Helping Bears in Machu Picchu

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The famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

I recently spent a week in Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the famous archaeological site of Machu Picchu in Peru. I was invited to take part in a workshop to develop a five-year strategic plan for the conservation of Andean bears in the Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu. In workshops like this, my usual approach is to listen a lot, which we all did for the first two days as representatives from local governmental agencies described the various issues facing conservation of natural resources in the area. On the third day we visited the sanctuary itself, and on the final two days of the workshop we built the conceptual model for the strategic plan and started filling in the details.

The spectacular archeological site is only a small island in a larger landscape.

The complex Inca ruins of Machu Picchu are situated on a narrow ridge between two separate peaks, surrounded on three sides by a deep river valley, at the intersection of branches of the famed Inca Trail. Within the protected area around the archaeological site are hundreds of species of plants, birds, and, of course, mammals, including the Andean (spectacled) bear. Although I’ve seen pictures of Machu Picchu many times and spent a lot of time in some incredible mountains over the last two years, no picture does justice to Machu Picchu, which is unique.

Of course, I’m not the only person who feels this way. The archaeological site of Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist attraction in Peru, and this is one of the unique aspects of conservation in the area. Although the pressures on wildlife and wildlife habitat outside of the historical sanctuary are similar to pressures elsewhere in Peru, the impacts created by tourism inside and outside of the sanctuary are, like Machu Picchu itself, unique.

The conservation landscape at Machu Picchu, as elsewhere, is framed by human interests and actions.

The opportunities, however, are also unique. If an effective strategic plan can be implemented for the conservation of bears in the Machu Picchu landscape, it could be a great model for the conservation of bears elsewhere in Peru. The work we did this past week is only the first part of a discussion about how to conserve bears in this famous region; the final plan should be completed by the middle of next year.

I was honored to be part of this workshop, which was sponsored and hosted by the Peruvian agency in charge of national protected areas, SERNANP, and by Inkaterra Machu Picchu; the scientific organization of the workshop was coordinated by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Representatives of several other agencies and institutions were present, and I am eager to see how we shape the strategic plan over the next several months. Then, the truly hard work will begin.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Training Andean Bear Field Crew.