Monday, October 20, 2008

Written by Armando Castellanos

Since 1995, we, the Andean Bear Project have rehabilitated and reintroduced 12 Andean Bears (six males and six females) of different ages in various sites of northern Ecuador. The experience we gained from the preliminary attempts demonstrated that the optimum release sites are enormous isolated areas, far from human contact. For our most recent reintroduction efforts, we embarked upon a number of scouting missions, from which we decided on the ‘Hacienda Yanahurco’ for a suitable release site. Hacienda Yanahurco is situated on the eastern slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano, Napo Province. It consists of 24, 750 hectares of terrain, comprising habitats of cloud forest, upper montane forest and paramo (high altitude grassland). In Yanahurco, there are no communities or villages, and the Hacienda is surrounded by three vast protected national areas: Cotopaxi National Park, Antisana Ecological Reserve, Llanganates National Park. It forms part of the great Condor Bio-reserve.

Within Hacienda Yanahurco, in the past three years we have reintroduced five bears (three females and two males). All reintroduced bears have been released with a radio collar, except one female that was equipped with a GPS collar. All five bears have been monitored from the ground and from the air using light aircraft. The reintroduced bears were named Colleen, Leo, Beto, Celine, and Olguita, after people who have significantly aided the bear project in some or many ways in the past. Of all the liberated bears, only Leo was found searching for food in the only building in the area. Sadly for this reason, Leo was considered a ‘problem bear’ as he showed no fear of humans, and we were forced to return him to captivity, to Baños Zoo. The rest of the liberated bears have adapted well to their new home and walk freely through Yanahurco terrain, causing no conflict with humans.

Beto, a male bear we released in July 2006, has been sighted a number of times pursuing livestock. There is no evidence that he has actually killed a cow for consumption, though we have found signs that there are bears killing and eating livestock in this area. I have personally seen bears attacking cows (see photo 1) and we have come across numerous remains of livestock that have been attacked by bears.

Photo 1. A wild Andean Bear (left) preparing to attack livestock in Yanahurco.

Celine is a female bear released in July 2007. She was the first Andean Bear in history to be equipped with a GPS collar. Sadly, due to a fault of the manufacturer, the collar ceased to work within the first few weeks. According to the manufacturer, there was a design fault that allowed water to enter, affecting the electronics of the collar. For this reason, we know little of Celine, more than that she has caused no problems in the few houses in the region. We have a short video of Celines’ release that you can locate through the following link:

Olguita, is a female bear who was rescued in February of 2007, when she was approximately eight months old. She was being exhibited in a guest house in the outskirts of the city of Archidona, in the Napo Province of the Amazon rainforest. After she was brought back to full health, Olguita was taken to our rehabilitation enclosure in Hacienda Yanahurco (3,400 masl) and subsequently rehabilitated in preparation for a return to the wild during the following year. On the 10th of May this year, following a year of rehabilitation, Olguita was released with a radio collar. We decided not to use a GPS collar due to the problems experienced with Celines’ GPS collar. We will continue to use GPS collars following intense testing in conditions of differing habitat, climate, humidity, and forest density.

Colleen is a female Andean bear that was reintroduced to the wild on the 30th October 2005, when she was approximately three years old. She has now been thriving in her new environment for three years, in which time she has been sighted on two different occasions with cubs. On the 22nd August of this year, an Ecuadorian biologist, Patricio Meza Saltos, who was in the Yanahurco area studying the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), took a number of photos of Colleen with her cub. One of these shots portrays Colleen valiantly protecting her offspring from an advancing male (See photo 2). These photos are the only ones of their kind and are conclusive proof that our reintroduction program is proving to be very successful and is meeting the set objectives of reinforcing Andean Bear populations in north eastern Ecuador, and giving captive bears a second opportunity of freedom. Observations like these give us great encouragement to continue our hard work, despite our financial difficulties.

Photo 2. ¨Colleen¨ protecting her cub from a male bear.

In 2009, we hope to release a minimum of two male bears. For one of those we are to obtain a GPS/Satellite collar donated by a collar manufacturer in return for demonstrative analysis on this type of collar in humid mountainous regions. Also the funds for the bears’ rehabilitation are to be kindly donated by an anonymous Ecuadorian family.

In the Intag region of north western Ecuador, we have captured and collared 13 wild Andean Bears (7 females and 6 males) since 2001. The two most recent additions to the study are Frida, a female captured and radio collared in April of around 5 years old. She was the first female bear we have captured to have been lactating. Segundito, a male bear of approximately 3 years old, we captured in July this year. He is the first wild bear in the history of the species to have a GPS collar. This collar, and another that we hope to place on another bear very soon, were donated by ZCOG. I would like to thank on behalf of the project for these collars. Although we initially intended to use the GPS collars only on male bears, due to the large distances that they cover over difficult terrain, we are now realizing that it is also vital to use them with female bears that live in isolated regions with difficult access. Using only radio telemetry, it is very difficult to track them in such areas. Consequently, we require more GPS collars to gain more precise data and understand more on the ecology and behaviour of this species.

In the next year, we will continue to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphan bears. We will continue our compensation program, repaying the poorest farmers for damages caused by wild bears to maize fields during the corn season in the Intag region. We will continue also with our initiative of sponsor a truck to enable children from two poor isolated communities to attend high school for the first time. This scheme has been developed to help prevent human-bear conflict and build community support and involvement in the Andean Bear Project’s conservation efforts.

With our wild bear data on their ranges, ecology and behaviour, we aim to create predictive models of the habitat use of bears in order to predict their movements and attempt to prevent conflict scenarios with humans. With this data, we are hoping to construct models of potential conflict areas, advising farmers where it is most beneficial to plant corn or have cattle with minimal problems.

We also have ready for publication a journal on rehabilitation and reintroduction guidelines of Andean bears, to be used in other South American countries. The reason for this is the high number of orphan bear cubs throughout the continent in countries where bear biologists and wildlife handlers don’t have the skills and knowledge to rehabilitate and to return bears to the wild. We are currently waiting for an organization or zoo to fund its publication.
Finally, I would like to thank so much the volunteers from all over the world that have trusted in and aided our project, for their hard work in data collection and financial contribution that has enabled our project to continue functioning and progressing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Photo Story About Andean Bears

We received this great link to a photo story about the Andean Bear that we thought was worth sharing with you. Check it out:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Unique Spectacle: Andean Bears in the Wild

By: Derek Kverno

In the four years that I’ve lived in Ecuador, I have spent significant time in the habitat of the Andean, or Spectacled, Bear, be it in the cloud forests or the paramo. On occasion I have noted an unusual footprint in a muddy trail that could have been left by a bear, but the promise of actually seeing one has become almost mythical. Sure, there are a few bears in zoos and conservation projects, but who has ever witnessed one in the wild? With the already small population threatened by hunting and habitat destruction, the remaining bears must have retreated to the impenetrable thickets of the Andean slopes, far from any trail or road.

In the last few years I have become an avid birdwatcher, on weekends making excursions from Quito to sites on the western and eastern slopes. Early one Saturday morning I went birding at a well-known site called the Antenas, located at 4000 meters above sea level just inside the Cayambe-Coca Reserve, near the road to Papallacta. It had rained intensely the night before, but this morning was sunny and clear, allowing for stunning views of the nearby glaciered peaks of Antisana, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe.

Despite the snow and ice still on the ground, the birds were already active, and I had a good look at a Red-Rumped Bush-Tyrant while still in my car. There was also a herd of about six White-Tailed Deer grazing near one of the many lagunas in the area; as I drove by, a buck with an impressive pair of antlers gazed at me intently while several does skittered away, their upraised white tails flashing mirror-like in the light.

Once out of the car and attired in wet-weather and birding gear, I was quickly drawn away from a trail by several Carrunculated Caracaras flying low just above a rocky ridge. As so often happens when I’m birding, my attention was then attracted to a Variable Hawk, a Blue-Mantled Thornbill, and a White-Chinned Thistletail in quick succession. After flushing several Andean Snipe on accident, I was already smiling at my good fortune.

Then, while I was following another White-Tailed Deer through the elfin forest in hopes of capturing a striking photograph, I noticed an unusual dark shape in the background. With the aid of my binoculars I was shocked to see a large Spectacled Bear standing on its hind legs and sniffing the air in my direction. I quickly threw myself down in some bushes and tried to maneuver downwind in hopes of more prolonged viewing. Heart racing due to excitement and altitude, I could hardly hold my binoculars still, but the bear soon reappeared in a clearing, this time accompanied by two cubs.

For the next hour, I carefully stalked the bears as they worked their way slowly up a ridge feeding from a variety of plants and occasionally glancing in my direction. They seemed aware but unthreatened by my presence, and I had ample time to photograph and video them in a range of poses. Particularly impressive was the facility with which they navigated the steep and rugged terrain, almost as if they poured over the slopes like water. Also touching was the different way the cubs interacted with the mother, one boldly striking off alone while the other still trying to suckle. Their facial patterns left no doubt as to why they’re referred to as being spectacled, and the visual effect was rather humorous as they lolled about in the grass.

Maybe if there had only been one bear I would have followed it for even longer, almost like a hunter, but somehow watching a family of three bears behaving so intimately together came to feel strangely like voyeurism. I decided not to pursue them over the ridge and returned to watching the much less anthropomorphic birds, even though I knew I’d most likely never see a Spectacled Bear in the wild again.

To share and help make sense of my experience, I’ve been in touch with the Andean Bear Conservation Project, a unique and noble organization based in Ecuador committed to protecting the bear from extinction. Researching the bears’ behavior while tracking their movement using radio equipment, this grass-roots operation depends largely on donations and volunteers to continue its work. If you’re a traveler interested in visiting the habitat of the bears and contributing to their conservation, in addition to perhaps witnessing one in the wild, this is an excellent opportunity. Having already received the gift of seeing the bears in the wild myself, I’ll definitely be volunteering soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Andean Bear Project as seen through the eyes of a Volunteer

My three friends and I joined the Andean Bear Project on the 2nd July 2007 for the duration of a month. We were overjoyed to be located a short distance from the very small and beautiful village of Pucara. The local people were very friendly and welcoming and we volunteers spent some nights playing volleyball and socialising here.

Our accommodation, although simple, was made to feel very homely by Celia our resident cook/cleaner and her adorable children.

We spent the majority of our week days trekking and hiking through the beautifully breathtaking Cloud Rain Forest.

Our guide Alberto (who is one of the kindest people I have ever met), taught us how to use the radio telemetry equipment and gain valuable triangulation techniques. Alberto was also able to show us how the local people used the many different types of flora and fauna for both medicinal and survival purposes, and also provided us with fascinating information on the history of the area and its people.

Listening to the bears along the trails at different stations was very exciting and we came to within 25m of one of the bears, Fiona, but were unable to see her due to the dense vegetation of the forest- nature at its very best!

During a three day camping expedition organised by the project we visited the striking Lagoon Piñan. I have never seen such an untouched part of the world, and without doubt a truly amazing experience- and one not to be missed.

The Andean Bear Project relies exclusively on the money received by its volunteers to cover the bear necessities such as radio GPS collars, rehabilitation, and release costs and at the same time providing local people such as Celia and Alberto with the means to make a living and provide for their families.

Without a constant supply of volunteers this project will sease to exist and the Andean Bears Future whilst uncertain at present will become even more jeopardised in the years to come- no volunteers = no project.

So if you have a love for animals, conservation, and the outdoors you need to look no further for that volunteer position of a lifetime!

With kind thanks to:

Armando & Dolores

: For one of the best experiences of my life.

Lisa Felton 24, UK

First Andean bear tagged with GPS collar

By: Lorena Fernández

It had taken Celine three months to adapt to the páramo -- Ecuadorian high grasslands at over 10,000 feet altitude. She was a young Andean Bear – almost an adult – when Armando Castellanos, director of the Andean Bear Project and brought her to the skirts of the Cotopaxi volcano where she would be released to live in the wild for the first time since she was captured as a cub.

"We cannot wait any longer," Armando said, standing outside her rehabilitation enclosure at the Hacienda Yanahurco on the morning of July 18th. Armando was waiting with veterinarian Leonardo Arias, the financial sponsors of Celine's release, and an Australian camera crew who planned to make the event the pilot a new show called "Extinction Sucks" for a helicopter that was supposed to arrive move Celine about twenty kilometers from the rehabilitation cage for release. Celine had learned how to find and eat all the foods she would encounter in the wild. She knew how to split open the “suro” bamboo to scrape out the edible soft white pulp inside. She recognized the protein available in grubs and worms. She could find the edible bromelias that grew in the branches of the tress in the neighboring forest, and could fill up on the shrubs that were so common on the otherwise barren paramo. She was 110 pounds, healthy, and ready to go.

As minutes passed, then an hour, with no sign of the helicopter, Armando paced. “We need to release her now,” he said. Having reintroduced 15 Andean (Spectacled) bears into the wild, he is familiar with the bell-curve process of adaptation the bears go through. If they are not released on time their chances of survival drop -- they get used to being fed and their instincts dull.

It finally became clear that the helicopter was not going to make it to Yanahurco. Armando and Leonardo conferred, going over options. They could wait and hope for better weather, but the helicopter might not be available by the time the weather cleared up. The alternative was to take her by horseback. This had been done successfully in the past, however, there was an element of risk in keeping the bear has to be tranquilized while she is being moved. Wild bears sometimes respond to drugs in unpredictable ways, and sometimes even die under the tranquilizer. The longer they keep her tranquilized the more dangerous it is for her, and it would take hours to move her by horseback to a remote enough area.

Armando and Leonardo weighed the risks of waiting against the risks of tranquilizer her for hours. Finally they decided they had to move her without any further delay. They improvised a cot made of blankets and poles, which they mounted on a horse. They blindfolded Celine while Leonardo injected her with a mixture of Ketamine and Xylacine, and tied her on the stretcher.

The group of 15 riders began their journey through the mountains, Dr. Arias monitoring Celine, giving her a total of four injections throughout the three hour ride to keep her asleep.

Once inside the highlands' forest on the edge of the paramo, Armando and his group carried Celine to a shaded spot and waited for her to regain consciousness. Smiling faces gathered around the drugged bear as everyone passed camera around and posed, waiting for her to wake up.

Celine moaned away what Leonardo figured was a pretty bad headache. Once she was lucid enough to walk into the forest, the group got back on the horses and said good bye.

Celine has a GPS collar hanging around her neck, which will track her level of activity, motion, temperature and location for two years, giving Armando data so he can further the understanding of Andean bears. After collecting two years of data, Armando will activate a remote release, causing the collar will fall off Celine he can recover it and use it on other animals.

Considering the last female bear released in Yanahurco adapted completely to its new home and has even been seen with a cub, both Armando and Leonardo expect Celine to find Yanahurco a suitable home.