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A Day of Field Work in the Tropical Andes

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It was still early in our ten hour field day for water to be sloshing inside my right boot, but when I slipped off a moss-covered rock, most of my body narrowly avoided falling into the Dandayacu River, except for my right foot. How did I find myself at 9,000 feet in the Tropical Andes, out of breath and precariously shimmying up a huge boulder in rubber boots with one wet foot?

I had become an assistant Andean bear researcher and for three days I accompanied Fundación Cordillera Tropical field staff through the cloud forests of Sangay National Park to search for the endangered bear species. Scientists at Fundación Cordillera Tropical and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying the Andean bear for the past six years in Sangay, one of the bears’ last refuges in Ecuador. Sangay is one of just a handful of national parks with sufficient high-quality habitat in Ecuador to support the wide-ranging Andean bear. Little bear habitat exists outside of these protected islands.

Given that they are exceptionally rare to observe in the wild, Andean bears are difficult study subjects. In Ecuador, most live in remote cloud forests on steep Andean slopes. Scientists believe that much of the time they occupy tree-top nests where they feed and sleep.

Our field trip formed part of an ongoing project to study the Andean bear in its native habitat in Ecuador’s Sangay National Park and its surrounding buffer zone. The project uses ¨cameras traps¨ to photograph individual bears. These waterproof, high-tech cameras can be mounted on trees and left in the forest for months at a time to take pictures. The cameras have a motion sensor and once activated, they photograph or “trap” all movement in front of their lens.

Lead scientist Becky Zug, candidate for a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses the cameras to capture the Andean bear in a photograph. Her non-invasive study methods cause no harm to the bear and the individual photographs provide an incredible trove of information: hours of peak activity, other species present, individual identification, and even information about seasonal migration. Local non-profit organizations, wildlife advocates and park officials use this information to better focus conservation efforts and strategies.
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We trekked upstream for more than a kilometer in the channel of the Dandayacu, a clear mountain stream, whose dense tree-filled banks left no room for an alternate route. Armando, our local field guide seemed immune to slipping on the moss-covered rocks. I, on the other hand, found myself wedging one foot then another under successive rocks, and using my hands to anchor my upstream movement. Along the route, we stumbled upon several cloud forest secrets: a blaze of yellow Odontoglossum orchids cascading down a tree, a perfectly perched tropical bird known as a trogon, and a common sound from forests the world over — the whine of a distant chain-saw.

The persistent shrieks of a nearby bird disrupted my upstream progress. I threw my head skyward, quizzically, looking for the bird, but eventually located the sound much closer. It was Armando whistling at me from the opposite bank, indicating that I should leave the stream and cut back into the forest. The next section of our route was vertical and unforgiving. My rubber boots slipped as we climbed up the muddy slopes while my lungs never quite filled with oxygen. Overhanging branches caused me to stoop, and I progressed uphill in a hunch-backed position at best. After climbing for another kilometer, we had our first finding: fresh bear scat. There was no doubt that the Andean bear had been here recently.

Ten minutes later, we came upon the first camera trap. It was mounted on a tree fern a meter off the ground and had recorded 1,019 photos since our last visit nearly two months ago. The cameras snap three photographs per second, once triggered, and capture photographs of an amazing diversity of wildlife – bears, foxes, coatis, pumas, small cats, and the occasionally skunk. We, however, wouldn’t know what we captured until we returned to the office.

We changed the camera trap’s batteries and inserted a new memory card and fresh desiccants, preparing to leave the camera for another two months of picture taking. We slipped the camera back into a metal security box and used a padlock to chain it to the tree. Armando explained that on the project’s third day in 2011, one Andean bear ripped half a camera off a tree, leaving the other half padlocked to the trunk. Since then, field technicians have secured the cameras with security boxes in addition to the padlocks. Prior to leaving, we surveyed the site for signs of bear presence. We found no sign in the site itself, but encountered a new fresh scat about 150 meters uphill.

During this day’s trek, we visited four camera traps, traversing more than 400 hectares (~1000 acres) of cloud forest prior to emerging back into the pasture as dusk fell with the full memory cards and used batteries in hand. Each month, field staff visit half of the study area to check on the camera traps, walking across nearly 2,000 (~5000 acres) hectares over a two-week period. The “traps” are located on private property within and bordering Sangay National Park at elevations between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level in unforgivingly steep Andean terrain that is covered with dense cloud forest vegetation. The next morning we would wake up and repeat the process again on a neighboring property.

As one of the longest camera trapping efforts in the high Andes which spans more than 20 consecutive months, the project has encountered many novel challenges. The extremely humid conditions of the Eastern Andean Ridge frequently cause the cameras to malfunction. As Zug relates, about 20% of our equipment has failed during this project due to water damage, and these failures have been a limitation on the scale of our work. Furthermore, curious bears have destroyed several cameras. We expected a 10% rate of equipment failure, but have found that working in the Andes is even rougher on the equipment than expected, commented Zug.

Back in the office, we excitedly downloaded the pictures, anxious to see the results of our first monitoring session of the month. In the first camera, we had photo-captured a bear, a puma, and a bird species known as the Andean Guan, similar to a North American turkey. The other cameras revealed a nocturnal and very small spotted cat (Leopardus spp.) and a new and curious bear. In one series of about 200 photos, the bear proceeded to sniff, lick, and play with the camera. Similar to past sets of photographs, we have numerous blurry shots of black fur, a stray eye every once in a while, and a curious snout.

Our findings to date suggest that private inholdings as well as private property abutting Sangay National Park conserve a population of resident Andean bears. The bears’ long-term conservation in this region will depend on the actions of these private landowners. Fundación Cordillera Tropical remains committed to working one-on-one with landowners to conserve critical private wild lands for Andean bears.

Please remember that your help is critical to our success. If your company is interested in supporting our research to study and protect the Andean bear, please contact us at info (at) cordilleratropical.org. Until next time friends, we leave you with a link to our photos from our field adventure: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.691858700872996.1073741850.166025100123028&type=1

Author Catherine Schloegel is the Executive Director of Fundación Cordillera Tropical and infrequent field assistant.

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