Challenges of Studying a Shy Species
High in the dense mountain forests of South America, the continent’s only bear species eludes researchers with ease. On the steep, remote slopes of the Andes Mountains, sometimes living at altitudes up to 11,000 feet, Andean bears are so elusive that even local residents rarely see them. But one piece of technology is changing that. Our teams are using trail cameras—motion-triggered digital cameras that are mounted to tree trunks—to study the bears. And they’re making surprising discoveries.
The photographs taken by trail cameras allow us to identify individual bears, estimate their age, and learn about their behaviors: what they eat, where they den, and other aspects of their lives. The more we know about this little-studied bear, the better we can protect their habitat and the resources they need to survive and thrive.
Even Small Discoveries Are Important
While reviewing photos and videos taken by trail cameras, the research team learned that Andean bears eat bromeliad plants and sapote fruits. While this may not seem like an exciting discovery, everything we learn about the bears helps us develop plans for their conservation.
Now teams are studying the bears’ elevation preferences. Using trail cameras and GPS, we’ve learned that the bears tend to den at higher elevations and forage at lower ones, and that they have no trouble navigating perilous boulder fields or sheer cliffs. They appear to be very adaptable, but more research is still needed.
Threats to Andean Bears
As global temperatures warm and weather patterns change, the forests of the Andes are changing, too. There is less rainfall now, meaning there’s less water available for the wildlife, people, crops, and livestock who share the region. At the same time, there are more human settlements than ever before, and the demand for water has never been higher. Our teams are researching how Andean bears are being affected by climate change, and whether they’re able to adapt to alterations in resources, environments, and weather patterns.
In addition to climate change, Andean bears are threatened by human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss to roadways, mining, farming, and lumber operations. To foster peaceful coexistence, San Diego Zoo Global partners with communities who share resources with bear populations to develop a balanced approach that accounts for the needs of the bears and the people who live alongside them.
Partnering with Local Communities to Protect Andean Bears
Native to the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, Andean bears are also sometimes known as spectacled bears, because of pale fur markings around their eyes which resemble a pair of glasses. Considered vulnerable to extinction, the Andean bear is also an umbrella species, meaning that conservation programs which protect the bears will indirectly benefit other wildlife in the Andes.
Outreach and education are crucial components of successful conservation efforts. We engage local residents in our research, partner with them in plans for conservation, and provide land management training for local scientists, technicians, and students. We also collaborate with local schools to inspire teachers and students with conversations and projects highlighting conservation. When communities are proud of their natural resources and feel empowered to protect them, they are more likely to do so.