This lazy robot could protect endangered ecosystems 1:11
This story was identified by Call to Earth Guest Editor Erika Cuéllar.
She is a biologist and conservationist, and winner of the Rolex Award.
A bear cub with distinctive yellow circles around its eyes is caught on camera deep in the dry forests of Bolivia's Andes mountains.
Beside him, a glimpse of his mother's shaggy black fur.
For six months, the researchers set up camera traps in a 600 square kilometer area, trying to spot the rare spectacled bear.
But apart from the occasional photo of an indistinguishable furry figure with its head out of shot, the elusive species had avoided the lens.
The photo was a breakthrough for Bolivian conservationist Ximena Vélez-Liendo and her team.
"We felt like we were on the moon, because it wasn't just a bear, it was a breeding population," she says.
"That was one of the happiest times of my life."
This photo of a bear cub, taken with a camera trap on February 9, 2017, marked significant progress for Vélez-Liendo and his team.
Five years later, Vélez-Liendo gathered essential details about the enigmatic creatures and devised a strategy to protect them.
As the only species of bear in South America, the spectacled bear or Andean bear is famous around the world thanks in large part to Paddington bear, the fictional character that hails from "deepest, darkest Peru."
But in reality, populations across the continent are declining.
Fewer than 10,000 spectacled bears remain, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists the species as vulnerable.
In Bolivia, the southernmost country in the world where spectacled bears are found and where Vélez-Liendo's work is focused, it is believed that there are around 3,000 individuals.
The severe drought, as a result of climate change, prompted local farmers to replace agricultural production with cattle ranches, says Vélez-Liendo.
Bears, struggling to find food in their own shrinking habitat, invade this land and sometimes kill livestock, prompting farmers to kill the bears in retaliation.
Deforestation and exploitation of the land for oil and mining contribute to habitat loss, while drought unbalances the ecosystem, bringing the species closer to extinction.
Vélez-Liendo wants to preserve the "majestic" and "charismatic" creatures to which he dedicated the last 20 years of his life.
But his recipe for preservation involves an unusual ingredient: honey.
bears and beekeepers
Spectacled bears get their name from the yellowish-white rings around their eyes that make them look as if they are wearing glasses.
Credit: Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC)
Based in the inter-Andean dry forest of southern Bolivia and funded by Chester Zoo and Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), the project not only monitors the bear population of the region, but also trains local people as beekeepers.
The idea is that by generating a healthy income from honey, it offers an economical alternative to ranching.
"The main threat (to bears) is definitely people," says Velez-Liendo, and "livestock is the main reason people kill bears."
But ranching is not well adapted to highlands and produces small profits at significant environmental cost, requiring 20 times more land, water and resources than lowlands, he adds.
So the team set up community apiaries, where local people could learn and practice beekeeping.
After the first honey harvest, people started to build their own private beehives.
The honey, under the "Valle de Osos" brand, went on sale and the money began to arrive.
There have been three harvests since the beekeeping project began in 2018, producing 2,750 kilograms of honey and almost US$20,000 in income, says Vélez-Liendo, more than double that generated by cattle.
circle of life
The honey label refers to bears, since they are the root of the project, says Vélez-Liendo.
At the same time, the process is teaching locals about the ecosystem and the bear's crucial role in maintaining it: by spreading seeds, the bears help restore forests, which in turn helps secure water supplies.
“People need to see the benefit of protecting bears,” says Vélez-Liendo, and through beekeeping, “we show them that by protecting the bear, they are protecting the forest, and by protecting the forest, they are protecting the bees.” ".
The project was widely recognized as crucial in preserving the species, winning the 2017 Whitley Award for grassroots wildlife conservationists.
Last month, the Whitley Fund for Nature announced it would fund Vélez-Liendo for the next two years as it works to create a "productive protected landscape," a management framework that respects traditional land use while combining restoration and economic activity of a positive nature.
She hopes that by presenting a workable framework, other countries with spectacled bear populations will follow suit.
Conservation efforts are already underway in South America, including in Ecuador, where a bear corridor has been created north of the capital, Quito, and in Peru, where the Society for the Conservation of the Spectacled Bear (SBC) works with communities indigenous people to create private protected areas, as well as offer alternative livelihood programs.
Community engagement is essential in lasting demographic change, agrees Canadian biologist Robyn Appleton, who founded the SBC in 2009. "If you don't have communities on your side, you're not doing conservation at all," she says.
"You could have the last bear in Peru, and it wouldn't matter."
Vélez-Liendo (left) works closely with local communities on the project.
By building relationships with local communities, Appleton says they have successfully reduced the use of slash-and-burn — the clearing of land by burning all the trees and plants on it.
The important message to convey is that protecting the bear also protects people.
"We love bears and we care about wildlife, but we also care about humans," Appleton said.
"For us, it's about protecting a place: protecting humans, protecting wildlife, protecting the ecosystem. They all work together."
Gardeners of the Andes
Spectacled bears play a vital role in the survival of the entire ecosystem, of which not much remains.
Bolivia's dry forests, which flank the eastern Andes with dense brush and scrub, are critically endangered.
According to research by the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, only 6% remain intact.
Primarily vegetarians, spectacled bears feed on fruits, berries, and cacti, moving up to 8 kilometers a day, dispersing seeds within the area as they defecate and generating new growth and biodiversity.
"The bears are the gardeners of the Andes," says Vélez-Liendo.
"In areas where bears have been exterminated, the quality of the forest is extremely poor."
Thanks to the Vélez-Liendo bear program, scientists are now more aware than ever of what other life exists within the ecosystem.
Eight species of feral cats have been sighted at the site, including jaguars and pumas, and there have also been sightings of the critically endangered chinchilla rat.
"Because of all our efforts to protect a single species, we are protecting 31 species of mammals, about 50 species of birds, and 20 species of other amphibians," says Vélez-Liendo.
"By protecting bears we are protecting an entire ecosystem."