Close encounters in the Andes – Part 1

Once we had made the hike up on the Copal mountain for the first time to see the bears, the hike got easier. Instead of stopping to catch my breath frequently, I could put the focus on viewing birds or enjoy the landscape – although most of the time we put an effort to reach the view point as soon as possible.

To find out how the bears use the land in Copal, I have been sectoring the area. We are also interested in determining the peak activity hours to know more about the bear’s ecology but also for effective research and successful ecotourism.
Therefore we will now try to watch the area from dusk until dawn, frequently scanning the landscape. To do this in a feasible way, we are now going to the viewpoint in Copal to camp overnight to not miss the early and late hours.


My guide Lucas

Carrying a daypack to the viewpoint is not so heavy for most people, as you just bring lunch, binoculars, a poncho and a little bit of water (the less you bring the less you’ll need to drink ;)) However, I am always bringing my camera equipment up – and for good reasons. Not only do I love photography but photographing the bears may help with identifying how big the population inside really is. Are we seeing the same individual all the time or are they different? It has big importance for the research, but the camera equipment adds another 5 kilos at least. However, for camping a lot more equipment will be necessary: tents, sleeping bags, food, kitchen etc.


A juvenile turkey vulture, seen on the way up (Cathartes aura)

I started my ascent with 25 kilos, but after only 100 meters climb I was forced to give up and ask for help from the guide. I gave him food and some water supply. It had recently rained heavily in the mountains, so large lumps of mud would accumulate on the rubber boots, doubling or even tripling the weight of them. But three hours later we were 800 meters up watching for bears. It didn’t take long until we spotted one, fairly close. It was only approximately 300 meters away.


Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) seen from a fairly close distance in Copal

The Andean bears spend most of their time to gather food, which makes sense. They are large bodied and feed mostly on plants which are low in energy and time consuming to eat. It strolled around, and would likely have been visible all day if it wasn’t for all the incoming fog. Clouds in all forms, thickness and shapes would come straight at us. It was changing from clear to fog, and back countless of times. It was truly spectacular! But the bear was for the most part lost in the mist below.


Clouds coming in over Copal mountain


At 6 PM we gave up, and I started cooking for the night. My guide Lukas is a silent type and it doesn’t help that I barely speak any Spanish. We awaited the food in silence. When the food was done I carefully divided the portions to his advantage. He took his plate without a word and entered his tent. Goodnight… I thought to myself.

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