Research in Peru

I am currently working with Andean bears and Yellow-tailed woolly monkeys in the cloud forests of Peru, and here you can read my blog posts about the family’s time in Peru:

Nature’s Fireworks on New Years Eve:

9th of January 2017

I was a tired optimist, sitting in the rain on New Year’s Eve, looking for bears. It was the third day in a row where clouds covered the view from the hill, disabling me from doing anything but cooking food and eating. Every now and then, the landscape below would become clear, lighting new hope. But for the last days, nothing had been seen but a hummingbird that accompanied me for a few minutes by the tent.

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The newly elected president of the village was my guide, and we were passing time by talking down on the president before him.

“He believed we are looking for gold up here”, I explained in halting Spanish.

President Edward laughed and said something that I, unfortunately, couldn’t understand, but it was clear he agreed about the ex-president’s failure.

“Donde! Donde!” (Where! Where!), I continued, gesticulating with my arms. “It is just raining here”.

But he was celebrating New Years down in the village, and a couple of hours I was sitting under the shelter alone, cooking a beetroot stew. The rain had finally stopped and I could almost feel a little bit of sunshine warming my hands. In ten minutes, the fireworks would be lit back home in Europe. I scanned the landscape, and finally, I had a bear for New Years! It was walking up a hill, digging up roots and foraging on plants. I watched the bear until the last rays of sunlight were gone from the valley, and then returned to my cooking. Everything was burnt to ashes, but I didn’t it mind much – it was my second dinner anyway.

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My first New Years Eve dinner

However, the rain fell upon me again quicker than the night. It was cold, and I had nothing else to do than to crawl down into my sleeping bag and study Spanish. I was already looking forward to the next New Years Eve, to celebrate it with Julia and Lima. I missed them.

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The New Years Eve bear – seen 23.55 2016 – 00.20 European time!

I called Julia to talk before I would go to bed. As the first signal came through, the outside of the tent lit up from a quick moment. “Hi Wille,” Julia said on the other end of the line. I held my breath, wondering if someone were standing outside my tent.

“Hi Juli,” I said in a low voice. “I miss you”.

I explained what just had happened. While on the phone I looked out of the tent, rejecting the idea that someone was there. But as I went inside the flash of light came back. But it wasn’t a person, it was lightning.

At first, I was relieved by this insight – a person shining a torch on your tent from the outside while you are all alone on a mountain could have been plagiarized from a horror movie. But on the other hand, sleeping on the top of a bare hill under a thunderstorm is anything but safe.

I had to make a decision whether to walk down to the village or not. Once the storm comes, if it comes, it would be too late. I started packing my sleeping bag and camera, prepared to leave the tent and my other things behind. But then the rain lightened again. I stopped packing and looked at the barometer on my watch. No storm warning had been signaled and based on that I decided to stay. Instead, I started packing my electronics. My camera, the phone, the tripod, the lenses, batteries, the drone. I took it all and dumped it under the shelter 20 meters away to at least be as unlikely to be struck by lightning as possible. Then I laid down in my sleeping bag again to get warm again, and it didn’t take more than seconds to fall asleep.

I woke up with head ache and a sore throat. I couldn’t see a thing in the tent, so it was obviously still night, I reasoned. I had to urgently drink something. “Shit – I must have missed the New Year to call Juli” I thought. I lit my watch. It was 23.59 – there was still time. I called her up and we wished each other, and ourselves, good times.

I wish all of you readers a good New Years as well! Hope it will be a year with lots of wildlife and adventures for all of us!

Fires around our village:

22nd of December 2016

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There has been a long drought in Corosha and this is a really bad combination with the slash-and-burn practices people have here. People use fire to clear areas for new plantages. But every now and then, things go wrong. Almost a whole national park was burning down recently in northern Peru, which has put many species of birds at risk. From us, it is located about 4-5 hours away by car, but it still filled the air in the village full of smoke. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the people in our neighborhood from continuing with the slash and burn, and now the entire hill above us is burnt down as well. It is really sad, as these practices essentially also threatens the yellow-tailed woolly monkey.

It seems that the drought has made the bears keep away from Copal as well, and only one has been seen now for the last 3 weeks. We hope that they come back soon!

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Close Encounters Part 1&2:

Part 1:

12th of December 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Part 2

15th of December 2016

To ensure that I was ready for observations at first light, the alarm rang at 4.40 am. I naturally snoozed another 20 minutes as I was extremely tired from the hike, but it was enough to stand ready before the landscape below was possible to scan. Lucas joined half an hour later, giving me a piece of bread he had for breakfast. The weather was clear today and I was already badly sunburnt since the day before. While I was suffering in the sun, my bottle of sun protection was having a delightful time 800 meters below, enjoying the company of my headlamp. I hate forgetting things…

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Lucas looking for bears in Copal. It is rather cold…

But I was lucky today. Julia joined for the bear observations and brought some vital equipment for another day on the mountain. I continued to scan the landscape and found a bear roaming about a kilometer away. The day passed without any extraordinary activities: Julia went back to spend the afternoon with Lima, I collected data ‘til dawn, then cooked food and Lucas went to bed without a mumble just like the day before.

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I can’t complain about the view, my campsite in Copal is beautifully situated

I had the same procedure with the snoozing the next morning as well, but Lucas joined in immediately this morning. After half an hour he went for a walk but came quickly back, surprisingly excited. I managed to distinguish the words “Oso!” (bear) “Arriba” (above) from the approximately 100 words long sentence. I quickly gathered my equipment and I started to follow Lucas.

The Andean bear became visible at about 200 meters away. It was feeding on thorny aloe-vera-like plants. We walked even closer until we found a position from where we could observe it well. The bear sat down digging the plants up, seemingly unaware of our presence. Then it started to walk straight in our direction.

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The bear eating

It came as close as 80 meters away and continued feeding on the plants, for almost one hour. It was an amazing experience. It started walking sideways along the mountain and came no closer. Just before it disappeared into the bush, the bear gazed straight at me. It had sensed us.

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We returned to the tent, humbled by the experience. From the campsite, we continued to watch the bear, as it had come out on the other side of the forest. I observed the bear moving across the landscape.

I looked up from my binoculars for a moment and noticed a buzzard-eagle (Geranoetus melanoleucos) and an American kestrel (Falco sparverius) (see pictures) chasing each other in the air, at a very close distance. Suddenly the buzzard-eagle changed direction and flew straight at me. It came 50 meters away, then 30 meters, but it continued. It was 20 meters, 10 meters, 5, 4… it spread its wings and directed its claws towards me, as it if was about to catch a prey but changed direction only 3 meters away.

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Partly scared, partly excited I stood and took photos of the giant bird. It looked as if it was going for another charge, but this time it did not come closer than 30 meters. My blood was full of adrenaline, and my pulse had raised. What an experience!

A few hours later, when both the buzzard eagle and the bear were no longer visible, we went down to the village again. For me, to see the two animals at such close distance was an intense, overwhelming experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Macro Photos from Peru

24th of November 2016

Today I’ve taken the time to finally do some macro photography. I rarely feel like I have the energy to carry all the extra gear for macro photos, and while collecting data it is simply not appropriate to look at random bugs. But it gives us the possibility to look into an unknown world which I always appreciate. What is even more exciting in Peru, and especially in cloud forest areas, many of the insects are yet to be described here by science. Also, every now and then it is nice to get out and look at the small things in life and relax. So here are some pics (I wish I could load more but the internet is just tooooo slow):

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A grasshopper hiding in a flower.

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A smiling spider 😉

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Butterfly with transparent wings. Common but unfortunately no clue what it is. Perhaps someone knows?

Bears in the Andes

21st of November 2016

Although the family was struggling with the stomach illness, we were eager to go to the mountain to find bears. We had already canceled our hikes to the mountain twice because of new sicknesses. After waiting for months to start this internship, it was frustrating to lay in bed surrounded by the Andes. But on the fourth day in Corosha, we set off to watch the spectacled bear together with Liz, the project manager.

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The view over the forests after about 1 hours hike.

It is only a two to three-hour hike to get to the best viewpoint for bears on the mountain, but on the other hand, it is a quite steep 800 meters ascend. Unacclimatized and still recovering from the past days, the slopes made it difficult to breathe. The sun was fierce as most of the hike goes through open pastures, but the most difficult part was psychologically. We didn’t really know beforehand if the climb was 100 or a 1000 meters up to view the bears, and the hike was way tougher than expected.

Those of you who followed this blog for some time, knows however that a 3-hour hike shouldn’t break us. I wasn’t close to dying from overheating. And although we did bring too little water and there were plenty of cows around, drinking cow piss didn’t even occur to me. Also, we didn’t have to carry Lima with us like we did on Stewart Island, she was staying home with her new nanny.

After a tough and exhausting hike up, we reached the area where the bears lives called Copal, started our watch. All of us scanned the landscape every now and then. Looking from far away, it is easy to imagine the dark green and shaded shrubs to be a 200 kg giant male. However, usually after a minute or two, their frozen position reveals their true nature.

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Julia looking out for bears in the landscape of Copal. Note the slash-and-burn on the other side of the mountain!

Light rain softly cooled our chins and we put on our rain gear to keep warm. The lunch consisted of rice, cooked bananas and a boiled egg. It all tastes good, but without any sauce it is dry and I had to wash down the food with water.

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Once we got up at a higher elevation, the clouds came in over the highlands. Weather changes quickly.

After only about an hour at the viewpoint, a dark moving spot was seen in the landscape. It was leisurely walking through the marsh, looking at the ground. For me and Julia, it was the first bear ever to see, an amazing experience! Seeing Andean bears is extremely rare – if you are anywhere but here. It is about as difficult to see as it is to see brown bears Sweden, probably harder. Even when living in areas where the bear population is relatively dense in Sweden, which I have done for about six months, seeing one is really difficult. In fact, Andean bears are so difficult to see that there is barely any behavioral study of them in the wild. So for us, this will be a moment to treasure.

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An Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also called spectacled bear, seen from about 700 meters.

Room spider

18th of November 2016

Today we had a huge spider in the room, hiding in the bed.Surprise! It was not the one on the picture, but rather the triple size – too big for me to take a close up photo! However, the chickens didn’t seem to mind. They had a great snack!

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Arriving to Corosha: The village life

15th of November

The morning air was clear and fresh to breathe as we went for our first walk in the village. Hummingbirds were buzzing in the air like giant beetles, but cuter. People greeted us on the street and from their houses. It was nice to finally have arrived at Corosha. The village is surrounded by forested mountain tops, so it doesn’t take long to realize that you are in the Amazonian parts of the Andes.

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A buzzing hummingbird flying in the garden. Not sure which species?

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A bronzy inca (Coeligena coeligena). All the yellow is just pollen! Awesome?

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A hummingbird in the garden, don’t know the species. Help!

We have now gone to the far northern parts of Peru, which is the only place in the world where you can find the yellow-tailed woolly monkey which is one of the species I will work with. On the expense of the environment, we flew to an airport 3-4 hours away to avoid the 20-hour bus trip from Lima with our baby Lima. However, the trip ends up taking the whole day anyway, and we arrived at sundown.

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Forested mountain tops around Corosha.

Village life started out challenging. We all got stomach sick at least once in the first days, and when you wake up in the night from Lima’s spasms when vomiting – you really wonder if you have gone to the right place.

To know which food to give to Lima was also difficult. Babies grow up everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we feel fine about giving Lima anything. Here, everything contains sugar. If you buy milk, without being a detective looking at every bottle’s nutrient values, it is probable that it will be sweet like Coca-Cola. And then you are lucky – as many of them are much sweeter.

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As we are not cooking our own food here, but have an arrangement with the women association in the village, we can’t cook food for Lima ourselves. The food they cook on the other hand isn’t really made for babies, and Lima doesn’t really like it. In the beginning, we had to compromise a lot and give her coke-sweet yogurt for breakfast, just to make sure she gets full. Now we have however found locally fresh (not so sweet) yogurt and wheat-meal for porridge. She goes bananas about the local bananas too, so things have gotten easier once we got to know the place and the people.

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Lima with one of her nannies.

The people we live with have plenty of animals, so every morning Lima is waking up by the chickens, cats, and dogs outside the door, eager to play with them. Although we try to keep them out, chickens come in every now and then to eat some spiders.

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The first period of time, Julia and I have been working with the Andean bear! It’s been exciting, but that is for the next blog post! So long!

Intro to Peru:

11th of November 2016

We have announced through facebook since a while ago that we are going to Peru, and now we have been here for a little time. With no availability to internet, we haven’t really been able to state what we are going to do here. But it is about time!

Peru is home to some of the most unique nature on earth, but it is also amongst the most threatened regions in the world. We will work with three different areas regarding nature protection of Peruvian fauna:, research of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, research of the spectacled bear (also called Andean bear) and resource management with the local communities in the area.

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Lima in Lima, pointing at an Inka statue.

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey is one of the most elusive and rare animals in South America. It was long belived to be extinct, and while it is rediscovered the species is fully reliant on conservation actions for it’s future survival. It’s distribution is limited to the cloud-forest slopes of the Andres in parts of northern part of Peru. Approximatley only 500 individuals are left. I will be taking part in conducting a behavioral study on the YTWM (shortage for Yellow-tailed woolly monkey), examining their vulnerability to stress. To do this study, we will hike into a reserve from Corosha (the village where the family will stay) and camp in the jungle for ca. one week at a time.

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Just on a walk in Lima..

The spectacled bear is not the most endangered, but one of the most difficult animals to see and study of the South American fauna (it is however also threatened). It is therefore one of the hardest species to document and study. However, luckily for me, the surroundings of Corosha is probably the best place in the world to see it. This gives a rare opportunity for Julia and me to study the bear’s behavior which is largely unknown.

Why is it important to study the behavior of animals for the conservation of them? Isn’t it better to put all the focus to mitigate the conflict with humans? The behavior and the ecology of a species is an important (sometimes the most important) ingredient to why a species is threatened and others are not. Why are yellow-tailed woolly monkeys on the brink of extinction while other monkeys aren’t? In order to protect the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, we need to know more about what they are sensitive to. Are they sensitive to human presence? Selective logging? Or can they manage in these habitats? Are there other factors causing the decline?

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Slash and burn from the area.

Last, we will also work with the local communities with land management and environmental education. Slash and burn are used in Peru, just like in many other tropical countries. This method is not only highly invasive to nature, but it is also economically ineffective. This means that there is a good possibility for increased benefits for both nature and local communities. We will try to help to quantify the effects of deforestation in the local region.

And last, we will also try to keep the blog updates, with plenty of nice images! In a few days, the next blog post about our first days in Corosha will be up! This is all for now. So long!

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