Camera trap monitoring in The Great Bear Landscape has given us never-before-seen insights into the lives of Andean bears: from courtship, to parenthood, to conflict. Take a look at some of the best we’ve seen.
Among the heights of Tarija, Bolivia, you can find the Great Bear Landscape.
Here, some of the last remaining inter-Andean dry forest holds an entirely unique ecosystem tucked away amongst the cliffs and crags, as well as a number of rural human communities.
The project’s original goal, to find out if a population of Andean bears was alive in the region, has yielded incredible success through a camera trapping initiative. A record of 46 individual bears, including multiple cubs, has since been developed. The footage has given us insights of incredible conservation value, as well as stories both light-hearted and serious.
Documenting Andean Bear Cubs
Without doubt, one of the greatest celebrations in this conservation project is the first sign of a new cub caught on camera. Prior to the start of the Andean Bear Project, we had no idea if any Andean bears were living in this part of Bolivia whatsoever, never mind a breeding population producing young offspring.
Since 2019 we’ve seen seven individual cubs! Among these seven are a single pair of twins, whose playful activities and first weeks were captured by the project’s cameras in 2021.
At this stage the cubs were still tiny. At just a few months old they’re already covered in fur and bounding with energy. Adult behaviour in large, solitary carnivores depends on learning in their early years, so play as a youngster is crucial for their survival as an adult.
The videos we see of cubs “playing” by climbing trees, running about, and playing with our camera traps not only encourages us that we’re seeing well-fed cubs – it’s also a great indicator for the future of the population.
Illustrating the vastness of this landscape, the twins and mum were next recorded an entire year later. This time they were significantly larger in size and showed inquisitive behaviour towards the camera and their surroundings. The project has recorded bears up to two and a half years old still wandering with mum in the past, so it’s likely the twins will remain together for a small time yet.
All cubs are inquisitive by nature. With an immensely powerful sense of smell, their exploration of the world around them is often guided by their nose. Many camera trap clips open to the snuffle of curious cubs attempting to figure out what it is they’ve found! They never dawdle for too long however, or they risk being left behind by mum.
Mum is the only playmate around for any energetic cubs without a sibling. With play so important for development, recordings of mothers and cubs playing together are abundant.
Bear Courtship & Territoriality
The secretive behaviours of Andean bear courtship are still somewhat a mystery. Most of what we do know is from documenting their behaviour across zoos that participate in global breeding programmes for the species, including here at Chester.
These camera trap clips are some of the only ones to document Andean bear courtship and mating in the wild. Just as we see in breeding programmes, a paired male and female will generally accompany each other for a period lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks, during which they’ll mate multiple times.
Courtship and mating itself is an incredibly vocal affair. This next clip records an extraordinary range of vocalisations from the pair. Following on from this is new footage of a mating attempt. These rare and highly valuable clips are essential in helping us understand the bear’s social dynamics for their conservation.
Surrounding all of this courtship behaviour is the broader territorial signalling behaviour of bears in this forest landscape. As mentioned above, Andean bears possess a truly potent sense of smell, and like many other animals leave behind signs of their presence to alert both potential mates and rivals.
Sometimes this marking takes the form of rubbing against trees in the classically famous ‘backscratcher’ pose. On other occasions cameras have captured bears adopting a ‘sumo’ walking stance as they leave a urine trail behind them.
The Andean Bear Conflict Story
Fascinating footage of behaviour and life aside, it’s important to remember this is a conservation project with multiple challenges.
For the most part, what threatens these bears is deforestation and the pressure on the upland forest caused by cattle farming. These are issues we’re supporting our regional conservation partner to address. But, on occasion, bears face the threat of shooting for the purposes of poaching, or in retaliation to the perceived threat that bears pose to livestock.
The clips below show the reality of this. The bear spotted by the cameras in 2019 is a large male. Clear on his shoulder is a large gunshot wound, still actively bleeding among a bald patch. Such a large injury can easily be fatal, and the team thought the bear would be unlikely to survive.
But surprisingly, the bear has since turned up on the project’s cameras in 2020 and again in 2021. He’ll likely show his bald patch for the rest of his life, but seems to be living an ordinary bear life here in the Tarija landscape. A true survivor.