Home Animal Research Ximena Velez-Liendo is saving Andean bears with honey

Ximena Velez-Liendo is saving Andean bears with honey

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Eight individuals wearing beekeepers suit are surrounding two bee-hive boxes as they stand against a mountainous background. One of the people are holding a bee hive frame covered in bees, and everyone else seem to be paying attention to the frame.

In 1998, at the age of 22, conservation biologist Ximena Velez-Liendo came face-to-face with South America’s largest carnivore on her first day of field research in Bolivia. Her life changed forever when she turned around to see “this beautiful, amazing bear coming out of the forest,” Velez-Liendo says. “It was like love at first sight.” She thought in that moment: “If I can do anything for you, I’ll do it.”

Also known as spectacled bears, Andean bears are easily recognized by the ring of pale fur that often encircles one or both eyes. Bolivia is home to about 3,000 adult bears, or roughly one-third of the world’s total Andean bears, whose range arcs through five countries along the western edge of South America. Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, the species (Tremarctos ornatus) suffers mainly from habitat loss and conflicts with humans, who sometimes kill the bears in retaliation when bears raid crops or hunt livestock.

But while the bears can look intimidating (adults weigh up to 200 kilograms), Velez-Liendo says they prefer to grind through plants rather than meat with their powerful jaw muscles. Though Andean bears belong to the order Carnivora and are “absolutely capable” of hunting meat, they have, like many other bears, an omnivorous diet.

When Velez-Liendo first committed to helping the bears, no one knew how many lived in her home country of Bolivia or where they roamed. She answered those questions with a countrywide assessment that estimated the population and identified where the bears can access food, shelter and water. Her analyses also pinpointed Bolivia’s southern dry forests as the place where the bears face the biggest threats from humans. So she decided to put her data into action: Velez-Liendo started asking locals how she could help them protect this keystone species.

Velez-Liendo explains how protecting the Andean bear, depicted in this artwork, benefits the entire forest ecosystem to farmers in the small community of San Lorencito, Bolivia.Andean Carnivore Conservation Program

Velez-Liendo is a “renowned Andean bear expert” and an award-winning conservationist, says John Hechtel, president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. She is a cochair of the Andean Bear Expert Team for the IUCN, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, a conservation fellow at Chester Zoo in Cheshire, England, and director of the Andean Carnivore Conservation Program in Bolivia. In addition to her strong skills as a biologist and spatial analyst, Velez-Liendo also “genuinely cares about the well-being of the environment … and the local people” Hechtel says, which makes her “a really effective advocate for new, creative approaches to bear conservation.”

Thanks to Velez-Liendo’s work, Andean bears went from nearly extinct in the southernmost part of their range to healthy and recovering. Her population and habitat assessments now inform global, regional and local efforts to conserve Bolivia’s bear.

From gorillas to bears

Velez-Liendo always knew she wanted to work with animals. Her earliest memories are of playing in the lowland forests near her village in southeastern Bolivia as a child — “in bare feet, just poking insects or crossing the river.” When her family moved to Oruro, a city in the highlands at just over 3,700 meters elevation, she took to chasing reptiles, continuing to foster her “appreciation of nature,” she says. She planned to attend veterinary school until a friend introduced her to biology as a career path. While earning her undergraduate degree from Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba, Velez-Liendo had her heart set on studying gorillas in Rwanda — until that fateful day she met her first bear in Carrasco National Park.

An Andean bear captured by one of the camera traps set by Velez-Liendo in the dry forests of southern Bolivia.Andean Carnivore Conservation Program

She decided to learn geographic analysis and mapping skills and, as part of her master’s research at the University of Leicester in England, she used these tools to analyze what was causing deforestation around Carrasco National Park. She linked habitat destruction in the region to a boom in coca cultivation following the closing of mines in the highlands along with the completion of a new road connecting the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

Velez-Liendo then spent almost three years “traveling the entire eastern slope of the Bolivian Andes” to produce the first — and still only — national assessment of Andean bears as part of her Ph.D. in biology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. This meant knocking on doors in rural communities asking people if they had seen any bears, then verifying anecdotal evidence in the field. At each spot where a sighting was reported, she searched for bear signs, particularly looking for flowering plants that had been munched by the charismatic mammals. She then identified the best places to invest in protecting or restoring bear habitat by relying on habitat models, landscape connectivity analysis and human expansion models. A maximum population of 3,165 adult bears occupy 13 key chunks of habitat covering 21,113 square kilometers in Bolivia, according to two studies published by Velez-Liendo in Ursus in 2013 and 2014.

She zeroed in on the dry forested valleys of Tarija, a region in southern Bolivia that borders Argentina, as the best habitat for bears outside protected parks. Only 6 percent of the Andes’ original dry forest is left, scattered in a few patches in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It’s home to monkeys, foxes, birds and a half-dozen wild cat species, along with the Andean bear. But the forests have been heavily used by people, says Velez-Liendo. The IUCN was considering listing the bears in Tarija as extinct.

In 2016, Velez-Liendo received a small grant from the Chester Zoo to set up camera traps to see if any bears were still in Tarija. At first “the forest was just empty,” she says. Then in February 2017, a photo of a mother and cub sparked hope. The same day that photo was taken, Velez-Liendo found out she was short-listed for the Whitley Awards, prestigious prizes from the Whitley Fund for Nature that are known among conservationists as the “Green Oscars.” She was one of seven 2017 award winners, which gave her 35,000 British pounds (about $27,000 at the rate in May 2017) in project funding as well as conservation training. This was her “golden ticket” to launch the Andean Carnivore Conservation Program, she says, and focus on helping people coexist with bears and other carnivores.

Helping with honey

Though Tarija’s forests were promising bear habitat, they were also a hot spot for conflicts between people and bears. Local villagers showed Velez-Liendo bear skins hanging in their living rooms, describing how bears were a threat to their livestock and crops. When another community in Tarija showed her a stack of brand-new bee boxes that people didn’t know how to use, she hatched an idea: Could selling honey help save bears?

Training farmers as beekeepers was catching on in other parts of Bolivia as an eco-friendly way to provide reliable income for rural landowners who might otherwise turn to clearing more forest. Velez-Liendo asked Patricia Sanchez, an economist who had experience teaching beekeeping in Bolivia’s highlands, to join the Andean Carnivore Conservation Program in 2017. The program covers 70 percent of the cost of new equipment and trains locals how to care for hives, extract honey and market it for sale. It also supports other types of nature-friendly agricultural practices, like fencing livestock and pruning fruit trees so they don’t attract bears. In exchange, community members agree to protect the forest and not harm Andean bears. Velez-Liendo also trains locals how to collect data and help monitor the ecosystem. More than 100 families were enrolled in the program in 2023.

Patricia Sanchez (left), the livelihoods expert for the Andean Carnivore Conservation Program, displays freshly harvested honeycomb beside Isidro Aguirre, a beekeeper from San Lorencito, Bolivia.Andean Carnivore Conservation Program

“If people don’t see the value of protecting an animal, protecting an ecosystem … then they’re not going to do it,” Velez-Liendo says.

The sale of Valle de Osos–branded honey locally provides beekeeping families with income. Sanchez, who visits each of the participating communities at least twice per month, notes that the beekeeping efforts are an economic development opportunity that can support young people who want to stay in their communities instead of leaving to find a job in the city.

Today, more than 60 Andean bears wander through Tarija’s forests, a remarkable increase over the five bears documented in 2017. By reducing the retaliatory killing of bears, “we managed to basically save this bear population from extinction,” Velez-Liendo says. Having more bears benefits the entire ecosystem in Tarija, since the bears spread seeds that help forests thrive.

Her goal is to replicate Tarija’s model in the Chuquisaca and Cochabamba regions to the north. Engaging more rural communities can provide “stepping stones” of habitat to connect isolated bear populations, she says.

A “bear-ologist” who works with people

Velez-Liendo says all of the bear biologists she knows in Bolivia are women, notable in a country where it’s rare to see a woman driving a car. She jokes that pursuing Andean bears over Bolivia’s rugged terrain “is not for the faint of heart.” Her mentor at the beginning of her career and beyond was Susanna Paisley, the first biologist to put a radio collar on an Andean bear in the wild. Paisley, based in Canterbury, England, says that one of Velez-Liendo’s most impressive achievements is the trust she’s cultivated among people in southern Bolivia’s agricultural communities. Healthy ecosystems are now associated with more economic security in that region, particularly in the face of persistent droughts and climate change.

“There’s a lot of obstacles to this kind of work,” Paisley says. Many remote parts of Bolivia have no infrastructure and “a lot of machismo,” which requires determination to get results. “You’ve got to be a maverick.” She calls Velez-Liendo “a force of nature” with an experimental and collaborative approach.

Velez-Liendo spotted her first Andean bear in Carrasco National Park near Cochabamba, Bolivia during a field research trip in 1998 at age 22.Carola Azurduy

Velez-Liendo says one of her biggest personal challenges was moving from being a “bear-ologist” who wasn’t all that interested in working with people to realizing that people are the solution for saving the animals she loves. “Conservation comes from … the communities that live with this biodiversity,” she says. “I think that’s how conservation is changing: from the hands of biologists to the hands of people.”

The Andean Carnivore Conservation Program recently received a three-year grant from the Chester Zoo. Now that she can take a breather from fundraising to keep the project going, Velez-Liendo plans to focus on publishing results from Tarija. She also wants to write an educational book to help a wider audience understand the bears. “There are so many things bears can teach us, and the first one is to take life easy,” she says. “Just avoid confrontation … and sleep well.”

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