Community Based Conservation in Peru

Samantha Sullivan, AIP Graduate Student Miami University & San Diego Zoo Global

This past summer I set off on a remarkable adventure to Batan Grande, Peru to work with Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC) as an intern through my graduate program. I went into my two-week trip unsure of what to expect with only a packing list, literature reviews, and an open mind, and I came home filled with a deeper understanding of conservation education - inspired by the people and hopeful for the future.

I first met Robyn Appleton of SBC in 2015 at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco, CA. There, I sat in on her amazing and passionate talk about the work she has been doing for the past decade in the Northern Andes of Peru. Her presentation was moving, emotional, and inspiring. SBC is committed to the conservation of the spectacled bear within the dry forest habitat of Northern Peru. This happens through scientific research, education and working collaboratively with landowners and rural communities to improve their social and economic well-being through community outreach. I knew right then that I wanted to help her cause. I had been interested in working with an organization dedicated to creating community awareness around a threatened species in their region, and in that moment, I knew exactly where I wanted to be. I introduced myself and spoke with her afterwards to begin the dialogue about our future work together.

My two weeks in Peru were nothing short of incredible; my trip was a humbling experience full of culture, history, communities and physical, mental and social challenges unlike anything I had ever experienced before. From treacherous hiking trails, language barriers, meeting countless school children, pilot testing surveys, to late nights preparing presentations; I was submerged into the small village of Batan Grande and both the wonders and challenges Robyn and her team faced as conservationists in the region. My job was to work with the education team to administer surveys to schools, park rangers, SBC staff, and participants in SBC’s Cocina Mejorada program.  The Cocina Mejorada program provided a focus group of families with more efficient stoves to see if families used less wood and were able to prepare meals quicker. Each day was filled with meeting new people, talking with them about their views regarding the environment, recycling, agriculture, wildlife conservation and learning about the challenges they face daily in both work and home life, as well as, how they feel about sharing the region with the spectacled bear.

Working in this region was not at all what I had expected but was exactly what I needed. My graduate work focuses on working with communities to coexist with the wildlife in their area. Although I’ve had many opportunities here in California to work on projects pertaining to coexistence, this first experience in a foreign country was pivotal moment for me. In Los Angeles, I am the wildlife advisor for Citizens for Los Angeles Wildlife (CLAW) and I work with communities and residents to create and understanding around the wildlife who also live here, and why they are important.  While the ideas and message are similar between organizations, how we live in the US and what we take for granted versus other countries creates quite a different result when speaking about coexistence and the value of nature. I learned the people in this region of Peru value their land and nature, but agriculture is vital for survival and they do not see obvious solutions that would promote coexistence. 

This experience helped me to realize that this community-based conservation work was critical and that the people were interested in learning about ways to coexist, better their livelihoods, and best provide for their family. Many families had not really considered themselves to be connected with wildlife or animals. SBC is working to bridge that gap and create a connection starting with school children and the rescue horses they have on their property. Just starting the discussion got people talking and opened minds. In the short time I was there, the community seemed excited to share their land with the only bear in South America and ready to hear about possible workable solutions that can be mutually beneficial to the community and bear population. This was my defining moment - now more than ever, I know this path is the right path for me.

Over two weeks we collected hundreds of surveys, gave presentations, spoke with community members, attended the opening of an exhibition on everything SBC does within their organization for the bears and for Peru, conducted field research and collected camera trap data. We experienced all that the Rio La Leche watershed had to offer from ancient history at the pyramids, to natural watering holes, to communities built on cultural values and natural beauty as far as the eye could see.

Nearly six months later, what I remember most was the beautiful land and the people who lived there. What I took away from this experience was a new found understanding for how conservation education was carried out in situ - the actions involved in doing the work within the communities. The work is challenging, time consuming, frustrating, and at times can feel a bit hopeless; but when all’s said and done, it is well worth the battle. This experience gave me the confidence to seek out new opportunities and projects with other organizations, such as The Ara Project in Costa Rica, where I will be helping this year to create a community awareness program and ultimately try to save a highly endangered species in the process!