“How was your trip to Peru?” everyone and their mother asked me upon my return (see post, Assignment: Peru and Its Bears). I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to distill the trip down to one or two sentences, so I just tell everyone “It was amazing” (which it was). Though it was my first time in Peru, it was not my first time in a Spanish-speaking country, nor my first time devising plans with people I’ve never met, nor my first time explaining scientific concepts to a non-scientist. But it was really, really cool, if you don’t mind me saying so.
During this trip to Peru, I had conversations with children and adults about their thoughts on the nearby wildlife, items of importance in their daily lives, areas in which they would like assistance, and their present understanding of protected areas. I conducted 1,152 interviews and surveys with children, while visiting 11 primary and secondary schools, and speaking with another 111 adults in the communities. I might have had two English conversations the entire time I was there. I ate, slept, played, conversed, relaxed, danced, researched, and learned with the field team, their family, and their friends. They care deeply about the project at hand and have an amazing respect for the forest and the wildlife it contains.
The coolest part is that the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Society is comprised of locals, and the community trusts them. I’m slowly working on earning the trust of the people at the Center, and I hope they can help me earn the trust of the community. One such “trust-building exercise” consists of me constantly asking for the Spanish equivalent of a word. I have never used Spanish in a professional or scientific capacity before, and there is a whole new set of vocabulary that I must learn. Como se dice… ? and Que es la palabra para…? have become well-worn phrases. I can now say with certainty, in Spanish, que el silvestre del bosque seco necesita nuestra ayuda (that the dry forest needs our help!).
Being that it was the dry season, and I was in a dry forest, you can only imagine that it was not very wet. The small amount of water people subsist on in this area during this time is quite incredible. But what was most apparent about the communities in Rio La Leche is that they are very receptive to learning about and protecting the forest. While they are a bit disengaged from the wildlife and are focused instead on agriculture and immediate survival (not at all shocking, given the prevalence of poverty locally), they do have incredible knowledge and appreciation for what the forest provides them, from medicine and food to oxygen and construction materials. I am optimistic that local knowledge and their receptivity to new ideas will combine to help ensure the success of our Andean bear conservation project.
I am now back in San Diego working on the myriad of projects that I want to develop in collaboration with these communities. This list includes seminars and discussions, teacher-training workshops, training citizen scientists for data collection, festivals celebrating the forest, field trips with school children and adults into the forest, and introducing solar cookers as an alternative method of cooking. Many believe the foundation of conserving wildlife is working with local communities. They provide us with something extremely valuable—local knowledge—and they are the future stewards of the land. In other words, if the locals don’t do it, it’s probably not gonna happen. That’s why, to me, this is well worth being bitten by chupasangres, giving up hot showers, and being honored with the nicknames La Grande and La Gringa.
Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.