Well, we have to be creative and persistent in our quest to collar Andean bears in the dry forest. The last few weeks have shown us that although we have learned more about the bears here than we have elsewhere, we still have a lot to learn!
After a few days of watching the small valleys where the sapote fruit is still plentiful, we’ve seen bears in the distance only twice. This is a much lower frequency of bear sightings than the Spectacled Bear Conservation (SBC) team gathered last year while the sapote was fruiting, but we don’t know why this is so. Jose walks through several valleys, scanning for evidence of recent sapote feeding by bears. He finds no fresh signs. Apparently the bears have shifted their movements back up into the hills, weeks earlier than they did last year, and the year before that. Variation between years in the behavior and ecology of wild animals is not unusual, and this is why it’s important to conduct long-term research. Knowing this is not very reassuring at the moment, however; it just feels like we’re having bad luck!
After returning from his walkabout, Jose checks the remote camera at another waterhole, and we learn that one bear or another has been visiting this other waterhole every four to five days. This sounds like a much more promising site than the sapote trees, so we shift operations and methods again. Every morning Javier and Robyn hike up to the waterhole and sit in a blind all day, waiting. The rest of us wait in radio contact at a distance, ready to hustle to the waterhole if a bear is darted.
Finally, it rains! Well, it’s more of a drizzle than a rain on the first day, but it does rain steadily nearly all of the next day. From time to time the clouds part, and the air is clearer than I’ve ever seen it here, now that the ground is wet and the dust is dampened. This is striking evidence of just how much the wind erodes the soil here. A unique type of forest, the algarrobal, once stretched from this point down to the horizon in the distant flatlands, but the canopy trees were cut down over the last few decades. The trees were used primarily for construction materials and to produce charcoal for cooking. Now that the canopy trees are gone, their roots no longer hold the soil in place, retain water, and provide shade. Robyn and I wonder whether the dry forest bears would have used the algarrobal. It seems likely that the bears did, but who can say? This is one question that no amount of research effort can answer, because there are only a few remnant patches of algarroballeft, kilometers away from the study site. Robyn and I have talked about the potential for reforestation projects in the area, but for now these are only dreams, for the distant future.