Spectacled Bear Conservation Society


Building Conservation Foundation by Training Teachers in Peru

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Forty-six! That’s how many teachers attended our recent environmental education professional development workshops, in collaboration with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, in Peru. That’s also the minimum number of classrooms that will be affected by the methods and materials that were discussed over the 10 days spent at the Conservation Center in Batan Grande, Peru. And it’s pretty safe to assume that each teacher has about 25 students. Hmm… 46 x 25 = 1,150. Maybe it’s a little premature to say we’ve touched the lives of over a thousand children and possibly their families, but I’m overly optimistic. It’s a pretty good number, if you ask me.

I work in the Conservation Education Division of the Institute for Conservation Research, the research arm of the San Diego Zoo. But rather than thinking about what I do as education, we like to think of what we’re doing in northern Peru, in support of the Andean bear conservation project, as capacity building. This is an approach to working with communities to enhance their abilities to allow them to achieve measurable and sustainable results. Having learned a bit about the communities over the last year and a half, I’ve come to know some of the modern challenges they face. It is my job to assist them in finding their potential and developing a “tool kit” for sustainable, improved living. This tends to have a measurable, positive impact on the forest and Andean bears. In this way, we are helping to address the human dimension of conservation.

Teachers in a small group discussion, with the education coordinator of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, Francisco Nolberto Aurich Terrones.

Teachers interact in small group discussions outside the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.

Instead of a lot of lecturing by professionals and sitting and listening by students, we conducted the workshops in an inquiry and project-based learning format. Inquiry involves the quest to learn more about the things that interest us. Project-based learning directly engages participants through projects applicable to life outside the classroom. The workshop was also conducted as if the participating teachers were their own students in a classroom, similarly to how we conduct our summer teacher workshops at the Institute. Using these tools, we hope to increase their active engagement with students, encourage investigation of the things in which they are interested, and provide them with tools that they can use in their everyday lives. Actually, these workshops were modeled after the Earth Expeditions program offered in conjunction with Miami University of Ohio and the Advanced Inquiry Master’s Program (check out the new Earth Expedition going to Hawaii this summer and the new Advanced Inquiry Program being offered by the Zoo!).

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Although there were some unanticipated challenges, I think it’s safe to say that overall the workshops were quite successful. Teachers were engaged. They asked questions. They were exposed to new methods and got up close and personal with the inquiry process, as well as the San Diego Zoo and the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. We had guest speakers from the area and active investigations, and the teachers developed their own network of educators interested in conservation in the region. Teachers were also challenged to develop a conservation action project to implement in their village, tied in with the curriculum.

We will stay in contact and provide support and advice for these projects throughout the school year of March through December. And at the end of the year, we hope students will showcase their conservation projects in a festival celebrating community-based conservation to ensure that these great lessons make their way to the next generation.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Can Cute Trinkets Save Andean Bears?


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.


Assignment: Peru and Its Bears

Just arrived at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center (Centro De Conservacion de la Organizacion Para La Conservacion del Oso de Anteojos).

“After juggling some things around, it seems like we WILL have enough money to send you to Peru after all,” says James Danoff-Burg, the director of Conservation Education for San Diego Zoo Global. It was a quiet day in the Conservation Education Division, not even one month since I had been officially hired as a new conservation educator (my dream job!). Learning that I was going to Peru in less than one month meant getting down to business. First things first: learn that the San Diego Zoo has a project studying Andean bears in northern Peru. Check. Next, cram as much into my brain as I can about Andean (spectacled) bears and the cultures of northern Peru, brush up on my long-rusty Español, begin email introductions with the Peruvian field team, formulate trip objectives, and prepare surveys and interviews to conduct with children and adult community members.

The objectives: Familiarize myself with the Andean bear conservation project (see Missing Camera: The Work of a Bear?), the field site, and the communities of Rio La Leche watershed and begin formulating education and outreach initiatives to involve affected Peruvian communities in the conservation of Andean bears and the tropical dry forest ecosystem in this region of northern Peru. Was I ready to go? You bet. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’ve been gearing up for an opportunity like this my whole life, though I didn’t know what I was preparing myself for.

Here’s what my resume says, in a nutshell: degrees in biological anthropology and evolutionary biology, 14 years of teaching experience, and 8 years science research experience. Here’s what my brain says: This is happening to me?! It is a dream come true that all of my hard work has culminated in the opportunity to utilize my skills to bridge the gap between conservation biology research and the public. This is not to say it wasn’t all a little bit overwhelming, as this is my first project of the sort. But I’ve taught many different types of students, I’ve traveled to several foreign countries, I understand the science, and I’m pretty good at thinking on my toes. Also, I like people, and I like nature. A lot. What more did I need?

The view from the highway on the way to Batan Grande. Those hills in the distance are prime Andean bear habitat. Those trees in the foreground are prime Andean bear feeding grounds. Yeah, I’d say the bears are impacted by human activities.

Traveling to Batan Grande, the big town of Rio La Leche, is not so bad, especially compared to other educators and their extremely remote field sites (see Making Progress toward Monkey Conservation in Vietnam). Two flights and a taxi, and I’m in Batan Grande, a town that gets its name from a pre-Incan society that used large stone anvils to grind ore. The town is moderately rustic, with a few paved roads and mainly dirt-floored homes, but modern in the universality of running water, electricity, and the cell phone (seriously, everyone has a cell phone). I am greeted at the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Center by three Weimaraners (the resident watchdogs), the Peruvian field team members, and their family. This is where I am to spend the week, as this project works in collaboration with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.

A small, steadfast population of the bears lives in the foothills of the western slope of the Andes, very close to the communities of Rio La Leche, and the bears are hugely impacted by human activities. Deforestation, habitat degradation, and illegal hunting are some of the major threats faced by the bears and the tropical dry forest ecosystem. To combat these issues, the plan is to educate the communities about the forest to help increase how much local people value their nature and to provide them with tools to improve their lives in ways that help reduce the impact on the surrounding ecosystem. That’s my job: to take the cutting-edge research uncovered by Russ Van Horn and the small team of Peruvian para-biologists to the people and help ensure long-term sustainability of conservation measures. I am here now, and my mission began 11 hours ago when I boarded a plane from Los Angeles to Lima. I don’t like to wish people good luck because I rarely feel that anything is about luck. So instead, wish me a sound mind and a steadfast heart, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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


Andean Bear Sightings

Dimples in the sand show where Russ' sweat droplets landed.

As I stepped up onto the ledge and looked down the rocky trail, I realized that I needed to take a break. It was just too hot and dry for me to keep up with Javier and Isai, two parabiologists from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. We still had enough time to reach camp before it became too dark, so I stopped to catch my breath. As I stood there huffing and puffing, I noticed some dimples in the sand below me. It hadn’t rained for a long time, so what liquid could have fallen and created those dimples? After puzzling for a moment while looking down, I saw the answer as sweat dropped off my chin and fell to the ground: those dimples were made by me as I stopped in the same place to rest before dawn that day! We had walked up the trail while it was still dark, in order to be in a hiding place before dawn. We had then waited all day to see if and when an Andean bear (aka spectacled bear) would come to the waterhole.

Rinds left after an Andean bear fed on a sapote fruit

Most of the year this type of effort would be a waste of time. However, when the sapote fruit is ripe down in the valleys, the local bears often walk down from the hills to feed on sapote during the morning before returning to the hills before dark. On their way uphill, they often stop for a drink of water at one of the rare waterholes. Our most predictable opportunity to see a bear, and place a GPS transmitter on it, comes when we move in a pattern opposite to the bears and intercept them at the water.

A wild female Andean bear and her cub

As we walked to and from the waterhole for several days in a row, we saw evidence that bears were in the area. Sometimes we’d see partial tracks of bears, or else the rinds that bears leave behind after eating sapote fruit. Even better, we saw at least one bear on each of the nine days we spent waiting at the waterhole! Usually these were the same few bears, so in total I think we saw four different bears; twice the bears were too far away to identify with any certainty.

We saw the same female bear and her nearly independent cub come to the waterhole on eight of the nine days. This female’s behavior was different from that of females with very young cubs, which appear to avoid the waterholes as best as we can tell from data from GPS collars, camera traps, and direct observations. Perhaps mothers with young cubs act differently because their cubs cannot walk very far, or perhaps mothers with young cubs wish to avoid encountering adult male bears; we’ll need more data to better assess these two hypotheses. Meanwhile, I’m glad we have the opportunity, and the skilled field team, to collect those data. It’s also rewarding to see the bears!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program. Read his previous post, Camera Trap: Bush Dogs.


Little Fruit, Thin Bears

This is a camera trap photo of the female Andean bear Magaly on December 7, 2009, when she was thin and in poor condition, before many ripe sapote fruit were available.

It was about 16 months ago when I first saw an Andean bear in the dry forest of Peru during the Southern Hemisphere winter. When I did, I was shocked. As this bear walked down the hillside toward a waterhole I could count her ribs, I could see her backbone, and I could watch her hipbones moving. Her fur was dull, and I could hardly believe how bad she looked. My colleagues had told me that the bears living in the dry forest were thin during the winter because there wasn’t much for them to eat, but I didn’t know the bears became THIN! The only other wild bear I have ever seen so scrawny was an American black bear I encountered many years ago in southwest Montana; that bear had become dependent on food it obtained from people, and it began starving when it no longer had access to the supplemental food.

This is a camera trap photo of the same female Andean bear, Magaly on April 29, 2011, after she’d become plump by feeding on sapote fruit.

When I expressed my concern over the skinniness of the dry forest bear to the field team of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC), they told me that they had seen bears in the dry forest that looked even worse than the bear I was watching but that had nevertheless survived. In reality, I was shocked only because I didn’t have much experience in the dry forest; that bear was not unusual. She not only survived, but she mated a few months later and is now raising a young cub. Skinny dry forest bears look shocking to people who don’t have experience in the dry forest, but in fact their weight loss is part of a natural cycle that becomes obvious to anyone who studies dry forest bears for more than a year.

This is a portrait of nearly ripe sapote fruit still on the tree when there were ripe sapote fruits lying on the ground beneath the tree, and when bears were foraging on sapote fruits. We hypothesize that fruits like this one are critical for the survival of individual bears, and the bear population, in the dry forest.

Working with SBC in the dry forest, we’ve accumulated evidence over the last several years that Andean bear movements and body condition are linked to a species of tree, the sapote. Evidence from direct observations, camera traps, and satellite telemetry collars all suggests that bears focus their movements and foraging on sapote fruit when it is available, which is usually only for two to three months just before the annual rainy season.

After ripe sapote fruit become available, usually beginning in late November, the bears’ body condition improves noticeably, so that within a few weeks the bears no longer look like walking skeletons. After a few more weeks of feeding on sapote fruit, the bears start to look a little plump, although they never get as fat as American black bears and brown bears do in autumn. During the rest of the year when sapote fruit is not available, Andean bears in the dry forest gradually lose weight so that they are skinniest just before the sapote fruit is ripe. These observations strongly suggest that healthy populations of sapote trees are critical for the health of individual Andean bears in the dry forest and for the health of the dry forest bear population. The sapote tree is considered critically endangered by the Peruvian government, so we’re promoting conservation of sapote trees as part of the Andean bear conservation program.

A camera trap photo shows male Andean bear Russ on December 5, 2009, when he was thin and in poor condition before many ripe sapote fruits were available.

This is a camera trap photo of the same male Andean bear, Russ, on March 21, 2011, after he’d gained weight by feeding on sapote fruit.

The field team is seeing something unusual right now that may answer a question that’s been puzzling me for over a year. Young cubs and subadult bears often disappear when their mothers are skinniest, shortly before the sapote fruit ripens. We suspect that, unfortunately, when adult bears have a hard time finding food, many young bears do not survive. If that happens year after year, how can the population of bears in the dry forest remain stable? This year some sapote fruits are ripe earlier than normal, and some bears are starting to gain weight earlier than usual. This makes us hopeful that this year more cubs and subadult bears will survive. Of course, the survival of youngsters may depend on what the sapote trees do over the next few months, which reminds me of other questions we have. Why do sapote trees produce fruit when they do? What influences how many sapote fruits are produced? There has been a little research done on these questions, but we’ve still got some work to do to fill in the blanks!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program. Read his previous post, Mountain Lions and Palm Trees.

For more information about the seasonal fluctuations in resources such as sapote and the need to conserve them, see posts Dry Forest Bears of Peru and To See a Bear.


Training Andean Bear Field Crew

Meg, at left, conducts a field training session.

I recently spent several days in the dry forest of Lambayeque in Peru working with our collaborator Robyn Appleton and her field crew from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and with Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, a veterinarian from the San Diego Zoo. Our goals were to reinforce and enhance the field crew’s training in bear immobilization and, with luck, to illustrate everything by immobilizing a female Andean (or spectacled) bear and placing a GPS collar on her. The field crew had recently discovered the den at which a female bear (Pepa) had given birth. This is the fourth den found at this field site, and only the fifth ever described of wild Andean bears (one den was recently discovered in the cloud forest of Ecuador).

Because the cub was still quite young and not able to walk very well or very far, the mother bear was not moving very much in the weeks just before we arrived. However, by the time we were all assembled in the field and ready to go, so were the mother and cub. The cub was able to walk well enough that the two bears moved through terrain that was too steep for a safe immobilization. Rather than risk injury to the bear or the field crew, we decided to wait for a better opportunity in the future. Maybe we’ll have better luck next time!

Heavy fog in the valley of the Río de la Leche separates the Archeological-Ecological Park of Batán Grande (foreground) from the Laquipampa Wildlife Refuge (background).

Although we did not deploy another GPS collar during our visit, we did conduct training, and we did see bears every day from our clifftop overlook. We watched the female bear Laura using different routes to walk to and from one of the few permanent waterholes and walk up incredibly steep cliffs to feed on large land snails. We also watched Pepa eat snails and cactus while her cub complained that they were walking too much and nap in the shade on beds of vegetation that Pepa pulled together.

From where we were camped it was only a few meters to a rock outcrop from which we could look over a valley and see farms and villages along the river below. I’m half-deaf, so I couldn’t hear the noises of the villages below: the music on Friday and Saturday nights and the chickens and donkeys in the mornings. I could see, though, that there’s a risk that human development spreading from the river valley will isolate one mountain range from another, turning them into isolated islands of habitat. I think our work in the new protected area (Archeological-Ecological Park of Batán Grande) will prevent this from happening. If we succeed at this, I won’t mind that we didn’t put a collar on Pepa.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Notes from Observing Andean Bears.


Notes from Observing Andean Bears

This is the mountainside traversed by the bear and her cub.

I’ve just spent two weeks in northwest Peru, working in the field to study Andean (spectacled) bears with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and meeting with several people involved in conservation of the dry forest. As before, I’m impressed that the crew, the bears, and other large mammals in the area can cope with the terrain, the habitat, and the climate. It’s a very different experience than in the humid montane forests of Cusco. I can’t say which is more difficult to work in, because the challenges and constraints are just too different.

One big difference between the two sites is that in the dry forest it is possible, at times, to collect direct observations of the bears. I thought you might be interested in seeing my notes from the afternoon of September 9, 2010. My original notes, the raw data, were written in a type of systematic shorthand, but I’ll spare you the process of translation and tell you what happened, in every-day words.

The researchers' field camp, where the observations were taken.

Four of us (Robyn Appleton, Javier Vallejo, Isai Sanchez, and I) had hiked for several hours from one campsite up to another overlooking a waterhole. The plan was for us to spend the afternoon observing the area around the waterhole to ensure that there were no bears nearby that might be disturbed if we went to the waterhole. We wanted to change the batteries and memory card in a remote camera (i.e., “camera trap”) that had previously been deployed on a trail close to the waterhole. As we were setting up camp and beginning to prepare lunch, Javier spotted two dark specks moving along the cliff face about 1,300 feet (400 meters) away; there were bears to watch!

Here’s what we saw, according to my notes, written every five minutes while the bears were visible. The adult female bear was identified as Laura by her facial markings. Her cub, which is approximately one year old, has been named Martina.

1:35 p.m.: The adult female bear Laura is walking to the left, while her cub, Martina, follows 3 meters behind her.
1:40: Laura and Martina lie down in the shade of a rock outcrop.
1:40 to 3: The bears lie in the shade. We sit in the shade of a tarp.
3 p.m.: Laura walks uphill while Martina follows 1 meter behind her.
3:05: Laura continues to walk uphill, and Martina is now following 20 meters behind her mother.
3:10: Laura stands on her hind legs at the rock face, pulling down snails with her forepaws. We can’t tell exactly what Martina is doing, but she’s 4 meters lower down on the slope.
3:15: Laura is still standing on her hind legs feeding on snails, but Martina is no longer visible.
3:20: Laura walks to the left, while Martina is still not visible.

A cluster of white snails in the shade of an overhanging outcrop.

3:25: Laura has walked 65 meters to the left from where she was feeding on snails, and she has begun feeding on snails again. We can see Martina again, and she’s 10 meters below her mother. We still can’t tell what the cub is doing, but she’s not obviously interested in the snails.
3:30: Laura is walking to the left and uphill, following an obvious bear trail along the rock face. Martina is following her mother, 5 meters behind her.
3:32 p.m.: Laura and Martina follow the trail and go out of sight around the curve of the cliff. We do not see the bears again this day.

What can we learn from these types of notes? We can determine how often, for how long, and during what months adult bears feed on snails. We can document how cubs become less and less dependent on their mothers as they grow up by looking at the distance between the cub and her mother and how often the cubs nurse. We can document when bears are active, and when they sleep, and estimate how long they feed during each day. These, and many other aspects of bear behavior and ecology, can be addressed once we have enough observations of wild Andean bears in the dry forest of Lambayeque.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Camera Trap Surprise.


Andean Bears: Two Steps Forward

The dry forest landscape in what is now part of El Parque Arqueológico y Ecológico de Batán Grande.

I’m pleased to report that there have recently been two tangible steps forward for the conservation of Andean (spectacled) bears and the tropical dry forest in northeast Peru, where we’re working with our collaborator, the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC). (Read post In It for the Long Haul.) In fact, both advancements involved SBC either directly or through collection of data and outreach resulting in greater community and governmental interest in conservation.

In chronological order, or first things first, here’s what’s happened:

First, the Peruvian government announced the creation of El Parque Arqueológico y Ecológico de Batán Grande to conserve both ecological and cultural (archaeological) resources in northwest Peru. This park was simultaneously created and recognized by numerous levels of the Peruvian government, ranging from the local municipal district to the relevant cabinet-level ministry. One of the primary catalysts for the creation of this park, especially at this time, was the knowledge generated through our collaborative effort with SBC.

Second, SBC has opened a center for conservation outreach and investigation in the town of Batán Grande. The town is closest to our main study site in the dry forest, and this conservation center will be used for conservation education activities by local school groups, research presentations to the public, and meetings with local community members.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Unmistakable in English, Spanish, or Quechua.


20 Liters Down, 5 Hours to Go

Russ is studying wild Andean bears in Peru and sharing his adventures with us. Read his previous post, From San Diego to Dry Forest in 36 Hours.

There are serious logistical constraints involved in Andean bear fieldwork, whether in the cloud forests of Cusco or the dry forests of Lambayeque. In the dry forest, the critical constraint for we humans is water. For those of us waiting to collar bears, it’s WATER, in jugs of 20 liters (5.28 gallons), carried in backpacks from the flat lowlands into the rugged hills.

Although we’re camped near a waterhole, we don’t actually have access to any of the water in it; that water is for the wildlife to use. Based on what they’ve observed, Robyn and her team from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBCS) believe that bears travel down trails higher on the canyon walls to feed on sapote fruits at lower elevations, and return up this canyon to drink and swim in the waterhole.

Even though there is little drinking water in this area for wildlife, the bears may go for days without drinking, based on data from GPS satellite collars on some of the bears and photos from camera traps. Where do the bears get moisture when they’re not visiting waterholes? Robyn’s hypothesis is that they obtain some moisture from the sapote fruit and from eating cactus. One of our research goals here is to understand the ecology of water in this habitat, and one of our conservation goals is to promote protection of the watershed and the waterholes.

Just after dawn in Lambayeque, Peru.

The landscape, and the vegetation, changes dramatically in this area. It’s been months since the last measurable rain in the dusty lowlands, yet there’s been a little mist and fog here in the hills. The shrubs and trees up here are green for the time being, but if it doesn’t rain soon they will turn brown again and lose their leaves. Every morning near dawn a large flock of parakeets shrieks its way in circles across the canyon as the group splits up for a day of foraging. Every evening near dusk, the parakeets’ calls again echo from the rocky hillsides as they regroup for the night. The hours pass, and the days go by.

Just before sunset in Lambayeque.

Robyn, Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, a veterinarian from the San Diego Zoo, and I spend the days moving as little as possible, making as little noise as possible (see Meg’s post Peru: Room with a View). Much of our time is spent under a canopy of tarps, which shades us from the sun and hides our movements. We’re trying to avoid accidentally alarming any nearby bears, preventing them from approaching the waterhole, where Javier sits motionless for hours, waiting to dart a bear.

We talk in whispers about what veterinary actions to take under different circumstances, how to proceed with research, how to raise funds for research, local politics, and what cold beverage we each crave. I’m yearning for a strong ginger ale I first drank in Kenya, while working on my doctoral research. I’ve never found this beverage for sale in the United States, but it would taste great right now, almost as good as a swallow of clean, pure water. We’ve used 20 liters of water in the days since the last jug of water was carried up to our campsite, even though we’ve used as little water as possible. The water jug is now dry, but with luck we now have to wait only four or five more hours before the hikers arrive with another full jug.

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!


From San Diego to Dry Forest in 36 Hours

My Zoo work hat after a few days in the dry forest.

In some ways, it’s a long trip from San Diego to the dry forest of Lambayeque, where I’m going to work in the field with Robyn Appleton and the field team from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society or SBCS (see post The Bear Goes over the Mountain). Yet in other ways, it’s only a few hours away.

The goal of my trip to the dry forest of northern Peru is to work with Robyn and SBC’s team to capture several Andean (also called spectacled) bears, and fit them with satellite GPS collars. Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, a veterinarian with the San Diego Zoo, will provide top-notch veterinarian care for any bears we immobilize during her stay and give Robyn and I additional training and advice in these procedures (see Meg’s post, Peru: Room with a View). The data we obtain from these collars will give us insight into the amount of space that bears need in this tropical dry forest, which is a threatened habitat.

The flight from San Diego to Atlanta was just long enough for me to compose some long-overdue e-mails, and my time in the airport allowed me to send them off. Luckily, I still had the eight-hour flight from Atlanta to Lima during which I could finish some writing tasks that were due while I’d be in the field. One of the minor, yet critical, challenges of leaving for the field is that I have to think ahead of all the deadlines that will arise while I’m offline for a few weeks, or months: deadlines for progress reports, funding proposals, abstracts for conferences, etc.

In Lima, I had a quick and easy trip through the customs checkpoint, and then I carted my bags upstairs to a coffee shop with wireless Internet access for a few more hours of work before catching my flight to northern Peru. I boarded the flight for Chiclayo as the sun brightened the cloudy sky and immediately fell asleep, for the first time in over 24 hours. The flight was smooth, and I didn’t dream of the tasks behind me, or those ahead of me.

My good luck continued to hold. As I walked out of the Chiclayo airport, it was obvious which person was there to meet me. Not only was he the only person not wearing the badge of a licensed taxi driver, he also held up a sign reading osos, which means bears in Spanish. He’d been sent to start me on my ground trip from Chiclayo to Cerro Venado, where I’d spend most of the next 24 days.

A short taxi ride took us to the ground transportation terminal, where it is possible to take a bus to the local villages or hire a taxi for the trip. We couldn’t afford to wait for the bus, so we joined several others in a cab ride to the village of Batan Grande, passing by green fields of sugar cane below low, dry mountains. At Batan Grande, we stopped to drop off some of my excess gear, including a set of clean clothes for the flight back to Lima. Javier Vallejos leads SBC’s field team, and his wife, Pepa, renewed my sagging soul with coffee and breakfast while their young son watched a DVD on the wildlife of Manu National Park (see Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature).

Mototaxi loaded with Russ' gear.

Refreshed and refueled, I set out again on a “mototaxi,” a three-wheeled hybrid of a motorcycle and a rickshaw. The driver had a heavy load for this trip: me, 2 duffel bags, a small backpack, and 3 jugs of water, each weighing 44 pounds (20 kilograms). After a few minutes, we left the pavement and continued down a rocky dirt road as the taxi driver and I exchanged the usual questions. “Where are you from?” “Is this your first trip to Peru?” “What crops do people grow here?” “What kind of tree is that?”

The fence and gate constructed by the local cattle owner’s association, with help from SBC.

Eventually we crossed through a locked gate, the first evidence of SBC’s presence that I’d seen, other than my friendly escorts. This fence was constructed in 2008 by the local cattle owner’s association, using funds raised by SBC, to help keep illegal hunters and settlers out of the area. As elsewhere, bear conservation is often about much more than the bears themselves. Here in the dry forest, bear conservation is also about watershed protection, forest protection, water conservation, and community outreach. A few minutes later we literally reached the end of the road, and it was time to get my boots dirty again.

Two young men were waiting in the shade of a shrub for me to arrive. Wow, my trip required a lot of coordination by Robyn and her team! Isai Sanchez and Jonathan Vallejos helped me carry my gear up to the nearby base camp, where we reorganized it into backpacks. It was the hottest part of the day in an area where temperatures reach over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), so we napped in the shade until it cooled off a little. We hiked along the foothills until we reached another campsite, where we met another member of the SBC team, Jose Vallejos.

After a quick meal, we grabbed our backpacks and set off uphill, heading toward a campsite where the others waited near a waterhole. With luck, we’d be collaring bears that approached this waterhole.

Nearly ripe sapote fruit

Although SBC’s team is hardened to hiking in the area, it was a tough hike for me, even though the evening was relatively cool. I’m just not accustomed to boulder hopping the same way the team members are! Steadily we climbed our way up the dry streambed, at times using all four limbs to pull ourselves up, and at times using ropes to climb the steepest sections of trail. I was amazed at how many bear feces we passed! The bears sometimes use this same streambed as a travel route, moving between lower elevations, where there is sapote fruit, and higher elevations, where there is more lush vegetation, and water…and where Javier Vallejos quietly waits, with darts of anesthesia.

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! Read Russ’ previous post, Andean Bears: Camera Trappers.