Counting Sheep: Andean Bear Conservation in Peru
On a sunny day in northwest Peru, I sat down with the field team working with the Andean bear conservation program. Our goal was to watch domestic sheep. Why? Because it is easier to find and watch sheep than it is to find and watch Andean bears.
Sheep are common here, but it is not easy to see wild Andean bears anywhere, especially in the mountain forests of South America. Gathering systematic, objective data on a species that is readily visible is good practice for scientists. Later, researchers can move on to using binoculars and remote cameras (camera traps) for collecting data for the conservation of these bears and their habitat. Andean, or spectacled, bears are considered vulnerable to extinction due to habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation, and conflict between humans and bears.
It is not easy to see how best to reduce the impact of humans on bear habitat and on the bears themselves, given the growing number of humans, their justifiable desire for economic improvement, and climate change.
We just don’t know enough about the basic ecology and biology of Andean bears to understand what it is that they need to survive and reproduce. One thing we do know is that Andean bears have been an important part of Andean cultures for centuries; the relationships between humans and Andean bears are enduring and complex.
Because humans must be part of conservation solutions, and not just a source of conservation challenges, we work with local community members to better understand the bears and their interactions with each other, with their environment, and with humans. To improve the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of our fieldwork, we train Peruvian students and assistants in research methods, so that they may become scientific champion for the conservation of Andean bears, their habitats, and biodiversity in general.
Simultaneously, we work to improve the captive husbandry and well being of Andean bears, since captive bears are important assets for the conservation of wild bears, and vice versa.
In our fieldwork, we sometimes immobilize bears to place satellite telemetry collars on them, but we primarily use noninvasive methods such as fecal sampling, camera trapping, and direct observations. Yes, I said direct observations. Although wild Andean bears are typically hard to see, they are easier to see in the tropical dry forest, where we collaborate with the Spectacled Bear Society.
Direct observations can be a unique source of information on the behavior of a species, allowing valuable insights on critical questions. However, collecting these data is not as simple as just watching a bear and writing down what it does. What do you write down? How often? Scientists who study animal behavior have learned that without objective standards, systematic protocols, and practice, the data resulting from observational studies are likely to be biased and misleading.
We tend to notice the odd, unexpected, or dramatic. For example, if you watched a bear fall out of a tree, you would be more likely to remember that when you return to camp at the end of the day than if you watched a bear spend 15 minutes sleeping.
So, before watching wild Andean bears to collect data on their behavior, we practice collecting data by observing sheep. Telling someone that you spent the morning watching sheep is not nearly as sexy as telling them that you spent the morning watching a wild bear, but it is an important part of conservation research for Andean bears. Honest!
Russ Van Horn, Ph.D., Scientist, Applied Animal Ecology, Institute for Conservation Research