bear conservation


Bear Courtship

This camera-trap photo shows a male Andean bear, left, being rebuffed by a female Andean bear.

This camera-trap photo shows a male Andean bear, left, being rebuffed by a female Andean bear.

To improve giant panda captive breeding programs, researchers have carried out numerous investigations of how male and female giant pandas communicate with each other, and how their hormone profiles change independently, and in response to each other. Applying this knowledge has contributed to the success of giant panda captive breeding efforts, which are now based on more information than is available for any of the other bear species.

In the dry forest of northwest Peru, where we’ve been working with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, there appear to be some relatively predictable cycles. Food for the Andean (spectacled) bears appears to be scarce for most of the year, so some of them turn to eating pasallo trees, and all of them gradually lose weight. Then, when the fruit of the sapote is available, the bears focus on that fruit and gain weight. We’ve suspected that the bears mate during that same season.

Although there isn’t much information on what courtship looks like among wild Andean bears, we suspect that males crisscross the landscape, looking for females that are in estrus and so may be willing to mate, or which will be ready to mate in the near future. Once a male locates a female, probably through some sort of olfactory communication that is similar to but different from the means used by giant pandas and polar bears, we think a male will then follow that female, trying to determine when it’s safest to approach her, while chasing off any other males that might also try to mate with her.

Like all bears, Andean bears are not social as adults, but obviously a male and female have to respond positively toward each other in order to mate. We believe that in Andean bears, like giant pandas, the coordination of reproductive readiness (and willingness!) is influenced by hormones, chemical cues, and behavioral interactions. A male has to get the timing right. If he approaches the female at the wrong time, she’s likely to vocalize loudly at him, box his ears, run away, or any combination of those alternatives. We’ve recently retrieved photos from a camera trap in the dry forest that suggests that one male, at least, didn’t quite time his approach correctly!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Bear Ambassador Learns Importance of Plants.


Bear Ambassador Learns Importance of Plants

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

We’ve mentioned in previous Bear Blog posts that some of the major threats to different bear species are habitat loss, or habitat degradation, or habitat fragmentation. As you can tell, for bear conservation it’s important to consider the amount and quality of bear habitat. For food, bears (except for polar bears) rely on plants. Thus, people concerned about bear conservation often become concerned about the conservation of the plant communities on which the bears depend. Although San Diego Zoo Global is involved in conservation of animals, it also does a lot of work with plants.

Recently I talked to botanists and horticulturists at the San Diego Zoo, and our whimsical Bear Ambassador, Mi Ton Teiow, was able to visit plants from bear habitats around the world. You might know that our horticultural staff grow most of the bamboo eaten by the giant pandas or the eucalyptus eaten by the koalas, but that’s just the beginning of what they do! I knew that certain parts of the Zoo contained plants related to some I’d seen in Andean bear habitat in the cloud forest of southeast Peru, but our horticulturists pointed out close relatives of plants that are important to Andean bears in the dry forest of northwest Peru, as well as plants from Australia, Hawaii, and Africa.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

One reason they are able to grow such a diversity of plants at the Zoo is its variation in topography, which helps create a wide range of microclimates. I was surprised to learn that during winter, certain parts of the Zoo may receive frost at night! Of course, another reason the horticulture staff is able to grow such diverse plants is their research to understand just what the different plants need to grow and reproduce. Sometimes this research requires them to conduct experiments such as those in the lab to determine the best conditions for propagating orchid seeds, or field trips like those to investigate wild fig trees.

San Diego Zoo Global grows plants for many different reasons, and sometimes because the plants themselves are of conservation concern, plant species can be endangered, and captive reproduction can be an effective tool for plants as well as animals. In addition to plant conservation efforts, horticulture staff grow plants for several reasons related to animal husbandry. As I mentioned earlier, some plants are fed to the animals, providing them with more natural sources of nutrition than they would get otherwise. Parts of other plants are given to animals as a form of enrichment, especially because of their scents. When an animal shreds a few branches it’s been given, the animal is performing a natural behavior in a renewable manner: the horticulture department will grow more!

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

Woody plants are also used as structures in the animal enclosures. Large limbs, logs, and sometimes stumps are placed so that animals have items to rub on, climb on, and sometimes sleep upon. You can probably see our bears interacting with their log “furniture” any time you visit the Zoo. And, any time you visit, you can pick up a free map and take yourself on a self-guided walking tour of the botanical collection surrounding you. If you’re able to visit the Zoo on the third Friday of a month, you can explore the plant collections further. On those Fridays, called Plant Day & Orchid Odyssey, you can take a free narrated botanical bus tour to learn more about the plant collections, and you can visit the orchid greenhouse, which is home to more than 3,000 orchid plants!

The next time you’re visiting the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, or a zoo elsewhere, take a closer look at the plants; they’re a whole lot more than “just” landscaping; they’re food, furniture, and enrichment for the animals and plant ambassadors of the habitats on which their wild relatives depend.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Bad News Bears.


Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi (Ton Teiow)

Tatqiq's wild counterparts need more snow days.

Tatqiq’s wild counterparts need more snow days.

Mi Ton Teiow, the whimsical “bear” ambassador for the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group (see post A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), has continued his travels, along with staff from the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. With these travels, Mi is gaining experience in the multi-faceted world of bear conservation, which often includes extended periods of sitting and talking! While Mi might be anxious to get outside and do field research, our bear ambassador also understands that bringing people together to discuss the nuts and bolts of bear conservation is an important, and necessary, part of the process.

Recently, Mi traveled to the Toledo Zoo to sit in on the annual meeting of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP). The role of the SSP (for polar bears or any other conservation-dependent species) is to bring together experts from zoos around the country to ensure that the members of the zoo community are being as effective as possible in supporting conservation efforts for the species. The focus of this SSP meeting was to enhance the synergy between zoo-based research, field-based research, and effective polar bear conservation. Speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers from the San Diego Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo, and Memphis Zoo presented overviews on current research and results, as well as ideas for the future.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with other members of the Polar Bear SSP.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with members of the Polar Bear SSP.

While listening in on discussions regarding conservation research, Mi also learned about the primary threat to polar bears: greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities have led to measurable and rapid changes in global climate patterns. The degree and character of these changes is not uniform, and different regions, ecosystems, and species are being impacted in different ways. When it comes to climate warming, scientists have documented the greatest degree of warming at the Earth’s polar regions.

This is bad news for the polar bear, because increases in both air and ocean temperatures in the Arctic have resulted in rapid losses of sea ice over the past several decades. Polar bears depend on the sea ice for their survival. Without the sea ice, polar bears cannot feed themselves or reproduce successful. This dependence on sea ice has left polar bears vulnerable to extinction in the face of climate change.

While the situation is critical for polar bears, it is not hopeless. Each and every one of us has the ability to help save polar bears by making small changes in our daily lives, such as turning off unneeded lights and riding our bikes more, to reduce our carbon footprint along the way. Because zoos have tremendous access to a large number and wide range of people, we play a critical role in polar bear conservation. As a conservation organization, we are responsible to get the word out, and we are happy that we were able to share our work with ambassador Mi Ton Teiow.

Megan Owen is an associate director for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Read about Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow’s previous adventure in Black Bears: A Conservation Success.


Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives

Ambassador Mi travels the world in an effort to aid in the conservation of bears.

Ambassador Mi travels the world in an effort to aid in the conservation of bears.

There are eight bear species living today, and, until recently, the San Diego Zoo hosted ambassadors for five of them. We’re happy to announce the arrival at San Diego Zoo Global of another bear ambassador: Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow, also known as Traveling Bear. Ambassador Mi represents all eight living bear species as the special traveling ambassador of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Bear Specialist Group (BSG). As such, Mi travels “to gain worldly experience and aid in bear conservation endeavors” and to promote the conservation of bears.

Ambassador Mi was “born” in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and has since traveled to Canada, South Korea, India, Venezuela, and the US (Minnesota). Mi was officially posted to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) at the recent conference of the International Association for Bear Research and Management in Utah, and plans are underway for Mi to travel with our staff both internationally (China, India, and Peru) and within the US before traveling to Greece in October 2014. This bear gets around!

Although you may never have heard of the IUCN or the BSG, these are among the most credible international groups for the conservation of wildlife, and bears. The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, composed of more than 1,200 member organizations, including more than 200 governmental and 900 nongovernmental organizations. The BSG is one part of the IUCN, and it is made up entirely of more than 200 volunteer scientists from around the world. Several of our scientists are part of the BSG in various Expert Teams, including Ron Swaisgood (co-chair, Giant Panda Expert Team), Megan Owen (member, Captive Bear Expert Team), and Russ Van Horn (member, Andean Bear Expert Team). Many Institute staff members belong to other Specialist Groups within the IUCN (e.g., the Iguana Specialist Group, the Tapir Specialist Group), providing technical advice and mobilizing action for the IUCN as it works to “find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.”

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow of the BSG was officially posted to the delegation from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research on 17 September, 2013. From left to right: Megan Owen (ICR, BSG), Lorraine Scotson (BSG), the author, Ron Swaisgood (ICR, BSG), Barbara Durrant (ICR), Dave Garshelis (BSG), and Emre Can (BSG). Photo credit: Dr. Mei-hsiu Hwang, National Pingtung University of Science & Technology and the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow of the BSG was officially posted to the delegation from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research on September 17, 2013. From left to right: Megan Owen (ICR, BSG), Lorraine Scotson (BSG), the author, Ron Swaisgood (ICR, BSG), Barbara Durrant (ICR), Dave Garshelis (BSG), and Emre Can (BSG).
Photo credit: Dr. Mei-hsiu Hwang, National Pingtung University of Science & Technology and the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association

Now, all of this probably sounds pretty bureaucratic, dry, and abstract, which might be part of why you can’t remember ever hearing of the BSG or the IUCN in spite of their conservation significance. However, given Mi’s colorful personality, willingness to put up with inconvenient travel without complaining, and hardiness in the face of harsh field conditions, we hope you’ll find Mi’s adventures to be enjoyable, memorable, and educational about bear conservation. Mi’s earlier travels have included a visit to the den of an American black bear, participation in technical scientific conferences, representing the BSG at the World Conservation Congress during a debate on curtailing bear farming, hiking to the highest point in South Korea, and waterskiing. Welcome to San Diego Zoo Global, Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Andean Bears and Their Favorite Food: Sapote.


Favorite Andean Bear Food: Sapote

Some of these sapote flower buds may develop into food for Andean bears, Sechuran foxes, and other wildlife.

Some of these sapote flower buds may develop into food for Andean bears, Sechuran foxes, and other wildlife.

In conservation research, we’re often interested in measuring variation across space and time, looking for patterns in that variation and deriving explanations for those patterns. However, during my last trip to the field, I found myself pondering changes over time on a much longer scale, across over 1,000 years. As I walked under the hot sun dragging a tape measure through the brush day after day, and I started stepping over ancient stone walls, it was easy to start wondering about the original purpose of the walls, even though that had nothing to do with the task at hand!

What I should have been totally focused on was making sure that we were correctly measuring the distances between trees in the tropical dry forest of northwest Peru. As part of the Andean bear conservation program, I was there working with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and with local citizen scientists (see post Citizen Science: Engaging People in Conservation Research). With support from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Samantha Young and I have been developing several initiatives to engage local people in conservation science and action (see Scientific Concepts for Non-scientists). One focus of my trip was to train citizen scientists in collecting data from woody plants, because we’re interested in knowing more about how plants that are important for Andean bears vary in space and time. In particular, we’re interested in understanding the variation in when and where sapote produces flowers and then fruit, because sapote fruit appears to be the critical food source for Andean bears in the dry forest of northwest Peru (see Andean Bears: A Surprising Discovery).

To get information on the sapote population, we measured little trees...

To get information on the sapote population, we measured little trees…

Although sapote is considered critically endangered, there have not been many studies done on its reproductive ecology, so we can’t simply visit a field site and estimate how much fruit the sapote trees there might produce or how many bears might be supported by those trees. So, our goal is to collect information every month, such as which trees have flowers, which trees have fruit, and the condition and size of those fruit. Because we don’t have any background information on these sapote trees, we’re going to learn something new practically every month. For example, during our first data-collection period we discovered some individual sapote with a few ripe fruit left from this past season and several new flower buds. I had no idea that the same tree might have both flowers and fruit at the same time!

...and we measured big sapote trees.

…and we measured big sapote trees.

Another new observation with more serious implications for bears and other wildlife that feed on sapote fruit is that sapote grows only in a narrow band on the lower slopes of the hills at the edge of the valleys. We knew this generally, but we had never measured the width of this strip; it’s much narrower than we thought, meaning that there’s less area covered by sapote trees than we expected, and, presumably, fewer sapote trees. Over the next several months, we’ll begin to get an idea of how many flowers and fruits those trees produce and how that production varies depending on characteristics of the sapote trees and the places where they’re living.

Although we’ll be looking at variation in flower and fruit production across relatively small-scale changes in space and time, especially in comparison to the scale of the landscape and the scale of human history in this area, these are the data we’ll need to understand variation in sapote and in Andean bear ecology.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Andean Bears: A Surprising Discovery

A member of our collaborative field team watches a cliff for bear activity.

This summer my colleague Megan Owen and I were fortunate enough to have an intern working with us. Michael Forney was the John E. and Dorothy D. Helm Summer Fellow, working in our Applied Animal Ecology Division (see Summer Intern Enjoys Opportunities). He extracted behavioral data from videos of wild Andean, or spectacled, bears, living in the tropical dry forest of northwest Peru, where we work with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. Some of the videos were collected opportunistically by the field team, when they unexpectedly encountered a bear, and other videos were collected on a more systematic basis. There are more videos yet to review, but the preliminary results are pretty interesting.

These were the first behavioral data ever collected on wild Andean bears, and they delivered some surprises. For example, for most of the year the bears appear to lose weight, suggesting that there’s not enough food available. However, during the period of time when sapote fruit is available, the bears feed primarily on those fruits and appear to gain weight. We’d already seen this pattern, from different sources of data; however, Michael’s results suggest that dry forest Andean bears do not respond behaviorally to a feast and famine cycle like Northern Hemisphere bears would.

Sapote fruit: Does it dictate bear activity?

You may already know that American black bears and brown bears really focus on foraging during the period before they hibernate. Generally, these black and brown bears are driven to fatten up before the months when they won’t eat, so they spend as much time eating as possible. If Andean bears in the dry forest, which don’t hibernate but which do spend months with little food, behaved like these other bears, then you’d expect the bears in the videos to spend most of their time eating sapote fruit during the relatively brief period when it was available. However, Michael’s data show that adult females, with or without cubs, spend relatively little time eating, even when there appears to be a surplus of sapote fruit.

Why don’t these females spend more time feeding? We’ve generated a few hypotheses to address this question, but confirming this phenomenon and testing these hypotheses will require more data from more videos.

This is not just an abstract academic question, without relevance for the conservation of these bears. If weight gain among female Andean bears in the dry forest is constrained by sapote fruit availability, then perhaps an increase in the number of sapote trees would improve the body condition of the bears. However, if weight gain among these females is constrained by something else in addition to food availability, as might be suggested by Michael’s data, then increasing the number of sapote trees would not improve the bears’ body condition. Michael’s work reminds us that we have a lot to learn about Andean bears to further their conservation.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to pursue this question without Michael’s help, as he’s finished his internship with us and has gone south to put his talents to work in Ecuador. Thanks, Michael, and good luck!

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, Peru: Conservation Science at Local Level.


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.


Polar Bears: A New Low

Polar bears are completely dependent upon the Arctic sea ice for their survival. Unlike other marine mammals, polar bears cannot hunt, breed, or nurture their young in the water, and unlike other terrestrial carnivores, they cannot hunt efficiently on land. Polar bears make a living traversing the frozen ocean, and their life history patterns are coupled to the dynamics of both seasonal and perennial Arctic sea ice. Ultimately, it is important to understand that without Arctic sea ice, there would be no polar bears.

I was stunned by the recent news released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. This organization uses passive microwave data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program to map the extent and volume of sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic. These data collection and analysis methods were developed by NASA and provide an incredible daily snapshot of sea ice conditions and makes these data accessible to the public via their website. The Arctic sea ice extent had hit a record low for this time of year. In 2007, Arctic sea ice hit an all-time low, and the current sea ice extent for 2012 is on pace to set a new record. This is not good news for polar bears.

The dynamic nature of the Arctic sea ice means that a number of oceanic and climatic factors may change sea ice dynamics for this year, but we cannot count on those factors lining up in such a way; we must act. We must reduce our carbon footprint. We must reduce our use of carbon-based fuels in order to reverse the trend toward a warmer climate. We must make these changes in order to preserve the Arctic sea ice so that, for millennia to come, polar bears will continue to roam the great frozen North.

Here at the San Diego Zoo, and with the research collaboration of Polar Bears International, we are committed to polar bears and polar bear conservation. While we wait to see (in great anticipation!) if Chinook will have cubs this year, we hope that Zoo visitors will continue to step up and reduce their carbon footprint. So, as we move into the summer months, get outside and ride your bike, turn off the TV, relax and read a book: any of these activities is good news for polar bears!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Science for Kids: Observing.


The Bears Thank You

Enrichment toys are vital for a recovering sun bear's health. Photo courtesy of BSBCC

Several months ago, we put out a call via our Animal Care Wish List asking for donations to provide enrichment items for the sun bears housed with our new collaborative partner, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). You responded generously, and I am pleased to say we were able to send six new toys to the bears at the BSBCC. Thank you so much for your generosity!

The sun bear is a rare bear whose habitat is dwindling rapidly under pressure from deforestation. Primary causes of forest loss include illegal timber extraction and the development of palm oil plantations. Very few studies of wild sun bears have been conducted, and a population census of this species, or the Bornean subspecies, has never been conducted. However, their numbers must surely be on the decline as their habitat steadily shrinks.

One of my objectives is to find more opportunities to conduct research with sun bears, to learn more about them and facilitate conservation of this species. We have had the opportunity to observe the growth and development of four sun bear cubs born to our resident female, Marcella, but a larger sample size of animals was needed to conduct any statistically meaningful research into various aspects of their biology. Enter the BSBCC.

Siew Te Wong founded the BSBCC in Sabah, Borneo, to serve as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for orphaned and injured sun bears. “Wong,” as he is called, had conducted field work on these animals but recognized the need to provide care for bears impacted by forest loss and the illegal pet trade. In only 4 years of operation, the BSBCC has accumulated more than 20 sun bears. Some are destined for Wong’s developing reintroduction program, which will see them repatriated to the wild in time. Others are not good candidates for release and will likely live out their years at the BSBCC.

Thankfully, the BSBCC goes the extra mile to ensure a good home for its sun bears. It has several large outdoor pens that are essentially areas of enclosed natural habitat: giant trees, heavy canopy, soft forest soil, and a multitude of plants and bugs for the bears to enjoy. The enclosures are so natural that wild monkeys and birds often cruise in and perch in the canopy of their trees. The bears are carefully managed so that agreeable animals can be housed together as playmates when possible. Even so, there are so many of these animals that on any given day a few of the bears will be rotated inside so others can enjoy the outside spaces.

The BSBCC likes to provide enrichment for their indoor animals to ensure that their environment remains as stimulating as possible. And that’s where you come in. Your donations helped to aid in maintaining a quality of life for these bears that ensures their physical and emotional well-being. The photos here demonstrate that the bears are enjoying the toys immensely!

We are excited about developing our partnership with the BSBCC into a research opportunity. This will aid in the conservation of the smallest bear on Earth and could lend insight into the bear family tree. We know from our past work, for example, that sun bear mothers and panda mothers are very similar in their attentive maternal-care styles, and both pandas and sun bears differ from the less active hibernating bears like brown and black bears. What other similarities and differences between the bear species will we find?

Your gifts of enrichment were the first step in what I hope will be a long and informative road that leads to new discoveries about sun bears. Thank you again.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Monday: Black, White, and the Blues.


Scientific Concepts for Non-scientists

My new friends at a primary school in Batan Grande.

“How was your trip to Peru?” everyone and their mother asked me upon my return (see post, Assignment: Peru and Its Bears). I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to distill the trip down to one or two sentences, so I just tell everyone “It was amazing” (which it was). Though it was my first time in Peru, it was not my first time in a Spanish-speaking country, nor my first time devising plans with people I’ve never met, nor my first time explaining scientific concepts to a non-scientist. But it was really, really cool, if you don’t mind me saying so.

During this trip to Peru, I had conversations with children and adults about their thoughts on the nearby wildlife, items of importance in their daily lives, areas in which they would like assistance, and their present understanding of protected areas. I conducted 1,152 interviews and surveys with children, while visiting 11 primary and secondary schools, and speaking with another 111 adults in the communities. I might have had two English conversations the entire time I was there. I ate, slept, played, conversed, relaxed, danced, researched, and learned with the field team, their family, and their friends. They care deeply about the project at hand and have an amazing respect for the forest and the wildlife it contains.

Interviewing in the village of Papayo

The coolest part is that the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Society is comprised of locals, and the community trusts them. I’m slowly working on earning the trust of the people at the Center, and I hope they can help me earn the trust of the community. One such “trust-building exercise” consists of me constantly asking for the Spanish equivalent of a word. I have never used Spanish in a professional or scientific capacity before, and there is a whole new set of vocabulary that I must learn. Como se dice… ? and Que es la palabra para…? have become well-worn phrases. I can now say with certainty, in Spanish, que el silvestre del bosque seco necesita nuestra ayuda (that the dry forest needs our help!).

Being that it was the dry season, and I was in a dry forest, you can only imagine that it was not very wet. The small amount of water people subsist on in this area during this time is quite incredible. But what was most apparent about the communities in Rio La Leche is that they are very receptive to learning about and protecting the forest. While they are a bit disengaged from the wildlife and are focused instead on agriculture and immediate survival (not at all shocking, given the prevalence of poverty locally), they do have incredible knowledge and appreciation for what the forest provides them, from medicine and food to oxygen and construction materials. I am optimistic that local knowledge and their receptivity to new ideas will combine to help ensure the success of our Andean bear conservation project.

After surveys had been completed, the children of the only school in the village of El Algarrobito posed with me for a photo. Perhaps it’s a little more clear why they might have given me the nicknames “La Grande” and “La Gringa.”

I am now back in San Diego working on the myriad of projects that I want to develop in collaboration with these communities. This list includes seminars and discussions, teacher-training workshops, training citizen scientists for data collection, festivals celebrating the forest, field trips with school children and adults into the forest, and introducing solar cookers as an alternative method of cooking. Many believe the foundation of conserving wildlife is working with local communities. They provide us with something extremely valuable—local knowledge—and they are the future stewards of the land. In other words, if the locals don’t do it, it’s probably not gonna happen. That’s why, to me, this is well worth being bitten by chupasangres, giving up hot showers, and being honored with the nicknames La Grande and La Gringa.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.