Mayra Parra presses play on her laptop, and the video on the screen comes to life for the Perez family in the town of Abriaquí, Colombia. As a spectacled bear ambles into view, scratching its back against a towering roble tree, the smiles on the faces of three generations of the family quickly burst into laughter.
The camera trap footage was taken a mere 10 minutes’ walk away, in the dense cloud forest that surrounds the family’s modest home. But three years ago, the notion of them reacting with such warmth to the sight of a bear would have been unimaginable. Spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) had long been their sworn enemies, to be hunted and killed with barely a second thought.
The Perez family’s change of heart is testament to the transformation in attitudes toward wildlife in this cluster of rural communities in the Western Cordillera mountains of Colombia’s Antioquia department. Thanks to a small but dedicated group of conservationists, local people have begun to reconcile with the wildlife on their doorstep and forge a new relationship based on coexistence and conservation.
Social workers of the cloud forests
A global biodiversity hotspot, the cloud forests of Colombia’s northern Andes house an extraordinary array of plant and animal species found nowhere else. But the region is also a hotspot for human-wildlife conflict. Rapid expansion of agriculture has destroyed around 75% of the forest, with the remaining ecosystem heavily fragmented. The destruction of forests has thrust rural communities and wildlife into an uneasy relationship that easily spirals into violence whenever subsistence livelihoods are threatened by wildlife.
Things got so bad in the mid-2010s, says local conservationist Juan Quiroz, that a solution “seemed impossible.”
At the same time, Mayra Parra was conducting research in the area as a social science Ph.D. student. Parra reached out to the local government repeatedly about human-wildlife conflict but was met with silence. Across many Colombian departments, government entities responsible for natural resource management, known as Regional Autonomous Corporations (RACs), often turn a blind eye to human-wildlife conflict due to limited coordination, inadequate budgets and poor oversight.
“I couldn’t just ignore the problem, so I decided to do something myself,” Parra says. She began working directly with the communities to find ways to reduce the conflict.
She gathered a group of like-minded student volunteers from Medellín, the Antioquia departmental capital, and they began making frequent and often risky trips into the mountains to visit the villages on the fringes of the cloud forests. Their main goal was to start a dialogue with the communities and develop strategies to address the conflict. Ultimately, their efforts led to the creation of the NGO Techo de Agua, or “Roof of Water,” a collective effort between the communities and Parra’s team, to look for a sustainable solution.
The team wasted no time in finding its first target: the black-and-chestnut eagle (Spizaetus isidori).
A raptor’s redemption
The black-and-chestnut eagle is native to Andean montane forests and is listed as endangered by the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority. Fewer than 1,000 individuals are thought to remain in the wild. The plight of the species is particularly dire in Colombia, where only 160 to 360 eagles survive.
An apex predator, the eagle preys on a variety of birds and small to medium-sized mammals such as agoutis, coatis, monkeys and opossums. However, the raptor’s reign has been usurped by an ever-expanding agricultural frontier that continues to diminish the forest it depends on for survival. Scientists estimate the eagle has lost approximately 60% of its natural habitat in Colombia. Meanwhile, a viable breeding pair requires a minimal area of 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of mature cloud forest. Human overhunting of the eagle’s prey has also reduced its ability to survive, causing it to turn to farmland and prey on chickens.
The conflict between communities and the black-and-chestnut eagle usually intensifies during the raptor’s breeding season, from May to August. During this time, male eagles may hunt chickens to provide for their mates and one to two voracious nestlings. Later in the year, young and inexperienced eagles that have recently flown the nest may also take to plundering poultry.
“There is a lot of fear of eagles in our region,” Quiroz says. “Elderly people say that one of the reasons that these birds were shot in the past was due to beliefs that they snatched away small children. But nowadays, the main reason rural people hate and kill eagles is due to them taking chickens.”
The conservationists’ first challenge arose in the town of Cañasgordas, where a young eagle had taken up residence and become a habitual hen hunter, amid other quarry.
“It carried off most of my chickens, the fighting roosters that I had tied up in the yard, most of the trout from the fish pond, and the chickens and puppy of the neighbors,” says local farmer Heriberto Usaga. “It was causing us so much damage that we planned to shoot it.”
To prevent this, Techo de Agua presented a compelling case for a truce: give us a little more time and we’ll solve this.
They constructed several “mobile” chicken coops to provide an alternative to free-roaming chickens and installed shade cloth over fish ponds to prevent trout theft. To keep the eagle from lingering around the farms, they handed out air horns like those used by spectators at soccer games — a vast improvement over the traditional method of clanging saucepans. Thanks to their efforts, the eagle ceased its raiding, and the locals spared its life.
Word spread quickly, and soon neighboring communities reached out to Techo de Agua to help them deal with their own “problem eagles.” During weekly visits, the team listened to the communities’ concerns and devised solutions that were often as simple as building chicken coops — which locals lacked the resources to do themselves — or distributing air horns. As a result, conflict with the eagles has fallen from a weekly occurrence to a sporadic event every few months across the six communities.
Building on their success, the team began touring local schools and community centers. Through workshops and presentations, they emphasized the importance of the eagle in the delicate food chain of the cloud forest ecosystem.
Environmental education of communities is an essential component in conserving birds of prey, as they’re often misunderstood and negatively perceived, says Marta Curti of U.S.-based nonprofit The Peregrine Fund, which is unaffiliated with Techo de Agua. “It isn’t really about going in there and telling people how and what to think but providing them with factual information and allowing people to form a connection with the species.”
Still, the most effective strategy may be the meaningful inclusion of local people as conservation participants.
“Here in Antioquia and in a lot of areas of Colombia, local people’s experience of conservation is that a researcher arrives, hires some local field assistants, does the research and then leaves and is never seen again,” Quiroz says. To combat this perception, the team works within the communities and emphasizes the role communities play in conservation and research.
Recently the NGO has become a key partner in Custodios de la Aguila (“Custodians of the Eagle”), a coalition of organizations gathering baseline data on black-and-chestnut eagle populations throughout Colombia. Through the partnership, the NGOs are training local people to monitor eagle populations in the Western Cordilleras, identify and protect nesting sites, and handle and treat injured birds.
“The work they are doing with the black-and-chestnut eagle is a really good example of giving local people a voice in decision-making and involving them, which is the most effective way of doing conservation,” Curti says.
Villagers now watch the eagle through binoculars instead of the barrels of loaded shotguns. In Cañasgordas, where Techo de Agua’s efforts first began, the once-reviled raptor is fast becoming a symbol of local pride. This transformation was on full display in 2022 when a massive papier-mâché eagle with outstretched talons and wings was paraded through the town to the sounds of salsa for the annual carnival.
From foe to friend
“They would come at dawn and destroy my maize field. To me, these animals were harmful; they were my enemies,” Tulio Perez says of the spectacled bear, the only bear species native to South America and the largest land carnivore on the continent.
Frustrated by crop-raiding bears that impacted his subsistence and livelihood, Perez says he would shoot the bears that strayed near his property, killing many over the years.
Although a carnivore, spectacled bears eat very little meat. In the wild, they browse mainly on bromeliads, bamboo hearts, palm nuts, and fruits. However, the rampant deforestation and fragmentation of the cloud forests — combined with climate change altering the seasonal distribution of the bear’s typical food sources — has forced the bear to forage perilously close to human communities.
Listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, the species is believed to be at greatest risk of extinction in Colombia due to the rapid expansion of agriculture into the cloud forests. Colombia has a national plan to save the spectacled bear, including measures to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, but its implementation has frequently fallen short. After its success with eagles, Techo de Agua decided to engage locals on bears as well.
Natalia Delgado Velez, the NGO’s bear coordinator, says there needs to be an empathetic approach to local people in such situations. “These are usually subsistence farmers, so when crops are raided, it doesn’t just affect people’s income but also their ability to feed their families,” she says.
These include families like the Perez household, who, after talking with the conservationists and participating in several workshops, began to have a change in perspective toward the spectacled bear.
“I started to think more about it and tried really hard to stop seeing them negatively. It took me a long time, but my ideas changed,” Tulio Perez says. Although such conversations have proven fruitful, Techo de Agua says more concrete efforts are necessary to fully address the root source of the conflict.
Various attempts are being made to tackle the problem, ranging from simple techniques like encouraging villagers to avoid planting crops near the forest, to more creative approaches like using sweaty T-shirts as scarecrows or spreading a concoction of camphor, creolin and urine around the fields to repel the bears. Another method being tested involves installing rat-repelling devices that emit a high-pitched sound upon detecting movement.
“Preventing crop-raiding bears is never going to be easy, because no single method has a 100% success rate,” Velez says. “We just have to keep experimenting through trial and error.”
Techo de Agua has also installed camera traps in the surrounding forest to monitor the bear population. And with little persuasion, the Perez family has joined the conservation effort. The videos have proven to be one of the most valuable tools in changing local perceptions of the spectacled bears, by revealing their individual quirks and personalities.
“I didn’t care about them before; they didn’t seem so important. But after observing them, I understood that they are important for the balance of the ecosystem and that each animal is an individual with a story,” says Daniel Perez, Tulio’s son.
This is an example of “eco-sensibilization,” according to Parra, an approach that “encourages cultivating empathy toward wildlife and the environment.”
Still, coexistence isn’t always easy. The village’s commitment was recently put to the test when a bear killed a pet dog. In that case, fortunately, peace prevailed.
“I couldn’t ever harm or kill a bear again because now after monitoring them and getting to know them, I think of them as old friends,” says Tulio Perez, a testament to a newfound affection for the animals he once despised.
Rhianna Hohbein, a researcher who has studied the challenges of spectacled bear conservation in Colombia, says locals NGOs can play a big role in preventing conflict.
“They usually have a better understanding of the concerns of local people, allowing them to identify and implement programs that fit the local context,” she says. “This means they can respond quickly to problems as they happen and specialize in resolving conflicts in a way that benefits both people and the species.”
While totally eliminating human-bear conflict in the Western Cordilleras may prove impossible, the team’s efforts may lay the groundwork for significantly reducing such conflicts in the future.
However, when it comes to addressing conflict with another “problem” species, things haven’t gone so well.
Pumas and people
Despite the successes achieved in reducing conflict with bears and eagles, Techo de Agua has faced its most formidable challenge yet with the puma (Puma concolor). The big cat, listed as near threatened in Colombia, is despised in many rural communities and persecuted due to perceptions about the risks it poses to human life and its habit of preying on livestock such as cattle and poultry.
Workshops and outreach campaigns have so far met with slow progress in shifting long-held negative views of the feline.
Many local people who have become passionate about the conservation of the eagle and the bear still hate pumas, Velez says.
Ongoing discussions on finding solutions to the conflict have also proven difficult.
According to Velez, there isn’t a silver bullet for reducing puma conflict, which involves a costly combination of many methods, from improvements in livestock management to maintaining habitat corridors.
But despite these formidable challenges, Parra remains both unflappable and hopeful. “What we’ve learned with our work here is that when there is an open dialogue and the inclusion of communities in conservation, everything else naturally falls into place.”
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This article by James Hall was first published by Mongabay.com on 8 June 2023. Lead Image: A spectacled bear. Image by Denis Alexander Torres.
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