Uncategorized

bears in Peru

0

Finally, a Little Bit of Rain

Javier and Robyn hike through the dry forest on their way to a waterhole.

Russ is studying wild Andean (or spectacled) bears in the Lambayeque region of Peru and sharing his adventures with us. Read his previous post, Another Day Older, Another Day Wiser?

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.

Heavy fog and light rain obscure the rugged terrain of the study site.

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.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We’ll be posting more about his trip every few days!

0

Andean Bears: Camera Trappers

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post (see Bear Culture). To be honest, I was waiting until I could include a remote-camera photo of a wild Andean bear! However, people keep asking me about the cameras (see post Andean Bears and Cameras), so I thought I’d provide an update now.

Due to logistical challenges, it took longer than I expected to place the cameras in Peru’s cloud forest last fall. I now understand well why no one’s done this before! However, one issue that I thought might be a challenge turned out to be no challenge at all.

The local people who worked with me to install the cameras in the forest have very little experience with electronic technology, so I wasn’t sure how fast they’d learn to use the cameras. Another challenge for them was that all the buttons on the cameras, and the programming menus, are written in English, which none of them speak or write.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

I’ll admit that at first they didn’t understand what the different programming options were or what the buttons did. Neither did they have any idea of how to prepare a site in the forest for the best chance at obtaining good photos. However, after working with me to install only a few cameras, they were debating with each other, and with me, the fine points of site preparation and camera positioning. “No, it should be turned a little more to the left!” “No, I think it’s very good where it is.” “Use a little stick to raise the bottom – no, not that stick, use one that’s a little thicker.” This was an excellent reminder of something I realized as a child surrounded by older generations who did not have access to higher education: a lack of education does not mean a lack of intelligence.

There were three other promising signs:
- First, these gentlemen kept teasing me about how many bears would be photographed, and what the chances were that all the photos would be of bears’, um, derrieres, and not of their faces.
- Second, as they programmed each new camera installation, team members would look over each other’s shoulder, ready to applaud, and critique. However, each man was careful and thorough, and mastered the process at hand.
- Third, two men encountered a bear on the trail, in broad daylight, about 400 meters (1,300 feet) away from where the rest of us were debating whether we had achieved optimal camera placement. At first I didn’t believe that they had seen a bear, because they had been teasing me so much. However, when we went down the trail, there was no denying the evidence in the mud: fresh tracks of an Andean bear.

The field workers are changing the batteries and memory cards in the cameras every month until I return there in March to begin the next stage of the project. The photos from the first month of operation have been collected, downloaded, and sent to Lima, Peru. However, there are so many photos that they cannot be e-mailed to me! So, I’ll have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail. I wonder, I wonder, what is in those photos?

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

0

Dry-forest Bears of Peru

Setting out. Destination: the top of that mountain. Weight of pack: a lot! Think food and water for five days.

Setting out. Destination: the top of that mountain. Weight of pack: a lot! Think food and water for five days.

The San Diego Zoo has two researchers studying bear habitat in Peru. Read a previous post, Andean Bears and Cameras.

Slowly, slowly, we trudge up the makeshift trail, recently machetted along the ridge. The sun beats down, the thorns scratch our arms, our calf muscles strain to carry us up another 100 feet, then another. But our spirits lift as we rise higher and higher, leaving behind civilization in the valley below, and enter the domain of the spectacled bear.

Nonprofit headquarters. The Spectacled Bear Conservation Society built two buildings in which to base their research and to provide outreach and education for the local community.

Nonprofit headquarters: The Spectacled Bear Conservation Society built two buildings in which to base their research and to provide outreach and education for the local community.

I have joined one of our newest collaborators at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Robyn Appleton, director of a small nonprofit organization devoted to studying and saving the spectacled bear and its habitat. Also known as the Andean bear, because much of its range lies in the mountains of Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru, here they call it oso de anteojos, or spectacled bear, because of the distinct markings around the eyes that give the bear a bespectacled appearance.

Javier checks a camera trap by the waterhole.

Javier checks a camera trap by the waterhole.

Robyn and her small field team—a father-son duo named Javier and José—have worked miracles here. Through sheer grit and determination, they have entered the harsh dry-forest wilderness and discovered something truly amazing. Bears. Lots of them. Local people and experts alike dismissed this area as too dry and barren to support much of a population, but to everyone’s surprise, this team has found and identified no fewer than 31 bears living in a relatively small area.

Hot, steep and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

Hot, steep and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

The story of how these bears (and the people tracking them) manage to eek out an existence in this formidable environment is fascinating. In a dry forest, water is everything. Each year a few sprinkles fall here and there, but real rain comes only every few years with the El Niño. And then, it is super-abundant. As Robyn and her team soon learned, once this rain falls, the dry forest springs to life. They literally watched as the dirt patches turned to tangles of thick brush, and vines grew to cover all the trees. It was impenetrable. Apparently, the porous rocks of the soaring mountains capture much of this rain and slowly feed a few small springs scattered among the ravines. Hot, steep, and scratchy—the thick vegetation of the dry forest several months after the El Niño rains.

I’m smiling because I have a rope secure in my hands. Behind me is a 50-foot drop to the waterhole.

I’m smiling because I have a rope secure in my hands. Behind me is a 50-foot drop to the waterhole.

Halfway up the mountain, we descend a precarious slope, clinging to a system of ropes established by Robyn’s husband, Ian, to a waterhole the size of your kitchen sink. This pitifully small puddle sustains life for much of the surrounding fauna, including the bears. The water percolates through the rocks and feeds this hole for years without additional rain. Remove this waterhole and it all collapses. Protection of waterholes such as these has become Robyn’s team’s first order of business.

View of civilization. Wild, but this wilderness is at the mercy of nearby human inhabitants.

View of civilization. Wild, but this wilderness is at the mercy of nearby human inhabitants.

After a welcome respite in the cool shade and green plant life at the waterhole, we continue to ascend, a total of 2,500 feet (760 meters), to the crest of the mountains. Up here, the eagles soar and the views are sweeping and spectacular. As wild as it is up here, we are reminded that we are surrounded by humanity. Look off in one direction, and you can see the lights of the village below. Down the other side we see farms and hear roosters…and disco music. It’s wild here, but fragile. A few careless, or uncaring, people could take away the life of these bears. As goes the water, so goes the wildlife.

Brainstorming at base camp. José, Robyn, and Javier discuss the research plan.

Brainstorming at base camp. José, Robyn, and Javier discuss the research plan.

I am here to learn about this incredible environment and these surprisingly resourceful bears. As a representative of the San Diego Zoo, I am also here to see how we can help. We are helping financially, but we’re also here to brainstorm, to work together to find out how we can make this fantastic opportunity even better. A little weary from the climb, I contemplate the possibilities as I lie on my mat (already deflated by the thorns), gaze up at the stars, and hope a scorpion doesn’t join me in my bed. And I wonder, will tomorrow be the day I see my first wild spectacled bear?

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

0

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.

0

Andean Bear Country

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Russ Van Horn has been studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Still Elusive.

By the time you read this I’ll be back in San Diego, trying to stay disciplined enough to practice my Spanish and begin learning a few phrases in Quechua. My Spanish is still weak, but my Quechua is limited to a dozen words, which I probably mispronounce.

During the time I spent in the area above Quince Mil, Peru, I repeatedly heard that every year the people living in the village of Quico have trouble with Andean bears raiding their maize. I’d also heard that the people of that area were much more traditional and conservative than people living closer to the main road. For example, the first, and preferred, language of the people of Quico is Quechua, not Spanish. So, it didn’t seem wise to just show up there before establishing a connection to the community.

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

By late November, we had the personal contacts and the time available to make the trip. It was a beautiful day’s hike from the main road to the village of Quico, but I was very glad that we’d rented a packhorse to carry most of our gear. After spending most of the last few months at below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) elevation, the trail to 4,800 meters (15,800 feet) literally took my breath away!

Another day’s hike took us down into the next valley, below Quico, to a chain of small fields set in primary cloud forest. Once again, there were obvious differences in the vegetation between this forest and the other sites I’ve seen at the same elevation, not very far away. Because the corn in this watershed won’t be ripe until late June, the farmers told us not to expect to find much evidence of bears. However, after only a few hours in the forest above the fields, we found as much evidence of bears as we’ve found in all the other sites we’ve visited!

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

I guess I’d better spend a lot of time at the gym over the next few months, preparing my cardiovascular system for a return visit to Quico. I wonder if I can find some Quechua language audio lessons and multitask my way toward two objectives?

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Peru, but it doesn’t make sense to return as long as the rains are heavy in the south, and they last through March. I’ll post another entry when my travel plans are settled. In the meantime, thank you for reading these ramblings!

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo.

0

Andean Bears: Still Elusive

The cloud forest is, as you might expect, often cloudy.

The cloud forest is, as you might expect, often cloudy.

Russ Van Horn is studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bear Symposium.

I’m in Lima now, on my way to San Diego from the eastern slope of the Andes. I’ve spent most of my time since my last blog entry looking for evidence of Andean bears in the forests of eastern Peru. I began this search by returning to a mountainside where we’d earlier seen the leftovers of a bear’s meal and where we’ve had a camera “trap” in place for several weeks. Unfortunately, the camera did not take any photos of Andean bears, but it had snapped additional species of birds and mammals. There’s clearly quite a diversity of wildlife at that site, but it doesn’t appear to be used much by bears, at least at this time of year.

The bamboo was incredibly dense at this site.

The bamboo was incredibly dense at this site.

We spent a few days camping in the forest nearby, on a ridge that eventually climbs up to alpine grasslands. In other areas of their range, Andean bears are reported to use similar grasslands during some seasons of the year. Evidence of bear presence, such as feeding sites and feces, has been reported to last longer in such grasslands than in the cloud forest, so it would be interesting to look for evidence that bears use these particular grasslands. However, we weren’t able to get that far afield because of the fantastic density of bamboo. In one thicket there was more than nine bamboo stems per square meter, for a few hundred meters. Cutting a passage through the bamboo was a slow process, and although we rationed our drinking water, we eventually ran dry and had to turn back.

The diversity of canopy structure in the cloud forest

The diversity of canopy structure in the cloud forest

This ridge rises above the valley through which the Interoceanic Highway is being built. Periodically, loud explosions echoed off the surrounding mountains, as construction crews blasted through the cliffs, and these crashes would make us jump, even over the ringing of the machetes in the bamboo. There are parallels between the road construction and our trail construction, but we attempt to minimize our impact on the forest as much as possible. This is one of the challenges to ecological researchers: can you study a system without your activities changing the way it functions?

We’re trying.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo.

3

Andean Bears: Ready for Their Closeup?

Russ Van Horn is studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Cloud Forest of Peru.

Lima, Peru

A camera trap is placed along a game trail in the cloud forest of southeastern Peru.

A camera trap is placed along a game trail in the cloud forest of southeastern Peru.

Dr. Ron Swaisgood, Division Head of the San Diego Zoo’s Applied Animal Ecology Division, arrived in Cusco, Peru, on Halloween. (See Ron’s blog, Bearly Started: New Bear Program in Peru.) I was delayed en route by landslides and mechanical trouble with the bus, so I missed seeing the streets crowded with revelers. We traveled to the field site and met with our collaborators from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
We also traveled into the cloud forest to perform maintenance on the digital camera trap I mentioned in an earlier blog entry. I was relieved to see that the camera was still in place and hadn’t been tampered with by humans or by wildlife. Bears, in particular, have a tendency to “investigate” camera traps, but we don’t know yet whether Andean bears have this expensive habit.

An image taken by a digital camera trap shows an ocelot following a game trail through the cloud forest.

An image taken by a digital camera trap shows an ocelot following a game trail through the cloud forest.

I was pleased to see that the camera trap had taken numerous pictures after we had left it. It recorded the presence of several species of wildlife on the game trail, but it didn’t take any photos of Andean bears. The camera had been in place for only a week, so there’s a chance it will document the presence of additional species before we move it. Who knows, perhaps it will even snap a photo of an Andean bear! At present, we’re using camera traps as reconnaissance tools to collect information that will guide our planning for future work. We don’t have enough camera traps yet to collect meaningful scientific data, but we’re seeking funding to initiate a camera trap research effort after the rains lessen, next March or April. Because Andean bears have unique facial markings, we plan to use photos to identify individuals, monitor their movements, and estimate the population size.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher at the San Diego Zoo. Read more about his project…

0

Andean Bears: Cloud Forest of Peru

Russ Van Horn is studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Peppers and Maize

There’s a good reason this is called cloud forest!

There’s a good reason this is called a cloud forest!

Cusco, Department of Cusco, Peru
I’m leaving Cusco for a few days in Quince Mil before going to Lima for the Second International Symposium on the Andean Bear. Before going to Lima, I’m hoping to retrieve the memory card from a digital infrared camera, or camera ‘trap,’ that I set in the cloud forest over a week ago. We can’t collect enough data with this camera to address our ecological questions, but we do hope to collect a photo of a wild Andean bear and verify that they are using a particular site.

The cloud forest at 2,600 meters

This photo was taken at about 8,500 feet in elevation, and illustrates the botanical and structural diversity of the cloud forest.

The site I’m referring to is about 20 miles (33 kilometers) away from Quince Mil, at 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) elevation. I visited this forest with two of my colleagues from BRIT (Botanical Research Institute of Texas) in response to conversations with local residents. We arrived at the closest settlement one evening, and planned to start hiking as early as possible the next morning. Unfortunately, by dawn it was raining steadily. Getting wet is a regular part of our routine, but rain this strong greatly reduces visibility and makes it impossible to cover much ground on the steep slopes without running the risk of injury. So, we considered catching the next ride back down to Quince Mil.

The local patriarch told us that it would stop raining by 9 a.m. I admit, after looking at the low uniform cloud layer, I was a little skeptical. I shouldn’t have doubted his experience, because by 9:15 the rain had decreased to a drizzle, and we were able to start hiking. Within 90 minutes we had hiked past three fields of peppers. As we began climbing above the highest field, 1,600 feet (500 meters) higher than the valley bottom, it became clear that the cloud forest at this site was different from the others that I had seen in this area. Although there was a great deal of moss everywhere, there was less than at other sites. Because the moss layer on the forest floor was not as thick as at some sites, it was easier to walk. Until you’ve experienced it, you’d never believe how difficult it can be to walk on a thick bed of moss!

Another prominent difference between this site and others we’d seen was that at this site there appeared to be more bamboo, and more species of bamboo, which are a potential food source for Andean bears. In addition, there seemed to be a greater diversity of both terrestrial and arboreal bromeliads. This was of interest to me scientifically, because wild Andean bears often eat bromeliads. Of interest to me personally, and perhaps to any Andean bears in the area, was the fact that none of the bromeliads at this site had spines. At the last site we visited, the most common terrestrial bromeliad species was quite large and had numerous spines, which I assure you were quite sharp and capable of delivering a memorable surprise!

bromy eathen

This bromeliad, which has been partially eaten by an Andean bear, is the first concrete evidence I’ve encountered linking bears to a specific site, in a particular time period.

After hiking upward for about three hours, we encountered the first concrete evidence that an Andean bear had recently used this forest: the remnants of a bromeliad eaten by an Andean bear. We still weren’t seeing many large mammal trails, so we continued to climb. Eventually we reached the top of a ridge, which was broader and less steep than most in the region. Immediately we began crossing large mammal trails. Due to the thick layer of moss and the regular rains, we weren’t able to find any identifiable animal tracks on the trails. However, there aren’t many species in the area, other than bears, capable of making such trails. Hopefully we’ll soon have photographic evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher at the San Diego Zoo. Read more about his project…

0

Andean Bears: Peppers and Maize

The road between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco runs along the bottom of the valley. The elevational range in this photo is about 5,600 to 9,200 feet.

The road between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco runs along the bottom of the valley. The elevational range in this photo is about 5,600 to 9,200 feet.

Cusco, Department of Cusco, Peru
I’ve returned to Cusco from Quince Mil to meet Ron Swaisgood, my boss and head of applied animal ecology research for the San Diego Zoo. (See previous blog, Wild Panda Research Helps Andean Bear Conservation) We’re both giving presentations at the Second International Symposium on the Andean Bear in Lima in just over a week, and Ron’s come to Peru a few days early so he can visit the Andean bear field site.

I haven’t been working in this region for very long, but I can already see changes occurring due to the construction of the Interoceanic Highway. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that there have probably been more changes along this section of the road during the last eight months than in the last eight years!

Most villages and towns are located in valley bottoms, through which runs the road from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado.

Most villages and towns are located in valley bottoms, through which runs the road from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado.

There are many questions we hope to answer about Andean bear ecology and behavior through the Andean bear program, but we already know the two greatest threats to Andean bear populations across their range: habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation. Both of these threats are the result of human economic activities, as are other threats to individual Andean bears, such as hunting in retaliation for crop damage or for harvest of the bear itself.

Where the slopes near the road are steep, but not too steep, plots of forest are cleared to make fields for growing peppers.

Where the slopes near the road are steep, but not too steep, plots of forest are cleared to make fields for growing peppers.

In the region where I’m working, there are few cows, so there’s little potential or perceived conflict between bears and cows. However, bears are known to raid and damage crops in the area, such as maize. Most of the maize fields I’ve seen have been relatively low in the valleys, close to the existing road. Where the slopes are stable and not too steep, there are fields higher on the sides of the valleys through which the road runs. These fields are for growing peppers, which can be harvested many times during a single year. I haven’t heard of any bears raiding pepper fields, so perhaps the bears find these peppers to be a little too spicy for their taste, as I do. There may not be any conflict between humans and bears over pepper plants, but clearing the forest for pepper cultivation does contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation.

I fear that the greatest impacts of the Interoceanic Highway will be an influx of people and changes in the way that people use the local habitats. Although our main goal in the Andean bear program is to scientifically answer questions about the biology of the Andean bear, I hope that we can influence thinking and planning for the conservation of wildlife habitat. I empathize with the desire of local people to seek economic opportunities, but I believe that stable and managed local economic development does not need to come at the cost of healthy wildlife populations.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher at the San Diego Zoo.