Andean Bears: Camera Trappers

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post (see Bear Culture). To be honest, I was waiting until I could include a remote-camera photo of a wild Andean bear! However, people keep asking me about the cameras (see post Andean Bears and Cameras), so I thought I’d provide an update now.

Due to logistical challenges, it took longer than I expected to place the cameras in Peru’s cloud forest last fall. I now understand well why no one’s done this before! However, one issue that I thought might be a challenge turned out to be no challenge at all. The local people who worked with me to install the cameras in the forest have very little experience with electronic technology, so I wasn’t sure how fast they’d learn to use the cameras. Another challenge for them was that all the buttons on the cameras, and the programming menus, are written in English, which none of them speak or write.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

I’ll admit that at first they didn’t understand what the different programming options were or what the buttons did. Neither did they have any idea of how to prepare a site in the forest for the best chance at obtaining good photos. However, after working with me to install only a few cameras, they were debating with each other, and with me, the fine points of site preparation and camera positioning. “No, it should be turned a little more to the left!” “No, I think it’s very good where it is.” “Use a little stick to raise the bottom – no, not that stick, use one that’s a little thicker.” This was an excellent reminder of something I realized as a child surrounded by older generations who did not have access to higher education: a lack of education does not mean a lack of intelligence.

There were three other promising signs:
- First, these gentlemen kept teasing me about how many bears would be photographed, and what the chances were that all the photos would be of bears’, um, derrieres, and not of their faces.
- Second, as they programmed each new camera installation, team members would look over each other’s shoulder, ready to applaud, and critique. However, each man was careful and thorough, and mastered the process at hand.
- Third, two men encountered a bear on the trail, in broad daylight, about 400 meters (1,300 feet) away from where the rest of us were debating whether we had achieved optimal camera placement. At first I didn’t believe that they had seen a bear, because they had been teasing me so much. However, when we went down the trail, there was no denying the evidence in the mud: fresh tracks of an Andean bear.

The field workers are changing the batteries and memory cards in the cameras every month until I return there in March to begin the next stage of the project. The photos from the first month of operation have been collected, downloaded, and sent to Lima, Peru. However, there are so many photos that they cannot be e-mailed to me! So, I’ll have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail. I wonder, I wonder, what is in those photos?

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

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