The Bear Necessities in Peru

An Andean bear leaves a paw print in the mud.

My native landscape is either flat, low, and soggy, or flat, low, and frozen, depending on the season. (I prefer it frozen.) I’ve wandered a long way from the northern temperate forests and wetlands of my childhood and the mesas and canyons of San Diego, but if I’m going to conduct conservation research on the Andean bear, Peru is a good place to go. In addition to being a diverse country in terms of culture, topography, and climate, Peru is also home to an incredible biodiversity of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. If conservationists are not successful in their efforts, much of this diversity may soon be found nowhere at all.

An Andean bear and her cub in Peru's dry forest.

I first visited Peru in 2007, investigating field sites and collaborators to start a program that would improve our knowledge of Andean bear biology in support of conservation and support institutions and people already working there. Since then, I have worked with collaborators primarily at two sites: in cloud forests in southeast Peru and in dry forests in northwest Peru. These forests are dramatically different from each other, but both are home to the Andean bear.

Andean bears are considered vulnerable to extinction, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and, in places, due to poaching. But we know very little about these animals. Two reasons for our ignorance is that this bear avoids humans when it can, and its cloud forest home creates several challenges to researchers. The topography is rugged, with limited visibility from countless trees, shrubs, and really big ferns. And apparently the bears don’t want to be research subjects. In the past, many Andean bear investigators had to rely on indirect evidence of bear presence, such as feces, remains of their last meal, and footprints. Over the past few years, camera traps have become a valuable tool for the study of Andean bears and other inhabitants of the cloud forest, yet some of our key sources of information are still bear feces, food, and feet.

A pasallo tree shows the results of an encounter with an Andean bear.

Since 2010, I have been working in a habitat that offers more opportunities to gather information on Andean bears: the dry tropical forest. This rare habitat is being lost at a fast rate, and some of the key plants of the dry forest are at risk of extinction. Incredibly, because the dry forest is so open, we can often actually see wild Andean bears going about the business of being wild Andean bears, which allows us to collect behavioral data we could never collect in the cloud forest. To our great surprise, it appears that just a few food sources are important for dry forest bears. The fruits of the sapote tree are large, so it is not too surprising that the bears depend on them. However, the pasallo tree, which is hard wood and without obvious nutritional benefit, attracts the bears during some months of the year, and they expend a lot of energy turning these trees into toothpicks. The more I learn about Andean bears, the more I realize what I don’t know.

I have been reminded of a few things while working on the Andean bear program. Promise no more than you can deliver and deliver on what you promise. Know and admit the limits to your knowledge and your abilities. Treat people with respect. Never mistake education for intelligence or wisdom. And, just like in the old cowboy movies, always shake out your boots before you put them on the morning. It really is better to be safe than sorry.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Missing Camera: The Work of a Bear?

One Response to The Bear Necessities in Peru

  1. Russ, what a wonderful blog post! Could the bears be using the pasallo trees like a cat uses a scratching post? Or maybe there’s grubs inside the tree we can’t see? I guess you would have noticed that… Interesting to “waste” their energy on such a seemingly fruitless activity.

    I like your closing observations too. I’m glad you are doing so much to learn about these mysterious bears.