In Search of the Andean Bear

In September 2013, Nashville Zoo carnivore keeper Kyle Chippy (pictured above) spent a week working with the Andean Bear Foundation in Ecuador. This is his first person account of the experience.

Nashville's AAZK chapter raised $10,000 for the Andean Bear Foundation (ABF) during our annual Wild Impression Animal Art Auction. Almost half of the funds raised were used to purchase equipment for ABF's research program, The Andean Bear Project. The equipment consisted mostly of camera traps - cameras used by researchers and outdoorsmen - to capture high-quality photos and videos of Andean bears in their wild habitat. To power the cameras, nearly $1,000 in batteries and camera memory cards were purchased.

I proposed my trip to Ecuador for two reasons. First, the cost of taxes for shipping items into Ecuador nearly doubles the price of whatever is being shipped. This would significantly cut into the value of the donation being made, and would not necessarily be fair to those who donated their time and money at the art auction. Second, with the arrival of Andean bears at Nashville Zoo in the near future, having experience working with bear experts in the field and spending time in their natural habitat would be an invaluable resource. Zoos are putting more and more emphasis on conservation within in their budgets and outreach plans. By being proactive and getting involved with ABF, Nashville Zoo is setting a great example for other zoos.

I arrived in Quito with plenty of time to adjust to the altitude. I had never been anywhere with such high altitudes and did not know how it would affect my body. The effects were instantly noticeable as I almost completely lost my breath walking up the two flights of stairs to my hotel room. After a few days of shopping around for supplies for the new field research station, I set off on a full one-day journey that involved buses, cabs, a truck ride on a dangerously steep mountain road, and a two-hour hike down, up, and back down a mountain. Finally, I had arrived at the rustic field research station just before dusk and just before I was able to claim my bedroom, gather five blankets and make my bed. Did I mention there was no heat, no hot water, and the lows at night were in the 30's?

During my week at the field station I spent a lot of time hiking. The purpose of these hikes was to look for evidence of bears and, if we were really lucky, maybe see a bear! We started off with short hikes of 2-3 hours, but by the end the week I had spent nearly all of the daylight hours away from the field station. My last hike of the week included a one hour hike back down the mountain with the moon and my headlamp as my guide along the path. I think it's also very important to state that I use the word "path" very lightly, as most of the trails were either pits or barely passable. Some of the trails were made much more navigable when I traveled with a local Ecuadorian and his machete. Although, I did not want to get too close to him - I've just seen too many Friday the 13th movies to be ignorant of the capabilities of the average machete.

Unfortunately, I did not see any bears in the wild but did see plenty of evidence of them. With the help of my volunteer coordinator, Ben, and the expertise and experience of researcher, Andes Laguna, I became pretty skilled at noticing the signs of bears. Whether it was a pile of old, half-eaten bromeliads laying on the trail or bear scratch markings on the trees, it was a clear that the bears have a presence in the forests surrounding the cabin. We even saw some more direct signs of the bears such as their droppings and a very large, intact bear footprint in the mud. Another important species in these forests is the mountain tapir, a relative of Nashville Zoo species, the Baird's tapir. Even more prevalent than bear footprints were tapir prints. There were so many tapir prints along some trails that it looked as if the tapirs themselves had created the trail and we were walking in their footsteps.

The highlight of my trip to the field station was the day we hiked up to nearly 13,000 ft altitude to the Andean paramo. The paramo is the name for the landscape near the mountain peaks. As elevation changes, so does the vegetation - and the tall trees from cloud forests make way for smaller ferns, grasses and shrubs. From this treeless landscape, there is an endless 360-degree view of the forests and mountains. It was breathtaking. We spent some time setting up camera traps in the paramo so that ABF is able to capture some images and video of the bears and learn more about their behavior. These camera traps will need to be regularly checked for photos and videos and the influx of new people in the ABF volunteer program will help with the upkeep of these cameras.

I also visited ABF's Iznachi Bear Sanctuary in Baeza, where they housed 3 orphaned bear cubs. The bears were ready for release and were just waiting on a helicopter to be available to transport them. Helicopters are the best option for relocating bears. It is easier to get them to more remote locations and it eliminates the chance of the bears returning. Since my visit, ABF has officially released all three bears back into the wild!

From my experience and time spent with the folks at ABF, I learned one of the biggest issues that the bears are facing is livestock predation - when a bear will prey on cattle. Livestock are extremely important to local farmers, they are a lifesource and a livelihood. When bears are preying on cattle, it causes conflict between humans and the bears and can unfortunately lead to illegal extermination of the bears. It is the best interest of research groups like ABF to find out why the bears are preying on cattle and find out ways to prevent it. We know that the bears habitat is shrinking, bringing the bears and humans into closer proximity. We also know that the bears historically prey on mountain tapirs, an endangered large black animal that can resemble cattle. Some think that the bears are preying on cattle because there are less tapirs and the cattle resemble tapir closely enough. The bears are incredibly smart and, once they realize they can prey on cattle, will continue to do so.

Andean Bear Foundation still needs help financing their research project. They have 13 of a required 60 camera traps. The biggest problem researchers are facing when trying to learn about these relatively unstudied bears is the lack of funds. Supporting Nashville Zoo helps us support organizations like ABF. With my trip to Ecuador I hope to have established a long and lasting relationship between Nashville Zoo and ABF.

To find out more about the Andean Bear Foundation, visit their website.