Andean bears


Learning What We Can Learn From Camera Trap Photos: Part 2


Can an Andean bear’s nose be a way to determine its age?.

I recently wrote about how we’ve determined that, with caution, researchers can identify individual Andean bears in camera trap photos. Researchers should therefore be able to answer some basic questions that have big implications for Andean bear conservation. However, there are many other important questions for which we still don’t have answers. For example, does the population in this watershed have an age structure that will be stable over the long-term?

How do you figure out how old an animal is when it was born in the wild years ago – 2 years ago, 8 years ago, or 14 years ago? Field researchers often use characteristics of mammals’ teeth to estimate their ages, but those methods require capturing the animals and it is definitely not easy to capture Andean bears. It turns out that we can use camera traps.

I might not have seriously considered using camera trap photos to investigate these kinds of questions except for a conversation with a field researcher from our collaborator, the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. When I showed him a photo of an Andean bear living at the San Diego Zoo, he said “Wow, that’s an old bear!” He was correct, but how did he know that? He couldn’t describe exactly what it was about the photo that suggested that the bear was old, but I remembered that several years earlier some researchers had documented that the nose color of African lions changes as they age. Might the same thing happen in Andean bears?

Using photos of known-age bears from various zoos, we’ve determined that although the changes in nose color aren’t as predictable as we’d like, they’re consistent enough to provide some information about the age of the individual bear. And, using photos of captive- and wild-born cubs, we’ve verified that it’s possible to estimate the ages of young cubs from camera trap photos. Since fewer than a dozen Andean bear birth dens have ever been found in the wild, this could be really helpful in determining when female bears give birth to cubs. That information, in turn, is the first step in determining why females give birth then, and not at other times of the year.


Notice the changes in Tommy’s nose from when he was  (left to right) 2, 17, and 23 years old.

Another set of conservation research questions can only be answered with information on the genetic structure of a population, or information on how individuals are related to one another. Does the population in this mountain range have a functional connection to other populations or is it isolated and inbred? What traits affect the probability that a female, or male, will have surviving offspring? Who knows which cub was sired by which male? Do cubs look like their parents? In other words, do the facial markings of cubs look like the facial markings of their parents? The only Andean bears with known mothers and fathers are the cubs born in captivity, so I worked with collaborators to test whether the markings of related captive-born Andean bears looked more similar than the markings of unrelated captive-bear Andean bears. They don’t. Sometimes bears that are closely related look alike, but sometimes they don’t. On the other hand, sometimes bears that look alike are closely related, but sometimes they’re not related at all. So, although it might be tempting to say that a cub which looks like an adult male is the offspring of that male, that’s a potentially misleading conclusion. We’ll just have to wait for the development of good genetic tools before we can answer questions about the genetics or kinship structure of Andean bear populations.

After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published online in PeerJ, where you can read the details and see more photos.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1.


Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1


Andean bears are sometimes called spectacled bears because of the rings of lighter colored fur around their eyes.

Others have said it before and it’s true: New forms of technology such as camera traps make it possible for field researchers to collect information we could previously only dream about. Technology advances so quickly that we’re still evaluating what we can do with these tools and what questions we can and cannot answer by using them. We have many basic questions that are still unanswered even for species as large as the Andean bear. Here are two of the most basic: How many are there? Are the populations increasing, stable, or decreasing? The answers to these questions and others would help researchers, conservationists, and governments decide how much of their limited resources to invest in research efforts and conservation actions, in the hopes that 100 years from now there will still be bears roaming the forests of South America. Unfortunately, there are still no answers to these questions.

How would you answer these questions? How do you count animals that live in dense forests in rugged habitat, when those animals avoid contact with humans? It’s been said for decades that the markings of individual Andean bears vary so much that you can identify each individual bear just by looking at it. If that’s true, then maybe we could use camera traps to identify individual Andean bears in photographs and then estimate population sizes and densities. However, how do you test whether individual bears can be reliably identified in photographs? In order to test this you’d need photos of a lot of different bears whose identity you definitely knew. That means you can’t just use photos of wild bears from camera traps, because you don’t know how many bears walked in front of the camera traps.


Compare the markings of this bear, Tommy, with the bear above (named Turbo) and notice the differences.

The only way we could think of to test this was to take photos of different bears from captivity, so we’d know the identify of the bears, ask people to compare those photos, and keep score of whether bears were correctly identified, or not. When a group of international collaborators and I did this we were surprised to discover that people were initially not very good at this task. In fact, they would have done just as well if they’d flipped a coin! That’s really not the kind of result we were expecting, or hoping, and it led us to consider whether we were over-confident in our own abilities to identify individual bears. However, it turns out that with a little practice and training, participants became better at identifying bears from their photographs. After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published in the journal Wildlife Biology and you can read all the details and see more photos here.

So, the good news is that, if we’re careful, we and other field researchers can use photos from camera traps to identify individual Andean bears, estimate the sizes of their populations, and compare populations densities. Now, we “just” need to get the cameras into the forests where there are bears!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow Receives a New Posting.


Can Cute Trinkets Save Andean Bears?

New artisans with their certificates after completing their first workshop in wool-felting, with all products made through out the week displayed. Staff included: Betty (far left), Samantha Young (third from left), Jessica (fifth from left), and Maria (far right).

Artisans with certificates after completing their first workshop. Staff included Betty (far left), the author (3rd from left), Jessica (5th from left), and Maria (far right). Click to enlarge.

My latest trip to Peru was a lot different from the others. There was no exploring or adventuring, but a lot of work—the type of productivity with output that you can write up in a report to your donors, with actual numbers! “Calm down,” I bet you’re saying. “You’ve been to this site in northwestern Peru twice before,” you’re pointing out. Well, the reason I’m getting all worked up has to do with the fact that this project–community conservation of Andean bears–is actually getting off the ground! Things are happening. Bear with me as I make this profound statement: It’s incredibly satisfying to see something you’ve put a lot of effort into succeed. Sound the gongs, because they might need to write a book about that one!

Over the course of the two weeks I was there, I assisted in the planning and implementation of an artisanal training workshop, where local Peruvian women were taught the art of dry wool-felting. Two groups of students attended: five women learning this skill for the first time, and a team of six experienced women refining their skills. Besides me, the workshop staff consisted of several Andean (spectacled) bear project team members: Betty (a local Peruvian and the project’s artisan coordinator), Maria (local Peruvian, experienced artisan, and instructor to the new artisans), and Jessica (director of artisanal products, Spectacled Bear Conservation Society [SBC]).

Besides my role as a Spanish translator for Jessica, I was also there as the San Diego Zoo’s merchandise consultant for the products that will be sold in our gift shops. That’s right, folks, you will soon be able to purchase adorable, handcrafted, wool-felted bears and other animals through the Zoo and directly support the conservation of Andean bears.

Experienced artisans in front of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center showing off their wool-felted frogs after completing workshop number two.

Experienced artisans in front of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center showing off their wool-felted frogs after completing the second workshop.

The goal for these types of workshops is to provide an alternative income source to people in the communities adjacent to vital Andean bear habitat. We want to help improve their lives, share information about life science and bear research and conservation, and ultimately alleviate pressure on the forest and the bears. I’m pleased to announce that the workshop went smoothly, and the new artisans are now employed by the Andean bear project and paid a competitive salary for the work they do.

Working on this project has given me a whole new perspective on the word “community.” I’m referring to the dedicated people involved with the implementation of the conservation of Andean bears in northwest Peru. The team of local Peruvians who work on bear conservation consists mainly of a few close-knit families, and each person has their role. Be it artisan coordinator, instructor, outreach specialist, lawyer, or field technician, they are team players, capable, and motivated.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work closely with several people from SBC, and you don’t know motivated until you’ve met the director, Robyn, who led the discovery expedition for this dry-forest population of bears seven years ago. She has persisted in the time consuming yet ground-breaking research for her doctorate along with running an NGO. I’ve also grown a new appreciation for the meaning of “supportive,” with regard to her husband, Ian, and her parents, Jessica and Robert. Robyn is gone much of the year from her home in Canada to be at the field site in Peru, and her family has not only made that possible, but they’ve spent much of their time contributing to the infrastructure of the project.

It is a pleasure and an inspiration to be able to work with SBC in the conservation of Andean bears; NGOs like theirs make our work at the San Diego Zoo possible and sustainable.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Scientific Concepts for Non-Scientists.


Peru: Conservation Science at Local Level

The SBC field team Isaí Sanchez, Javier Vallejo, and José Vallejo) practices the collection of behavioral observations on domestic sheep.

“Se ha producido el error ‘2176’ en tiempo de ejucución; el valor para esta propiedad es demasiado largo.”
Okay, that’s not good. Let’s try it again. Go ahead and click on the “save” icon.
“No se ha encontrado la ruto de acceso.”
Well, that’s just great.
Isn’t it about time for a coffee break?

In other words, we had some unexpected troubleshooting to do. The plan was that I would work with the team from the Spectacled Bear Conservation – Peru (SBC) and a Peruvian university student (Álvaro Garcia) to create a database for the management and analysis of the photos from the camera traps in the dry forest. The programming to create databases like this was written by Mathias Tobler, a large-mammal ecologist now with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. I’d successfully tested this programming, called Camera Base, with photos from camera traps in southern Peru. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it to work right with the dry forest photos. Eventually, Mathias was able to help me identify the problems, which is a big relief since the database will make it much easier and faster to conduct analyses on the data from the camera trap photos.

One of the goals of the Andean (spectacled) bear program, and much of the work of the Institute for Conservation Research, is to train people from wherever we work to conduct conservation science. So, I’m excited that more Peruvians are now getting involved in the program and learning new techniques. The SBC field team members also continue to expand and hone their skill set. For example, we’ve developed protocols by which they’ll be able to collect data by observing the behavior of wild Andean bears in the dry forest. These methods are derived from standard practices in the fields of behavioral ecology, and they’ve been used to study the behavior of captive bears of several species, including those at the San Diego Zoo.

However, the practice of behavioral ecology is not common in Peru, so we’re breaking new ground, and it’s a challenge for me to convey to the field team the underlying concepts and technical issues involved in collecting behavioral data. So, to ensure we’ve got it right, we practice our technique. Sometimes this appears a bit strange to the neighbors. How do you explain to the guy next door why four people are intently watching his flock of sheep, not saying a word, and making notes on clipboards every minute? Ah, this is conservation science!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Dry Forest Rain.


Camera Trap: Bush Dogs

In recent blogs I’ve written about photos of big cats that we’ve gathered from remote cameras in southeast Peru (see post Mountain Lions and Palm Trees). It’s now time to go to the dogs. On June 12, 2011, one of our remote cameras in the cloud forest took some exciting photos of dogs—bush dogs!

Bush dogs Speothos venaticus are truly not well understood by scientists. It probably seems that I keep writing that we don’t know much about this or that species, but this is the reality for many species that dwell in the forests of South America. It is a lot easier to gather data on species that live in habitats where our senses work best: open habitats. To collect data on species that live in dense mountain forests, we have to rely on special skills or technology, a lot of patience, and maybe a little luck. It’s rare for anyone to obtain remote camera photos of bush dogs, even after years of work, so we were pretty excited to see these images.

Here’s a little of what we think we do know about bush dogs. As you might guess from the photo, like most dog species they appear to be fairly social animals. They’re thought to live at low densities, mostly in lower elevation tropical forests. However, our remote camera detected these dogs at over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in elevation in the cloud forest! Once again, it appears there’s room for our knowledge base to grow.

Bush dogs seem to rely primarily on olfactory and auditory communication rather than visual communication. That is, they seem to communicate with one another primarily through odor and sound. In this regard they’re similar to several bear species, including the bear that is the focus of our work in the cloud forest: the Andean bear (see post Little Fruit, Thin Bears).

Unfortunately, bush dogs are like Andean bears in another regard: populations of both species are thought to be declining steadily due to ongoing habitat loss and habitat degradation. By gathering systematic data on the diversity of mammals living in the forests of southeast Peru, and learning more about the ecology of species like the bush dog and the Andean bear, we hope to help Peruvians effectively manage their resources and conserve these populations.

Well, I would never have predicted that we’d obtain photos of bush dogs in the cloud forest. I wonder what else we’ll discover?

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program.


Sun Bears: Up in the Air


If you are a regular visitor to the San Diego Zoo, you may have noticed that our sun bears have been off exhibit recently. Instead, there have been several people working on their exhibit because our nimble little female, Pagi, told us it needed some work. She has been exploring the nooks and crannies of the exhibit lately and has been seen several times moving vertically and horizontally across the walls, clinging by little toe holds.

Sun bears are well known to be highly arboreal. In the wild, adults have been spotted napping far above ground. They even make themselves something of a night nest to rest upon, a little like orangutans might do.

We have seen Marcella drag burlap or paper sacks up onto a platform to cozy up with, her version of a nest; Palu has done this, too. Sun bears also climb to take advantage of fruits of giant, old-growth trees. Some of these can be tens of meters high, but sun bears take this in stride. They learn to climb at a very young age. At 20 weeks old, our cubs have been observed scaling the walls of their bedroom enclosures, grabbing onto crevices in the ceiling with their claws!

Sun bears aren’t the only bears with amazing climbing skills. In fact, they may be outdone by their cousins, the Andean (or spectacled) bears. Our collaborators at a field site in Peru have seen wild bears there scaling sheer cliffs, even when they have the choice to go around such an obstacle (see post The Bear Goes Over the Mountain). They have been seen leading their young cubs, barely out of the den, up and down such land features. These astounding feats of bear acrobatics are a testament to the great strength and agility these bears possess.

It’s an amazing sight to see: a bear climbing vertical, sometimes overhanging, surfaces. Pagi’s innate athleticism has encouraged us to go over the exhibit with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there are no toe holds that could get a curious little bear into trouble. Funny, her brother, Palu, seems in no risk for such antics; while playful, he is more comfortable sticking closer to his mother than Pagi. Nonetheless, efforts to trim the overhanging vegetation and more detailed exhibit modifications are underway.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature

Manu monkey

Dozens of squirrel monkeys pass noisily through the trees in search of ripening figs and insects.

The Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru: A Naturalist’s Dream

I sit spellbound among trees that make up a forest abundant with all forms of life. Soon the animals move to me, passing over me like animate waves through the forest. A large group of white-lipped peccaries, relatives of our domestic pig, passes first. I’m enveloped in peccaries as they snort and root and clack their tusks together to express some difference of opinion between one another. The next wave is a group of brown capuchin monkeys, leaping from one palm frond to another, approaching curiously to evaluate what I might be.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Far above in the crown of an emergent giant tree, the shaggy head of a fledgling ornate hawk-eagle peers over the edge of its nest to see what the commotion is about. Its father is likely out searching for titi monkeys, which, once captured, will make a fine meal to promote the chick’s growth so it can soon hunt for itself. In the distance, the melodious duet of a pair of titi monkeys, expressing the strength of their lifelong bond, breaks the quiet of the forest. Butterflies of every color imaginable flit among the flowers in the dappled light of the forest floor.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Such are the scenes that play out in the deep forests of Manu National Park in southeastern Peru. This rhythm of life and death has repeated itself uninterrupted for eons. Manu has changed little in the last few thousands years since the rise of human civilization. This is one of the last places on Earth where nature reigns supreme.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

I am here with two of my colleagues from the San Diego Zoo, Alan Lieberman and Russ Van Horn. We have the privilege to visit such a place at the invitation of Dr. John Terborgh, one of the world’s most distinguished tropical ecologists. Thirty-some years ago, John came to this remote corner of the Earth to begin work at a field station, Cocha Cashu, located on the shore of a small oxbow lake. In that time, John and his team have seen several hundred students and researchers come and go, and they have established a reputation for unsurpassed ecological research.

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

The unique selling point of Cocha Cashu is its pristine condition, affording an unrivaled opportunity to study the processes of nature undisturbed by human influence. For the Amazon, this is the “control group,” the place to come to study nature as it should be. It provides a baseline, a goal for us to strive for when attempting to recover other areas degraded by human activity. For me, it has always been the ultimate experience for wild nature. Seven years ago, I visited the wonders of Manu as a tourist—a privilege shared by only 2,000 to 3,000 people each year—but had not set foot in the forests of Cocha Cashu.

On this visit, I am immersed not just in nature but also in the research culture that has flourished here. We are working nearby in the cloud forests above Manu, studying the Andean bears (also called spectacled bears) and other inhabitants of the cloud forest (see post Bear Culture). Now, we are in the jaguar’s realm. We talk among ourselves about the exciting possibility of someday returning to Manu, not as visitors, but as researchers. What an incredible opportunity it would be to help fulfill the mission of this remote outpost of the Peruvian rain forest! It would be a dream come true.

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


To See a Bear

José scans the cliffs, hoping for bears.

José scans the cliffs, hoping for bears.

San Diego Zoo researchers are in Peru to study Andean (or spectacled) bears. Read a previous post, Dry-forest Bears of Peru.

It’s early morning, and the cool night air quickly burns away as the sun appears above the ridge of the mountain to the east of the camp. The light that accompanies the heat, however, reveals a spectacular scene. Still in my sleeping bag, I sit up and admire the view. Across a narrow valley, sheer cliffs drop down from the ridge and disappear below. A few somewhat gentler slopes support some vegetation. Javier points out an orange-ish post among the small trees: a posayo tree, reduced to a shattered stump by a foraging Andean (spectacled) bear.

A posayo tree is reduced to splinters by a hungry bear.

A posayo tree is reduced to splinters by a hungry bear.

Nearly six months a year, Robyn explains, bears eat these trees. Not their fruits. Not their leaves. They eat the wood. They chew them off at the base, fashioning themselves after beavers, topple the tree, and spend the next few days or weeks eating wood pulp. And pooping wood pulp.

Sapote fruit is a staple food for bears in the wet season.

Sapote fruit is a staple food for bears in the wet season.

Such are the extremes to which a dry-forest bear must go to sustain itself during the dry season. But they appear to thrive on it. How they manage to extract enough energy and nutrients from these trees is a mystery. Fortunately, bears experience more plentiful, and typical, bounty in the wet season when the sapote trees fruit. Then the bears descend to the bottom of the mountains and feed, often just a few hundred meters from human dwellings. These are the few, the essential, resources on which the bear largely depends—water holes, posayo trees, and sapote fruits. At least two of these resources place the bears in a vulnerable position, at the mercy of nearby human communities. If people were, for example, to expand their villages and farms to the base of the mountains, they may drive the bears away from the sapote trees or, worse, cut the trees down. If they brought goats or cattle to the waterholes, this too could prove disastrous for the bears and other wildlife.

cloud 9. After seeing my On cloud 9. After seeing my first wild spectacled bear, the clouds roll in, creating a surreal moment.

After seeing my first wild spectacled bear, the clouds roll in, creating a surreal moment.

Our camp is ideally situated for bear viewing. Amazingly, bears regularly descend these rock walls of the opposing cliffs to a waterhole at the bottom. This is a feat that has to be seen to be believed. All day we scan the cliffs for signs of bear. We spot a few more posayo trees that have been recently dismantled by bears. José traverses the slopes to inspect a cave where last year a female gave birth to a cub. No luck. The bears are around, but we don’t see them.

Then, just before dusk, Javier spots a dark object moving quickly down a steep rocky slope. Through my binoculars, finally, I see the bear—a large male descending headfirst, with the apparent ease of a Sunday stroll. Moments later he disappears into the bowels of the canyon where the life-giving water can be found. Tomorrow morning, we hope, we will see him ascend back up the cliffs and find a posayo tree on which to dine.

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


Andean Bears and Cameras

An agouti paca gets its photo taken by a camera trap in the cloud forest of Cusco province, Peru.

An agouti paca gets it photo taken by a camera trap in the cloud forest of Cusco province, Peru.

When I wrote my last post (Andean Bears: Field Research Continues), I thought I would have returned to southern Peru before now. But I am now on my way back to Peru, where I’ll be through November, for more field research. A key goal of this trip is to begin assessing the mammalian biodiversity of forests on the eastern slope of the Andes. I’ll be working with our primary collaborator in southern Peru, the Andes to Amazon Program of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, and members of the local communities.

A camera trap in the cloud forest of Cusco province, Peru.

A camera trap in the cloud forest of Cusco province, Peru.

We’ll be working in sites near the route of the Interoceanic Highway and farther away from the roadway. My botanical collaborators will collect data on plant diversity from standardized transects, while I’ll deploy a large number of camera “traps,” which in the United States are often called “trail cameras,” nearby. Over time, we’ll be able to use the photos obtained from these cameras to identify which species of mammals are at which sites and to identify the ecological and landscape features that influence where species occur.

Of course, my primary focus is on the factors influencing habitat use by Andean (or spectacled) bears, and these cameras are the first step in evaluating those factors. Some of these factors we’ll consider include the distance from roads, distance from water sources, steepness of the slopes, etc. In the future, we intend to use photos to also estimate the number of bears using the study sites and to identify the sites used most often by bears.

Logistics have been my primary challenge thus far during this trip, and I’m sure they will continue to keep me guessing! I may be asking for bad luck by saying this, but so far, transporting the cameras from the U.S. to Cusco has gone as smoothly as I could have hoped. However, I have to admit that it will be a relief to start placing the cameras in the forest, and it will be interesting to see what animals appear in the photos!

It will also be interesting to see what the main road, the developing Interoceanic Highway, looks like now. When I last saw it in June, there were several sections that appeared vulnerable to erosion during heavy rainfall. We should have another two months of relatively dry weather before the heavy rains start falling, so with luck there won’t be too many derrumbes (landslides) blocking the road yet. If the heavy rains come early, logistics will become an adventure!

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


Andean Bears: Field Research Continues

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.