From the central highlands of Quito, across the Andes Mountains, down into Ecuador's Amazon basin, a group of teen volunteers from Oakland, California, ventured into the heart of South America. They traveled with a purpose: to experience the fascinating reality of being a field scientist and see if they have what it takes to be one.
These young leaders make up a group at the Oakland Zoo called Teen Wild Guides that dedicates its time to teaching the public about animals and conservation. Each summer, the group chooses a program to get involved in, looking to have fun but also to advance their educational and career pursuits.
While educating the public and shadowing keepers at the zoo can be educational, the teens needed to take a bigger leap into conservation and wanted to experience the process of doing research in the field on wild animals - a much more difficult prospect. And with EPI's Andes to Amazon Ecology program in Ecuador, these students got their wish.
After the long flight from California, the Teen Wild Guides made their way into the Páramo, a remote sub-alpine tundra of the Andes where rare mammals still dwell. Here, in the small town of Papallacta, the Guides met EPI science partner and Andean bear biologist, Armando Castellanos of the Andean Bear Foundation. Armando has been researching Andean bears since 1995, and because of his expertise, he is frequently consulted by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment on conservation and management policy.
With Armando as their lead researcher, the group was ready to begin field work: tracking and monitoring Andean spectacled bears and mountain tapirs using radio telemetry. Andean bears are shy, peaceful animals and are the only surviving bear species native to South America. Once widespread throughout the Tropical Andes, human encroachment for agriculture, mining, and oil exploration – along with climate change – has reduced the bears' habitat and increased human-bear conflict. The species is considered vulnerable by IUCN, and predictions indicate that up to 30% of their remaining habitat will disappear by 2100.
The students used high-frequency radio telemetry to track bears that the Andean Bear Foundation had collared. Telemetry allows researchers to track individual animals from a distance, and once located, the teens watched the animals move naturally through the landscape through spotting scopes, recording data on their habits, location, and facial markings, which act like a fingerprint for each bear - no two being alike.
This baseline data helps to gather knowledge about these species in the wild. With current information on bear populations and movement patterns, the Andean Bear Foundation will be able to suggest better management practices for the species in Ecuador and other countries where the spectacled bear still lives. It is EPI's hope that the data students collect will help save the species from extinction, and that the hands-on science experience will educate locals and visitors alike, reducing negative human/bear interactions and creating a passion for the species and its habitat that will protect it for generations to come.
Raina Jasuja is one Teen Wild Guide who is considering a career as a field biologist.
"Doing actual field science was really eye-opening for me. After watching countless documentaries, doing research projects in school and so much more, it was exciting to finally be a part of the action. I learned so many things ranging from the effects of deforestation, how to use radio telemetry equipment, to how important it is to unplug. The trip to Ecuador solidified my desires to work with wild animals and the environment, and gave me so much to talk about for college essays."
The teen's experience in Ecuador last summer stayed with them for months, as did the experience of how difficult it is to study and try to save the Andean bear with very little funding to support the few researchers attempting to do it. So, back at home, the group came up with a plan - an adorable plan. They spent the next few months painting faces at the zoo and telling visitors about their experiences in Ecuador. In total, they raised $1,112 for Armando and the Andean Bear Foundation to save this incredible species from going extinct.
Perhaps more significantly, the stories of what they learned about conservation will travel with them for a lifetime, into their careers and their families and communities, influencing everything they do, making them the next generation of conservation leaders.
“Becoming aware of our own impacts on other parts of the world is a first step in changing the way we act. Venturing out on this trip encouraged us to spread the knowledge we gained and advocate for friendlier relationships with wildlife and the environment.”
- Laura, Teen Wild Guide
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