which to base their research and to provide outreach and education for the local community.

Nonprofit headquarters: The Spectacled Bear Conservation Society built two buildings in which to base their research and to provide outreach and education for the local community.

I have joined one of our newest collaborators at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Robyn Appleton, director of a small nonprofit organization devoted to studying and saving the spectacled bear and its habitat. Also known as the Andean bear, because much of its range lies in the mountains of Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru, here they call it oso de anteojos, or spectacled bear, because of the distinct markings around the eyes that give the bear a bespectacled appearance.

Javier checks a camera trap by the waterhole.

Javier checks a camera trap by the waterhole.

Robyn and her small field team—a father-son duo named Javier and José—have worked miracles here. Through sheer grit and determination, they have entered the harsh dry-forest wilderness and discovered something truly amazing. Bears. Lots of them. Local people and experts alike dismissed this area as too dry and barren to support much of a population, but to everyone’s surprise, this team has found and identified no fewer than 31 bears living in a relatively small area.

Hot, steep and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

Hot, steep and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

The story of how these bears (and the people tracking them) manage to eek out an existence in this formidable environment is fascinating. In a dry forest, water is everything. Each year a few sprinkles fall here and there, but real rain comes only every few years with the El Niño. And then, it is super-abundant. As Robyn and her team soon learned, once this rain falls, the dry forest springs to life. They literally watched as the dirt patches turned to tangles of thick brush, and vines grew to cover all the trees. It was impenetrable. Apparently, the porous rocks of the soaring mountains capture much of this rain and slowly feed a few small springs scattered among the ravines. Hot, steep, and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

I’m smiling because I have a rope secure in my hands. Behind me is a 50-foot drop to the waterhole.

I’m smiling because I have a rope secure in my hands. Behind me is a 50-foot drop to the waterhole.

Halfway up the mountain, we descend a precarious slope, clinging to a system of ropes established by Robyn’s husband, Ian, to a waterhole the size of your kitchen sink. This pitifully small puddle sustains life for much of the surrounding fauna, including the bears. The water percolates through the rocks and feeds this hole for years without additional rain. Remove this waterhole and it all collapses. Protection of waterholes such as these has become Robyn’s team’s first order of business.

View of civilization. Wild, but this wilderness is at the mercy of nearby human inhabitants.

View of civilization. Wild, but this wilderness is at the mercy of nearby human inhabitants.

After a welcome respite in the cool shade and green plant life at the waterhole, we continue to ascend, a total of 2,500 feet (760 meters), to the crest of the mountains. Up here, the eagles soar and the views are sweeping and spectacular. As wild as it is up here, we are reminded that we are surrounded by humanity. Look off in one direction, and you can see the lights of the village below. Down the other side we see farms and hear roosters…and disco music. It’s wild here, but fragile. A few careless, or uncaring, people could take away the life of these bears. As goes the water, so goes the wildlife.

Brainstorming at base camp. José, Robyn, and Javier discuss the research plan.

Brainstorming at base camp. José, Robyn, and Javier discuss the research plan.

I am here to learn about this incredible environment and these surprisingly resourceful bears. As a representative of the San Diego Zoo, I am also here to see how we can help. We are helping financially, but we’re also here to brainstorm, to work together to find out how we can make this fantastic opportunity even better. A little weary from the climb, I contemplate the possibilities as I lie on my mat (already deflated by the thorns), gaze up at the stars, and hope a scorpion doesn’t join me in my bed. And I wonder, will tomorrow be the day I see my first wild spectacled bear?

Ron Swaisgood is the director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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