Co-Written by Jaz McKibben and Sean McHugh
When it comes to tracking and capturing the Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) on camera, success is dependent upon a wide range of factors; including location, habitat type, elevation, level of human disturbance, time of year, and food availability. These elements must all combine during one moment, leaving the scientists conducting camera studies responsible for understanding the patterns of this elusive species.
In order to run a successful camera trapping study, it is fundamental to use all scientific and local knowledge regarding certain target species. For this reason, we met with community members of San Antonio – individuals who spend large portions of their lives in the forest. During one such meeting, a man named Rosendo sitting in the center of the room quickly distinguished himself from the crowd with his contributions.
“I know where you can find the bears. They come to an area of the forest every October or November when the trees are fruiting.”
We were advised by Rosendo to prepare “at least three cameras” and accompany him to a section of forest where a grove of these fruiting trees is located. After hiking next to a high-gradient stream that produced impressive drops cascading into deep pools, Rosendo excitedly described various features that we would encounter during the hike.
“We are almost to some of the largest trees in the forest!” He held out his arms to both sides, describing the width of the trunk.
Climbing the steep trail had little effect on Rosendo, as he continued to generate conversation about an extensive assortment of topics, ranging from bears and the forest to National Geographic and BBC programs. I attempted to contribute, but my lungs found it difficult to maintain a steady uphill climb and speak at the same time. When we reached the colossal Ulcumano trees that Rosendo had previously mentioned, he did not need to point them out – they spoke for themselves. The three of us stood speechless at the base of a behemoth, whose trunk we could have collectively spread our arms around. Rosendo laughed and held his palm against the tree as he observed our reactions.
“I told you they were big!”
According to Rosendo, the bears did not favor these massive trees, partially due to their size (not ideal for climbing), and also due to their lack of fruit. With the caring nature of a parent and the precise movements of a surgeon, he tended to some injured areas of the tree, cutting out rotten sections with his machete. Then we continued toward the grove that he promised would harbor signs of bear use. Andean Bears typically climb trees in order to reach food sources, such as bromeliads and fruit, preferring the ones that are easiest to climb – trees that sit at a slight angle along gradual slopes. When we arrived at the grove where Rosendo had observed bears exhibiting these behaviors, we immediately spotted signs – deep claw marks on the trunks of the trees.
“Put a camera here and you will capture bears. They climb this tree every year – these are last year’s marks.”
Based on Rosendo’s expertise, we placed three cameras in the surrounding area, feeling as if we were in the presence of the bears themselves. It would have been satisfying to run our fingers over the claw marks, and feel closer to this elusive species that we are seeking, but human scent must be minimized, and I was left to imagine this action. While tracking an animal like the Andean Bear, much is dependent upon environmental factors, local knowledge, and to some degree, being in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, our team is privileged to have a scientific and local expertise, in addition to the drive and desire to capture Tremarctos ornatus on camera. We continue to hope that this combination of factors will work in our favor, and plan on working ceaselessly with individuals such as Rosendo in order to increase our chances and aid in conservation efforts of this unique bear species.
This blog is part of a series of blogs Experiencing the Cloudforest! that we will be sharing weekly on our website to take you more closely to what happens Unveiling the Cloudforest! This series of blogs is created by the wildlife documentary maker Jasmina McKibben who is in the region of Pampa Hermosa, Satipo, Peru working with Sean McHugh in a mammal survey.