Andean Bear Country

Posted at 1:38 pm December 22, 2008 by Russ Van Horn
Looking back at four hours of hiking

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Russ Van Horn has been studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Still Elusive.

By the time you read this I’ll be back in San Diego, trying to stay disciplined enough to practice my Spanish and begin learning a few phrases in Quechua. My Spanish is still weak, but my Quechua is limited to a dozen words, which I probably mispronounce.

During the time I spent in the area above Quince Mil, Peru, I repeatedly heard that every year the people living in the village of Quico have trouble with Andean bears raiding their maize. I’d also heard that the people of that area were much more traditional and conservative than people living closer to the main road. For example, the first, and preferred, language of the people of Quico is Quechua, not Spanish. So, it didn’t seem wise to just show up there before establishing a connection to the community.

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

By late November, we had the personal contacts and the time available to make the trip. It was a beautiful day’s hike from the main road to the village of Quico, but I was very glad that we’d rented a packhorse to carry most of our gear. After spending most of the last few months at below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) elevation, the trail to 4,800 meters (15,800 feet) literally took my breath away!

Another day’s hike took us down into the next valley, below Quico, to a chain of small fields set in primary cloud forest. Once again, there were obvious differences in the vegetation between this forest and the other sites I’ve seen at the same elevation, not very far away. Because the corn in this watershed won’t be ripe until late June, the farmers told us not to expect to find much evidence of bears. However, after only a few hours in the forest above the fields, we found as much evidence of bears as we’ve found in all the other sites we’ve visited!

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

I guess I’d better spend a lot of time at the gym over the next few months, preparing my cardiovascular system for a return visit to Quico. I wonder if I can find some Quechua language audio lessons and multitask my way toward two objectives?

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Peru, but it doesn’t make sense to return as long as the rains are heavy in the south, and they last through March. I’ll post another entry when my travel plans are settled. In the meantime, thank you for reading these ramblings!

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo.

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9 Responses to “Andean Bear Country”

  1. Shirley Sykes says:

    Hi Russ. I’ve been reading all your “ramblings,” as you call them, and have been learning a lot about the Andean Bears and the really hard work you on-site scientists do. Thank you so very much!. One question: is the Andean Bear the same subspecie as the Spectacled Bear? They look very much alike to my uneducated eyes. All best of luck with your Quechua language studies. I look forward to seeing future blogs, perhaps by summer (?).

  2. Russ Van Horn says:

    I’m glad that these blogs have been of interest to you, and I hope they’re more substantive by next summer!

    Yes, the Andean bear and spectacled bear are both the same species, which also has several other names in Spanish and other languages. In fact, in some places this species was traditionally known by different names, depending on what it ate. A few scientists are investigating the conservation implications of regional cultural differences, one aspect of which is what to call the bears.

  3. njr_sd says:

    Hi Russ –

    Exactly what evidence of bear did you find – bear scat, paw prints….?? Any ideas what the bears in this area eat – besides the farmer’s corn when it’s ripe?

    What do you feel was the biggest accomplishment of your trip to Peru?

    –Nancy Robertson

  4. Shirley Sykes says:

    Thanks Russ. I do appreciate the information. It seems that, as a zoophile and volunteer, the more I learn, the more there is to know. Blogs like yours are really helpful!

  5. Joy in Kansas says:

    My family lived in Peru for a year while I was in middle school. I have an affinity for all things Peruvian, so I am really rooting for your efforts with those Andean Bears! For language learning, try Magnum Language Systems ( – they appear to have a Quechua version. I also hear good things about

  6. Pepsi Coke says:

    Great trip! I think you should go on a second.

  7. nancy from michigan says:

    thanks russ for the up-dates on the andean bears! I have read all of your posts and find it most interesting. it sounds like alot of hard work discovering all you can about these elusive bears. I don’t know if i could live and breathe at such high elevations. no wonder you feel like you need to get in shape.

    it makes you wonder how people can live at high altitudes. I guess they are just used to it. I BET THEY DON’T SMOKE! HA HA!!!! KEEP US INFORMED, WE ARE INTERESTED! THANKS.

  8. Russ Van Horn says:

    NJR – One of our research interests is to determine what the bears are eating, other than crops. We found bear hair, bromeliads that were eaten by bear(s), and footprints. We did not find bear scat, which is often used by researchers to identify the diet of bears. Other researchers have dissected scat and found that Andean bears eat a wide range of fruits, and bromeliads, and bamboo. I suspect the scat does not last long in the forests of southeast Peru because of the high levels of humidity and insect activity. When I return there I plan to estimate the “half-life” of bear scat by conducting experiments with feces from dogs, and possibly llamas.

    Nancy, I feel the biggest accomplishment of the trip, and the accomplishment that will have the greatest repercussions, was to begin building a positive reputation among other Andean bear biologists and local people. We’re working in an area that is mostly outside of any park or reserve boundaries, so conservation and conservation research there will depend on the involvement and good will of the local people.

    Joy, thanks for the tips on the language training websites, which I hope to investigate sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for your interest, everyone! I’ll start blogging again when I’ve something to write about, which will probably not be until March.

  9. Renzo Vargas R. says:

    Hello Russ,

    It was a pleasure to see your blog and to see how you show to the people the advance of your work. Definitively, to work with the Andean Bear is a giant challenge in agreement to the integrity of people studying to this species in pro of its conservation. I will be attentive to the advances of your studies since in Bolivia I will also continue working in similar aspects and I hope that in a future we have a new opportunity to exchange knowledge and experiences.

    A great greeting and good luck for when you return.