Stories from the Field
Isaac Goldstein, Coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Andean Bear Research and Conservation Program
Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
"People are shocked if, for example, they hear that 100 bears were killed over the course of so many years, but what does it mean? What was the population base? Where were they killed? If we lack basic information and context, we can't measure the real impact of what is happening."
The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also known as the spectacled bear because of the pale patches around its eyes, is the only bear found in South America and the only surviving species of the subfamily Tremarctinae. It is classified as a Vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), since it faces an array of threats that include habitat fragmentation, poaching, expansion of agricultural land, and a general lack of knowledge about its population.
Unlike other bear species, Andean bears are shy and avoid contact with humans. Their range includes Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, but because of their elusiveness and a lack of research, there is little reliable information about their exact distribution. "You can live in a city next to a wilderness area with a population of Andean bears and not know that they are there; at the same time, the problem is that they could also be killed without anyone realizing it," explains Goldstein.
In this interview, Goldstein tells us about WCS Colombia's work over the past five years on the "Study, Monitoring and Conservation of Spectacled Bear Populations in Colombia" project, where his team is filling in the blanks on the Andean bear's status in that country: mapping habitat, calculating how many are left, determining the threats it faces and recommending what needs to be done to save the species. He also explains an ambitious initiative that he has undertaken with Colombia's National Parks System.
Question: Of all the threats the Andean bear faces, why is the lack of information such a problem?
Goldstein: The other threats the species faces, such as habitat loss and hunting, are very serious but at the same time, they are obvious, so we are already working to control them. People are shocked if, for example, they hear that 100 bears were killed over the course of so many years, but what does it mean? What was the population base? Where were they killed? If we lack basic information and context, we can't measure the real impact of what is happening, we don't know if there are hidden threats such as diseases that are affecting them, nor can we take appropriate steps to conserve the species.
Q: WCS-Colombia began work in 2006 with a regional project to conserve the bear in the central Andes of Colombia. What did that project accomplish and how did it contribute to the efforts you've made since then?
Goldstein: With support from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), we selected the Andean bear as an indicator species for landscape and conservation planning in Colombia's Central Andes region.
The challenge was to confirm the bear's presence. The information available on their habitat was so old that it mentioned places that were no longer wilderness areas, and even if we factored in data on how much wilderness remained, we couldn't ensure a reliable estimate of where the bears were. So with help from park rangers and regional corporations, we headed into the field to collect evidence of their presence that we could use to develop a model to determine where the bears were. The data we collected showed that there weren't bears where the literature said there should be, and that there were bears where they said there weren't any.
That initial project opened the doors to everything that has happened since; it was essential for understanding what was going on, or rather, to realize that we didn't know what was going on! It showed us the path that we needed to take and helped us to gain some key allies, namely Colombia's National Parks System and various corporations.
Q: What was the path that you needed to take?
Goldstein: We realized that in order to find out where the Andean bear was, we had to go into the woods and look for it. To do this, we needed an army of trained people, so we decided to invest in people and to build our army. In 2008, we received additional funds from the USFWS to hold workshops and train park guards from 22 national parks where we think bears could be found in monitoring and evaluation techniques.
Q: How did you move from this second project to become part of Colombia's national program for monitoring Andean bear populations in national parks?
Goldstein: The National Parks department was putting together a strategy for monitoring conservation target values within the parks at the same time that we were doing our training. Thanks to the confidence generated by our work together, they asked us to help them establish a national monitoring program for the Andean bear.
Since this was not our area of expertise, we proposed working together on the design of a field experiment that we could test through a pilot project. In 2009, we worked with the National Parks' technical team to develop a monitoring framework, which we tested in the field in 2010 in Chingaza National Park. After that pilot test, the model was adjusted slightly to make it more reliable and we defined the protocols necessary to extend it to the other national parks that might have the species.
Q: How does the monitoring work?
Goldstein: The idea is to collect reliable data on the relative abundance of the bears using evidence of their presence. To do this, we walk through transects of a park collecting signs of their activity; we also use camera traps. At the pilot site, for example, we walked through transects and collected signs of activity for six months before we determined the best places to put the camera traps, which we then used for two months. After that, we process the information we have gathered to see what it tells us about the bear's presence.
Q: Are you doing this in all of Colombia's national parks?
Goldstein: Colombia has seven large "bear landscapes" and our goal is to implement the process in at least one park per landscape between 2012 and 2014. However, it would be ideal to expand it into the 19 other areas where the species' presence has been reported.
Q: So you won't have an initial assessment of the Andean bear's situation until 2014?
Goldstein: Between 2012 and 2014, we'll do the initial sampling, which will allow us to collect enough information to establish a baseline. To be more certain about what is happening with the species, we will need to do a second major monitoring effort in four years, which will generate information that we can compare to the baseline to get an understanding of the species' situation.
Q: What are the principal challenges you face in expanding the program?
Goldstein: Since this is a national initiative, it will require a lot of money and logistical support for the National Parks system, because monitoring is very expensive. For example, each camera trap costs about $400, and in order to obtain a reliable sampling, we need to place at least 80 cameras in every park. Also, as I mentioned, this is going to be a very long process, so we need the parks to assume ownership of it and ensure the stability of its execution.
Q: Are other institutions and donors supporting this initiative?
Goldstein: We haven't gotten a lot of interest because bears aren't a priority for North American funders, who are usually our principal donors, and monitoring projects in general aren't that attractive because they require a big investment of time and money and you have to wait a long time for the results. Currently, conservation funding is more focused on social areas such as community work and environmental education. We are consequently seeking donations elsewhere. It is important to note the significant support that the National Parks System has given the project through the use of vehicles, gasoline, food, personnel, equipment, and more.
Q: What to you hope to achieve with this project?
Goldstein: The monitoring will provide reliable statistics that will allow us to be certain of whether or not the Andean bear population is growing or shrinking, information that we can use to define what conservation actions should be implemented. There are other very significant parallel results. For example, because the monitoring methodology covers extensive areas, it requires park rangers to leave their established surveillance routes and walk through areas of the park where they can see what is happening with other species. There is also a process of empowerment, since those rangers are realizing they can undertake sophisticated projects and that they don't need to wait for outsiders to come and study their parks. They are becoming active players and are generating information.
Q: As you reach the halfway point in this process, what do you feel you've accomplished?
Goldstein: It has been a growing process for all of us. The National Parks staff is proud because they designed the monitoring system themselves; they now think, "We can do it!" The rangers are more independent and have assumed ownership of the methodology and the knowledge it generates. We are providing society with a tool for discussing and lobbying for conservation actions that are needed. And we have given the Andean bear an identity - since he has been photographed and studied, he's no longer the "virtual" subject he was when we began. For us at WCS, we will consider our work successful when we verify that the process is functioning on its own, and we'll be done when the National Parks System is using the methodology autonomously.
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