Caught on tape: Researchers track, help protect elusive bear in Ecuador

August 17, 2011

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.

Andean Bear Inspects a Camera Trap
A curious Andean bear inspects a camera trap.
Photo credit Becky Zug.

The cameras are mounted on trees by researchers from the Nelson Institute Carnivore Coexistence Lab in partnership with an Ecuadorian conservation group, Fundacion Cordillera Tropical (FCT). The researchers' goal is to gather valuable information about the secretive Andean bears while decreasing human impact on the species, according to Environment and Resources Ph.D. candidate Becky Zug.

"We know so little about them," says Zug. "We don't even know how many there are."

One estimate of the Andean bear population ranges from 5,000 to 30,000 breeding individuals. "These are really different estimations of the population of this bear that lives across five Andean nations," says Zug.

In order to expand research on the species, 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. FCT focuses its efforts on a watershed in southern Ecuador and has made protecting the Andean bear one of its main conservation goals.

"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."

Becky Zug Shows Parabiologists How to Use Camera Traps
Zug demonstrates a camera trap
to parabiologists. Photo by FCT.

Since the two groups partnered up, FCT has continued to work on watershed conservation while Zug and others at the Carnivore Coexistence Lab focus specifically on the bear. Currently, they have ten stations across four watersheds; each station is home to two camera traps, amounting to 20 total cameras.

"We realized in our first season that two camera traps shoots up our ability to identify individuals significantly," Zug said. "We could identify individual bears because they have unique facial patterning."

Collecting images and information from the camera traps is no easy feat; it can take researchers more than a day to make it to each site, involving long hikes through treacherous landscape. To make the process more efficient, Zug trained ten local parabiologists and park guards from an independent cooperative that Fundacion Cordillera Tropical helped to establish. Once a month they go into the field to collect extensive data.

"They go out and survey bear signs, check the traps, and collect all the data with GPS points and data sheets," Zug says. "It's a huge amount of data collected by people who know the area and the bears really well."

Throughout the first year of the project, and Zug's master's work, parabiologists were able to identify five different Andean bears in an area spanning eight square kilometers. "From this we learned ID methods and began building longer relationships with landowners, involving them by giving them photos and talking to them about the species living on their properties," Zug says.

Still, the research isn't without conflict, since a majority of it takes place on private property. 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.

"A good chunk of the watershed falls within the national park even though the boundaries aren't enforced," Zug explains. "You have people owning property in a protected area with large carnivores on the property. This raises a bunch of land tenure issues."

Nudo Del Azuay Mountains in Sangay National Park
The Nudo Del Azuay mountains in Sangay National
Park are home to the Andean bear. Photo credit FCT.

Zug says it's not always easy to convince landowners to get on board with conservation. "The fear is they'll have their land taken away or something compromised. Any time you deal with carnivores, you have this conflict issue."

Landowners fear livestock loss and crop damage. "One of the big problems with Andean bears is that they can attack and kill livestock," Zug explains. "If you have five or ten cows and you lose one, you could be losing a good portion of your income and stability." The response tends to be retaliation, Zug says.

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. Those range from instituting a horseback patrol or guard dogs to good land management practices.

"Everything has to take into consideration what the landowner can afford and the behavior of the [Andean bear] species," Zug says. Landowners choose which option best suits them, allowing them to be involved in the process and increasing trust.

"Everything we do is on private properties, so everything is at the permission of the landowner," says Zug. "This has made our relationship with FCT absolutely invaluable because they have wonderful long-term relationships with people."

The work of the FCT and the Carnivore Coexistence Lab has helped landowners to see the benefit in protecting a species so important to Ecuadorian culture and history. "What we're seeing are increasingly educated landowners and communities who are learning about the value of bears," Zug explains.

Andean Bear in Ecuador's Sangay National Park
An Andean bear in Ecuador's Sangay National
Park. Photo credit FCT.

This shift in perception is crucial to Zug's work. She says habitat loss and isolation are the biggest threats to the Andean bear, along with retaliatory killing and lack of knowledge about the species. "Unfortunately, humans are the biggest threat to these bears," says Zug.

The project has gained international attention. In December of 2010 Zug, the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, and Fundacion Cordillera Tropical were recognized by the Rainforest Alliance as the Eco-Initiative of the Month.

"You work by yourselves for so long and you pat each other on the back over little achievements, but to have the outside recognition felt really good," Zug says.

"In a very Nelson Institute way, this project has a human dimension and a broader conservation component, and then it has this nice science component. It also doesn't ignore the fact that if people don't want to save these bears they're not going to be saved, and they're a pretty important part of Ecuadorian culture and the ecosystem."

Jenny Peek is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.

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