Designing a conservation communication plan for Andean bears

Lindsay Mineo

There’s only one living bear species in all of South America, and we don’t know much about it. Worse, what we think we know might not be completely accurate.

Though Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) are not very well known, there’s a good chance you know one. Did you know Paddington bear is from “darkest Peru”?

Andean bears (sometimes called spectacled bears because the markings around their eyes look like glasses) have similarities to another well-known bear, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Both bears are adapted to eat a mainly herbivorous diet, with giant pandas preferring bamboo and Andean bears enjoying bromeliads and palm trees. These connections to species people already know and love can create familiarity and empathy for Andean bears.

We do know some things about Andean bears, including that their range in the Tropical Andes stretches a thin line from Venezuela to Bolivia, and they’re threatened by habitat loss, climate change, human conflict, and poaching. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure how big their range is or the extent to which these conservation threats affect their populations. Without this knowledge, raising awareness of this species is difficult. And without this awareness we won’t be able to create an effective conservation strategy.

Raising awareness for Andean bears can increase support for the whole region. This was the inspiration for my Independent Study as part of the Advanced Inquiry Program through Project Dragonfly at Miami University and San Diego Zoo Global. I collaborated with Dr. Russ Van Horn, Population Sustainability Scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR), to design a social media campaign to raise awareness of Andean bears. Russ has taken many trips to Peru to study them and has collected thousands of trail camera images and GoPro videos of the bears, their habitats, and other species. I used these images and videos in the social media campaign to raise awareness and empathy for this research. This Independent Study helped create a framework for ongoing Andean bear conservation communication that future researchers can use.

Why use social media? People are increasingly turning to social media for scientific information. Social networking platforms have already played a huge role in how people understand and value wildlife (the giant panda is one such success story). Social media can remind us that we can make a difference in our own backyards and around the world.

Not to mention, we had lots of images and videos that the world needed to see, and who better to share them with than our supporters? Sharing on these platforms allowed people who had never even heard of an Andean bear before to observe their curiosity. At the same time, these interactions can help people share in the frustration (and amusement) of the researchers when, for example, a bear’s back scratching habits had obscured the camera lens.

Personally, I was interested in this Independent Study because I’m hoping AIP will help launch a new career in conservation communication. While I felt confident in my writing skills at the start of this term, I was a social media and image editing novice. Lucky me, I got a crash course in GIF-making, video production, and “micro-blogging” (tweeting).

To create meaningful content, I designed each post to include a method of generating engagement with fans, whether that was clicking a link to a blog post or answering a question in the comments. I monitored each post and responded to comments with encouragement or more information, further enhancing the relationship between San Diego Zoo Global and social media fans.

My Andean bear story started off with a cute GIF of a bear curiously approaching one of the trail cameras. With the help of the San Diego Zoo social media and communications team, I asked fans to guess what kind of bear it is, drawing them in with a game.

In the next post, I shared the answer, a bear photo, and a link to a blog post Russ wrote about them. Some of the posts were a little on the silly side, such as GIFs of a bear rubbing on a camera so that you can’t tell what’s going on, a bear sniffing a camera, and a bear casually following a giant anteater through the forest. These entertaining GIFs had the important job of showing what Andean bears do when people aren’t around, and what little information researchers have to better understand their behavioral ecology.

Finally, I put my video skills to the test by sharing a compilation of Russ’ GoPro footage showing the various habitats Andean bears inhabit. I was proud to see people interact with my posts, liking, sharing, commenting, and enjoying them! The ultimate metric of success is whether people are inspired to take action. That can mean sharing what they’ve learned with others, making a donation, or advocating for Andean bears and their habitats.

While I learned a ton about Andean bears throughout this Independent Study, I also had the chance to work with a scientist at the Institute for Conservation Research. I admit I was intimidated at first, especially when I visited Russ’ office in the giant panda building at the San Diego Zoo.

When we first discussed the project, Russ told me that Andean bears are some of the largest species in their region, and the fact that we know so little about them means we know even less about the smaller species. This stuck with me, and reminded me that I also had an important role to play. Russ has years of scientific knowledge and first-hand accounts of the region and its people, and I was helping make that knowledge more accessible to the general public.

Hopefully this project continues to raise awareness for Andean bears, as well as the many other plant and animal species sharing their habitat.

Be sure to follow the San Diego Zoo Global on Facebook and Twitter to see the Andean bear trail camera images, and all of the other amazing work being done by ICR scientists.

Lindsay Mineo, AIP Graduate Student, Miami University & San Diego Zoo Global