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Real-world impacts

Environment and Resources Ph.D. candidates collaborate with international partners

November 23, 2011 | By Jenny Peek

Protecting the elusive Andean bear

While one of South America's most elusive animals makes its way through dense and rugged mountain forests, Nelson Institute researchers snap away, capturing images of the Andean bear. At least their hidden cameras do, set to automatically take pictures when motion sensors pick up activity.

The cameras are mounted on trees by researchers from the institute's Carnivore Coexistence Lab in partnership with an Ecuadorian conservation group, Fundacion Cordillera Tropical (FCT). The goal is to gather valuable information about the secretive Andean bears while decreasing human impact on the species, according to graduate student Becky Zug.

Adrian Treves, a Nelson Institute associate professor and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, established a relationship with Fundacion Cordillera Tropical in 2007. Zug joined the project later that year to begin her master's work under the guidance of Treves.

Andean Bear in Ecuador's Sangay National Park
In December 2010, the research collaboration in
Ecuador was recognized as the Rainforest Alliance
Eco-Initiative of the Month. Photo credit FCT.

"Andean bears may be indicators of the health of the forest," Zug explains. "Because the bears use a variety of habitats, if you can conserve the bears, you can conserve other species of animals and plants."

Throughout the first year of the project, local parabiologists trained by Zug were able to identify five Andean bears (distinguished by unique facial patterning) in an area spanning eight square kilometers.

"From this we learned ID methods and began building relationships with landowners, involving them by giving them photos and talking to them about the species living on their properties," Zug says.

Zug conducts her research within Sangay National Park, one of Ecuador's largest protected areas. In 1992, the park borders were extended across private land without any input from landowners. The research and related conservation efforts aren't without conflict, Zug says. Landowners fear livestock loss and crop damage, or that they'll have their land taken away.

"One of the big problems with Andean bears is that they can attack and kill livestock," she explains. "If you have five or ten cows and you lose one, you could be losing a good portion of your income and stability."

To minimize retaliation and conflict, Treves has, in partnership with FCT, led workshops on conflict mitigation. Landowners are given a suite of non-lethal options for handling Andean bears such as instituting a horseback patrol or guard dogs and good land management practices. Landowners then choose which option best suits them.

This approach has helped to increase trust with landowners and demonstrate the benefit of protecting a species so important to Ecuadorian culture and history.

"We're seeing increasingly educated landowners and communities who are learning about the value of bears," Zug explains. This is a crucial shift in perception since habitat loss and isolation are the biggest threats to the Andean bear, along with retaliatory killing and lack of knowledge about the species.

Changing hearts and minds about tiger conservation

Advocating for tigers from afar is easy, but it's another matter for people who live near the predators, where loss of livestock and danger to family members are all too real. Stir in the temptation of a lucrative black market and you have a recipe for an enormous conservation challenge - one that graduate student Anya Lim has taken head-on.

Anya Lim in classroom
Lim taught primary school students living near Amur
tigers in China's Hunchun National Nature Reserve.

Lim - who, like Zug, is a member of Treves' Carnivore Coexistence Lab - is preparing for extended research at the Nam-Et Phou Louey National Protected Area in Laos, where people live in close proximity to Indochinese tigers.

The human-tiger conflict is deeply rooted in history and affects those living in the developing world. Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, provides a typical example.

"Local people depend on their livestock and tigers attack livestock. The human-tiger conflict began when local people retaliated against tigers," Lim says. Tigers are also highly valued in the black market for traditional medicines.

"In order to solve this issue, you need to look at several dimensions, including culture, history, the economy and social aspects, as well as tiger behavior." Working in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Lim plans to study the distribution of the Indochinese tiger population in relation to residents, then come up with ways to ease tension between people and the endangered predators.

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