Ecuador

Duration:  June 5th – October 1st 2004

Organisation:  Fundacion Espiritu del Bosque

What It Is All About:

The Fundacion Espiritu del Bosque organises the only project in the world tracking Andean Bears in the wild.  The research is part of ongoing work to save the Andean Bear, based in the Intag Region of Northern Ecuador.  The purpose of the research is to learn about activity patterns and use of habitat of wild bears.  The information gained will improve future rehabilitation projects both in Ecuador and throughout South America.  Only six wild bears (four females and two males) have been collared with radio telemetry devices so far, but the effort is continuing. 

The loss and fragmentation of the Andean bears' habitat due to human intervention, agricultural expansion and extensive hunting has created small isolated populations of Andean Bears (Tremarctos ornatus).  This process has resulted in a decrease of the heterozygocity and there is a lack of genetic flow.  This may be causing a reduction in the fertility and those populations' degeneration, thus increasing the probability of extinction. These circumstances have caused the species to be included in Appendix I of the CITES and are considered endangered by the Red Book of Mammals of Ecuador. 

Obtaining direct information on the nutrition habits, movements and selection of habitat of the Andean Bear in its natural environment is very difficult, because the bears live in remote areas and are very timid.  The few studies that have been done are based mainly on the analysis of secondary information, such as markings on trees and samples of hair and excrement.

        



Thus, this scientific research project is being conducted by biologist Armando Castellanos, as part of ongoing efforts to expand protected areas and prevent the extinction of the Andean Bear. The primary purpose of this study, as already mentioned, is to determine the use of the habitat, activity patterns and size of home range of the Andean bear.  Therefore, the Fundacion can propose alternatives in the long-term for conservation and the handling of the population of this delicate species in the Intag Region. 

The presence of the research also deters illegal cutting of trees and hunting, and creates sympathy for the bears among the local people. Therefore, volunteers, as well as aiding in the radio tracking and research of these most interesting creatures, also help teach local children both in the basic subjects and in environmental awareness.  In these ways, the Fundacion is equally saving the individual bears and providing some of the scientific basis needed to preserve the biodiversity of the area.

Reflections [7/10/04]:

God, where to start?

Well at one point in my diary I wrote, "I had my childhood in Hong Kong and I grew up in Ecuador." 

It was the people which made the experience what it was - truly worthwhile.  Ecuador, from what I've known and especially after the busy streets of Hong Kong, has the most polite society in the world.  At times it seems you have to greet every person you pass in the street  and ask how they're doing, even if you don't actually know them.  On foot along the road, everyone offers you a lift to wherever you're going.  Despite the extreme machismo any gringa would encounter upon entering Latin America in general, at a dance you can dance with anyone simply for the joy of dancing - no strings attached.  However, in a small area like Intag where everyone knows everyone else, there is clearly an underground of gossip.  Never walk with another by yourself if you don't your intentions to be wrongly assumed;)  The first topic of conversation with any Ecuadorian - chico or chica, in a group or alone - always seems to be your martial status.  Nonetheless, Ecuadorians are extremely friendly and welcoming to any foreigner, always ready to lend a helping hand even to a complete stranger.  Specifically, can't forget Armando, head of the foundation, with his single-minded determination to see the job done, and with the best laugh in the world.  Or for that matter, can't forget Alberto, who must have been the only Ecuadorian who could understand my broken Spanish!  We developed our own mode of communication somehow, our own language;)  He was the local link for us volunteers, our guide for tracking all over the bloomin Ecuadorian wilderness after bears we never saw - good times:D

The other people that made this placement absolutely fabulous were the other gringos, other travelers and even a few 'settlers' or expats.  Dave was certainly one of the prominent.  Although a fellow countryman, a northerner;), practically straight out of uni, he shot off to Intag without any Spanish to work with the bears.  Became fluent within basically 2 months and became the godfather of a child up the road within 3 more.  Wherever I went in the Intag region, towns away, everyone seemed to know Dave.  He's extremely passionate about the work, always makes time when you need a chat, always was able to put a smile on my face and, like the locals, also knows how to throw a good party;D  Another fab person was Fiona, a typical aussie.  She arrived on scene when I did to take the newly vacant volunteer coordinator's position - but it was more like the secretary of the foundation's position.  Absolute star, my much needed girly company in Ecuador, connecting us to civilization & consequently had 'lil goodies tucked away on her fortnightly visits - yum;P  Then of course can't forget my fellow volunteers (plus a few other oddballs) - Scott, Liam, Esther, Moreen, Keyna, Anders, Tony, Chris, Cat, Nat, Hannah, Rachael, Peter, Dom, Dorothy, Jason, Abby, Kirsty, Min, Ian, Phil & Mary.  I know this sounds really cheesy and cliché, but I love you guys - had a ball!

I got more out of the experience than I expected in terms of seeing more of the management and organisation side of things, which I felt, to be honest, took over some more of the tracking side of things.  After the first month, there seemed to be less manpower, which meant trips to the capitol for others, which left me to look after the new volunteers and data.  Now this shouldn't be taken the wrong way - it actually enriched the experience for me and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Tracking wise, very exciting.  Never really saw a bear - saw one in the Santa Martha Animal Rescue Center, a dot in a maize field at the very end of the corn season & very close to seeing a wild one in the forest once (many moving bushes & noises & signs) BUT nothing more...definitely a passive form of research, but it seems like that for biologists all over the Andes - the Spectacled Bear is a very evasive creature!  Nevertheless, felt I was doing proper Discovery Channel type stuff roaming the hills with my radio and antennae;)  Certainly greatly increased my physical (& mental!) stamina with at *least* 2 hours hiking every day.  However, I think the research in general could have been conducted in a more objective fashion, but this was more due to the lack of resources - it didn't help when volunteers (including myself;P) lost a couple of weeks' of data or hijacked a compass etc. in backpacks by mistake upon return to civilization.;)  Nonetheless, felt very privileged to be on the project & I certainly had numerous moments when I just thought - "God, I'm lucky!"  Our office was the magnificent cloud forest in the beautiful and rugged Ecuadorian highlands.

In conclusion, I'm missing Intag to pieces - it was my first real home away from home.  I miss waking up at 5.30 in the morning and sitting watching the sun rise over Mt. Cotacachi on Casa de Osos' front porch with my coffee in hand and Bosque the cat purring like a machine on my lap.  I miss Apeula on its bustling Sunday markets with the mass bells donging at 11.  I miss riding in the back of a comoneter (sp.?!) with a bunch of very uncomfortable cows.  I miss the trips into Otavalo and the fabulous lunches at The Pie Shop.  I miss Mercedes' children from the up the road visits in the afternoon.  I miss trying to remember to lock the loo door to stop the stray dogs' attacks on our tissue bucket in the night.  I miss the expeditions down to Conseulo's house beyond Pucara to collect bread.  I miss the town fiestas every other weekend.  I miss picking moras along the road while tracking.  I  I miss being a local attraction and waving from the gringo house at every vehicle that passes.  I miss the neck-aching, crowded, bumpy bus rides and waiting for what seems like hours on end at La Delicia for the roadworks to let us pass.  I miss the walk up to Casa Pamba with Wispo, our tripod dog, to visit the girls teaching there and then being greeted by every child we pass asking my name & saying 'pleased to meet you' at lightning speed.  I miss the incessant dust.  I miss being attacked by a zillion mosquos no matter what time of the day. I miss preparing for the evening meal and then chatting at the table with the others, sometimes playing cards, before falling asleep - early.:)

© Zoe Demery 2012