What is the best way to conserve biodiversity in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains?

Start with the bears. 

Ecological Corridor to Save Andean Bears

March 16, 2015


What is the best way to conserve biodiversity in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains?

Start with the bears.

20150309-AndeanBears-Bear-500x333.jpgCloseup of Andean bear (full-size image)

Ecuador’s mountain forests are a hotspot of rich biodiversity, but many species are threatened by increasing deforestation and fragmentation. Now, an ACSF-funded research team is joining local efforts to help design a socio-ecological corridor that could help save endangered, threatened, and endemic species in the country’s Andes region. The team is led by Angela Fuller, assistant professor in Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources.

In 2013, the Quito municipal district’s secretary of the environment established an ecological corridor and conservation program for the endangered Andean bear. Easily recognized by its distinctive facial markings, the Andean bear—also known as the spectacled bear—is considered an “umbrella species,” with spatial requirements and habitat needs similar to other threatened mammals in the region, such as jaguars, pumas, margays, and ocelots, as well as numerous endemic bird and amphibian species.

20150309-AndeanBears-researchers-500x375.jpgA research team led by Angela Fuller visits a cloud forest in Ecuador. From left to right: Rich Bernstein (Computing and Information Science), Chris Wood (Lab of Ornithology), Santiago Molina (Ecuador), Carla Gomes (Computer and Information Science), Angela Fuller (Natural Resources), Andy Royle (USGS – Patuxent Wildlife Research Center), Jeff Mecham (Ecuador), Greg Poe (Applied Economics and Management).

Fuller’s team is providing science support to the local effort to help expand the designated ecological corridor in Quito to connect with the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve to the north and the Illinizas Ecological Reserve to the south. Taken together, the entire area could extend up to 200 kilometers along the western range of the Andes. The exact size and location of the corridor will depend on a number of key issues: connection of existing reserves within the potential corridor, biodiversity, sustainability, economic stability of local communities, and social acceptability.

“The optimal design of this corridor is a large collaborative effort that would integrate the ecological, social, and economic concerns within the region,” Fuller said.

In addition to conserving biodiversity, the project will also address ways the corridor could positively impact the livelihoods of the surrounding communities by exploring financial incentives and productive alternatives for landholders to conserve and reforest their land. Options include payment for ecosystem services, conservation easements, agroforestry, shade-grown coffee, and ecotourism. Many of these have already been initiated and provide a strong basis for further development.

“Local communities still need to engage in activities that provide income,” Fuller said. “There are many creative ways we can think about activities that are compatible with conservation, while still providing income.”

Undertaking such a multifaceted project requires an interdisciplinary approach that is reflected in the diversity of Fuller’s team, which includes Carla Gomes, professor of computer science; Jim Lassoie, professor of natural resources; economist Greg Poe, who specializes in non-market valuation and environmental policy; and Andy Royle, a research statistician with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The Cornell team is helping to design the corridor by first estimating the number of Andean bears and learning more about their movements and resource use. The team is working with University of San Francisco de Quito researcher and Andean bear expert Santiago Molina, who has set “camera traps” at various sites throughout the mountains. Spatial models will be used to estimate bear density and landscape connectivity for the potential corridor.

“We’re going to let the bears tell us what the connectivity is,” Fuller said.

In the near future, the researchers will begin adding other components to the project, such as metrics related to endemic bird species and possibly even rare orchids. For this work, the team will be collaborating with the Lab of Ornithology’s Amanda Rodewald, director of conservation science, and Chris Wood, eBird project manager.

The team is also collaborating with social scientist Carlos Larrea from the University of Andina Simón Bolívar, as well as local conservation groups, surrounding communities and parishes, and the secretary of the environment of the Quito municipal district.

In January, Fuller and her team traveled to Ecuador for a week to begin meeting with project partners and local stakeholders. The team ventured into the cloud forests with Molina, who coordinates the natural corridor and conservation program for the Andean bear, and they got a firsthand look at the challenges of studying the species.

“It’s very time-intensive to do work in this area,” Fuller said, “because of the high elevation mountains, rugged terrain, and limited trail and road access. You can place a trail camera on top of a mountain ridge, but it will take you an entire day to go check on it.”

Currently funded by a $130,000 Academic Venture Fund grant from the Atkinson Center, the team hopes to return to Ecuador in the early summer. To undertake the research needed to design such a socio-ecological corridor, additional grant funding over an extended time period will be needed. For now, the team is working with its Ecuadorean partners to understand the various ecological, social, and economic issues at play and turn them into objectives that can be quantified.

Fuller cautions the entire process could take years, maybe even a decade. While Fuller was able to survey the bears’ habitat during her recent visit, she did not get a glimpse of any bears.

“They’re difficult to see,” she explained. “And they are an endangered species—there are so few of them.”

David Nutt is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.