Peru: Office with View

DiBujos base camp

My mission: to provide anesthesia support for radio collaring Andean (spectacled) bears as part of a collaborative project between Robyn Appleton of Spectacled Bear Conservation – Peru and the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research to study the biology and the ecology of the bears in the dry forest of the Lambayeque region in northern Peru. (See Russ’ post, Andean Bears: Camera Trappers.)

My officemates: the most incredible field crew (Robyn Appleton, Javier Vallejos, Jose Vallejos, and our own Dr. Russ Van Horn). Oh yes, mustn’t forget the mosquitoes, the leafcutter ants, the other assorted winged arthropods, miscellaneous birds, and a few lizards.

The office complex: a luxury base camp known as DiBujos, perched on top of a hill with a nice view, breezes, and solar panels to keep our laptop computers chugging away. It’s a choice darting location, a water hole within a comfortable 45-minute hike situated up a ravine. I knew it was too good to be true…

Day 1 to 3: After 2½ days of sitting at the DiBujos water hole with no bear activity, it is time to re-group. Camera trap photos from another not-so close water hole showed quite a bit of bear activity since the end of December. Goodbye, DiBujos. Goodbye, laptop…

Day 4: We set off at 4:30 a.m. to relocate to another site. By 6:30 a.m., we are tucked away along the side of a wash hoping to “catch” a bear coming/going to a water hole further up the ravine. Along about 1:30 p.m., a bear comes; however, he is on the opposite hillside, way out of our range. Bummer! The field team decides we should head up to the not-so-accessible water hole to scope things out.

I arrive at the water hole, clothes ringing wet with sweat from almost two hours of boulder hopping, rock scaling, and making a rope-assisted ascent up a cliff. It is clear at this point that there will be no descent anytime soon. We are well equipped with anesthesia supplies, but not so well-equipped to spend the night. But my “office mates” are an incredibly resourceful bunch; we clear an area further up on the hillside to make camp. We have gummy bears and peanuts for dinner.

The alternate office

Fortunately we have two tarps: one to sleep on and another for shelter, which become our blanket later in the evening when the four of us sleeping shoulder to shoulder become chilled. This is to become our new living quarters and office complex.

Day 5: At 6:15 a.m. we hear bears fighting; likely a breeding pair nearby. We ready the darts and get down to the water hole. Javier situates himself with the dart gun above the water hole. Robyn, Jose, and I sit hidden in some bushes further away. We hear bears nearby for the next hour, but none make their way down to the water hole. I never think I can sit that long in a bush; I watch the ants, I watch the birds, I sweat, I doze on and off, I watch the clouds, I watch the ants some more…6:15 p.m. and no bears, so back to camp.

The breathtaking view

Provisions have been brought that day by the field crew re-enforcements, Jonathan and Isa. One of our challenges is water. All our water has to be carried in to our camp, making it quite a precious commodity (sound familiar?).

Day 6: We decide it isn’t necessary for all of us to be so close to the water hole, so everyone hangs out at our new not-so-luxurious base camp except Javier, who sits patiently like a department store window manikin with dart gun in hand all day above the water hole. No bears.

Stay tuned for Part 2. Will a bear visit the water hole?

Meg Sutherland-Smith is a veterinary clinical operations manager at the San Diego Zoo.

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