- Laura, an Andean spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), is the first bear to wear a GPS collar in Peru’s Batán Grande Archaeological Complex, an ecosystem offers greater visibility than cloud forests, where the bears typically live.
- Laura and about 50 other bears have been monitored for ten years by the Spectacled Bear Conservation Peru (SBC) after they were discovered in the unique Peruvian dry forest ecosystem.
- Over an area of 15,000 hectares (over 37,000 acres), the SBC program uses camera traps, GPS collars and direct field observation to study the bears.
Laura is now part of the history of Peru. She is an Andean spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the face of the first coin of one sol (equivalent to $0.31) from the Peruvian Endangered Wildlife collection launched in July 2017. Laura is shown laying on a tree in her habitat in the dry forests of Peru – in the Batán Grande Archaeological Complex, Lambayeque region.
It is not just her appearance in the coin collection that makes Laura famous. She is the first bear to wear a GPS collar in this part of Peru, an ecosystem that offers greater visibility than cloud forests.
Laura and about 50 other bears are part of the population that has been monitored for ten years by the Spectacled Bear Conservation Peru (SBC).
The project began when the Canadian researcher Robyn Appleton arrived in Peru in 2006 in search of the Andean bear. Appleton, along with Peruvian Javier Vallejos, who was her guide, found this population of spectacled bears in the dry forests of Batán Grande, an unusual habitat for this species.
“Andean bears inhabit from Venezuela to southern Bolivia, in the humid forest, they live mainly in the fog. But ten years ago we found this small population in a unique ecosystem in the dry forest of Peru,” Appleton said during a Wildlife Conservation Network conference.
A different habitat for the spectacled bear
Renzo Piana, director of science and conservation of SBC Peru, explains that this species lives mainly in areas near the Andes Mountain Range.
“Here in Peru, we have a population that is unique because it inhabits the western slope of the Andes, at lower altitudes than usual, in a dry forest ecosystem that ranges from 150 meters to 1,000 meters above sea level in the basin of the La Leche River. Something which does not happen in any other part of the distribution of the Andean bear.”
Over an area of 15,000 hectares (over 37,000 acres), the SBC’s spectacled bear conservation program uses camera traps, GPS collars and direct observation in the field to study this population of bears.
During the study, they discovered that the bears that live in Batán Grande always return to a few water sources in the area. Camera traps were placed at these sites, explains Piana. “Even though the water sources can be two or three meters, or even smaller, the bears have them mapped and often visit them to drink water, mark their territory and check the state of fertility of the females.”
The researcher explains that, since the beginning of the program, one of the main tasks was to locate these water bodies to place camera traps. It has been almost eight years since they started the monitoring program with data collection taking place every six weeks.
The marks that bears have on their face —each individual has a unique marking— are used to identify them in the photographs taken by the camera traps and track their movement patterns.
“Now we know if there is variation in the spatial occupancy of their territory between males, females and younger individuals,” Piana said. “When monitoring for long periods, as in this program, it is possible to assess population dynamics: how many individuals there are, how it varies over time, how it changes according to seasonality or when the El Niño phenomenon occurs.”
The researcher believes that the population of bears in this area shows the importance of the dry forest of northwestern Peru for the conservation of the species. “There is a marked seasonality in the use of space by animals. During the winter they are found in high altitude areas in the mountains, whereas in the summer they move to lower areas to feed mainly of sapote.”
In this context, the protection of the sapote tree (Colicodendrum scabrida) is also important for the survival of the species, says Piana, since bears feed mainly on the fruit. “The sapote grows in low altitude areas, places very exposed to fragmentation and land trafficking, which is the illegal appropriation and commerce of lands. This high pressure for a land use change puts the availability of this fruit for the bears at risk.”
On May 26, 2016, the Municipality of Pítipo issued an ordinance for the creation of the Batán Grande Archaeological Complex, a measure that has allowed the conservation of the spectacled bear habitat, considering that most of the territory through which this population moves is inside this protected area.
Encounter with the Andean bear
José Vallejos, biological researcher and project coordinator at SBC, says that he joined the project in 2008. His first outing to the field was on August 8 of that year, and he was lucky to see, for the first time, a wild bear. That same year, the first camera traps were installed, 12 in total. “My father Javier and I were walking through the field, looking for bear tracks and exploring the pools of water.”
The following year, in 2009, 40 more camera traps were deployed, both in the water sources and along the trails these animals use. There are currently 60 camera traps installed to monitor the bears.
In 2008, they began using GPS collars. Laura was the first one to try this equipment, and until now there have been seven animals that have worn a collar for satellite tracking.
“Once, we discovered that one of the bears walked 150 kilometers in three days and moved from Batán Grande to Cajamarca,” Vallejos said.
Vallejos also says that this project has involved several members of his family. His younger brother began going out to the field at age 11 to help with the monitoring and the logistic side of deploying the camera traps. That experience captivated him, and now he is a biologist.
Appleton, director of SBC, refers to the Andean bear as a charismatic and funny animal that likes to play and relax. She also said that they spend a lot of time resting during the day due to the high temperatures of the area, which border 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). For that reason, it is easy to see them frolicking in the small lagoons which they frequent.
However, she is concerned about the declining number of bears in Peru and South America in general. It is estimated that there are 20,000 individuals throughout the region and 5,000 in Peru. The species is categorized as Vulnerable according to the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The director of SBC says that the species and its habitat are threatened by land trafficking, hunting, events such as forest fires that have destroyed several camera traps, and the El Niño phenomenon, which in 2017 affected all this territory.
Appleton also points out that in recent years, the organization has been working with the local population conducting school awareness programs on the conservation of the species and the protection of its habitat, as well as conducting projects to generate resources for women in the villages of the region surrounding the conservation area.
Cover photo courtesy of SBC Peru
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 6, 2018.