Notes from the Field: Mitigating Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a world-renowned leader in animal welfare, and an important convergence between wildlife conservation and animal welfare is the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Far too often, humans perceive wildlife as having negative impacts on their productive activities and security – particularly in the case of large predators – which leads to the regular practice of animals being killed. As the largest predator in Armenia, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffers heavy persecution from intrusions into farmlands and perceived threats to human life. A recent global survey of the human-bear conflict emphasizes the need for investigations into the effectiveness of various approaches to mitigate the conflicts, such as providing compensation for damage to fields and the use of electric fencing to prevent bear intrusions. This is especially true for Armenia, where there is no current plan to alleviate the human-bear conflict, despite its ubiquity. Fortunately, there is great potential in Armenia for compassionate conservation work that mitigates the human-bear conflict and decreases the intances of humans killing bears in retribution.

I recently convened with our partners with the National Academy of Sciences to document the distribution and intensity of this conflict by conducting interviews and installing trail cameras. In early August, I travelled to the Shikahogh State Reserve in southern Armenia and the Vayats Dzor region in central Armenia. Our team connected with reserve officials, village leaders and landowners, and documented a great deal of evidence of this conflict including damage to orchards, fields and beehives – most interviewees indicated an increase in conflict over the last several years. To verify the presence of bears, we set trail cameras in the Shikahogh Reserve and adjacent villages as well as in the villages of Vayats Dzor.

We also gathered data on other wildlife in the area. For example, at one of the sites in the Vayats Dzor region, we heard reports of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra); the camera we set in this area will take pictures of both bears and otters. Otters are endangered in Armenia and one of the threats comes from hunters mistaking otters for introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and other wildlife. There is potential for us to implement an education program that would educate hunters about the protected status of otters in the hopes that it would prevent them from killing these animals. In addition, several of the cameras at Shikahogh were set in areas that are also promising for endangered Persian leopards (Panthera pardus taxicolor). Shikahogh borders protected areas in Iran where underpasses were recently established to act as wildlife corridors. Evidence of leopards using these underpasses would be very significant.

The trail cameras will be moved and reset this fall and additional cameras will be set in new villages. Next spring, we plan to establish a robust estimate of the number of bears in Vayats Dzor by placing cameras in all or most villages. We will also analyze the time stamps on the photos together with the characteristics of the bears photographed. In the coming years, we will document the bear conflict in the Syunik region between Shikahogh and Vayats Dzor as well as northern Armenia and explore ways to mitigate the conflict, such as offering compensation programs, installing electric fencing and facilitating safe bear ecotourism, so the bear presence can positively impact the economy. The camera data will also be used to find important areas to potentially implement protected status. The National Academy of Sciences in Armenia is striving to set up a network of protected areas that will stretch across Armenia, linking Iran in the south with Georgia in the north.

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day

Polar bears are iconic animals, known for their incredible ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. These marine mammals are the most carnivorous member of the bear family, with a diet consisting primarily of seals. They have a thick layer of fat and waterproof fur, providing insulation in the cold Arctic climate in which they live.

Sea ice is imperative for polar bear survival; they spend the majority of their lives on the ice, relying on it to find a mate, build a den and hunt for seals. In the last 30 years, scientists have seen a dramatic shift in ice within the Arctic Ocean. The amount of “old ice” – ice that stays throughout the summer – is significantly smaller than what it was 30 years ago. The seasonal sea ice is forming later in the year – and melting earlier – directly impacting polar bears’ ability to hunt. As a result, many polar bears aren’t able to build up the fat reserves they need for the summer when food sources aren’t plentiful, and they starve to death.

We know the climate is changing. As humans, we are using fossil fuels such as coal and gas to drive cars and use electricity. These fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which builds up and creates a blanket effect around the Earth, trapping in heat that would otherwise escape. This trapped heat is causing global climate change and is impacting many species, including polar bears.

On February 26 and 27, the Detroit Zoo will join others around the world in highlighting the challenges that polar bears are facing in the wild. International Polar Bear Day celebrates these majestic creatures while also encouraging the community to not only better understand the impact we have on the environment, but to join us in taking positive action that will help protect vulnerable species.

Each one of us has the power to make a difference. We can change our daily behaviors and use less energy by seasonally adjusting our thermostats, riding our bikes, carpooling with friends or turning off the lights. We can also scale these actions up to our schools or workplaces by encouraging others to join us in this endeavor. Celebrating International Polar Bear Day is a great reason to start, or to take things to the next level.

Our International Polar Bear Day will take place on February 26 and 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The events will include zookeeper talks, educational activities and visits with the Zoo’s polar bear mascot. Talini and Nuka, the two polar bears who reside at the Zoo, will receive their usual treats at scheduled times (11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.) so guests can watch the bears enjoy them. This is not only a great time to visit the Zoo and the more than 2,000 animals living within our 125 acres, but it’s also a chance to learn more about how we can work together to save wildlife and wild places.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Polar Bears in Alaska

Greetings from zip code 99747 in Kaktovik, Alaska!

Kaktovik lies on the far northeast coast of Alaska above the Arctic Circle and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It is a whaling community with a long history of its people living in close proximity to polar bears. I traveled to Kaktovik in 2014 and again in 2015. This time I am fortunate to be joined by one of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) associate mammal curators, Betsie Meister, who has extensive experience with polar bears and oversees the Arctic Ring of Life, an expansive 4-acre habitat at the Detroit Zoo that is home to polar bears, seals and arctic foxes.

We are here to help colleagues with U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ANWR to study changes in polar bear numbers, as well as polar bear behavior and use of resources in response to the changing climate. As the climate warms, the arctic summer is getting longer and sea ice is diminishing. Polar bears come off the sea ice usually in late August and spend September and a few weeks of October in the area around Kaktovik waiting for the sea ice to form again. Polar bears use the sea ice as their platform for hunting seals, which is the majority of their wild diet. Without access to the ice, the bears are forced to spend more time on land.

The Inupiat community of Kaktovik hunt bowhead whales every fall to store enough food for the winter. After processing the whales on the beach, the whale remains are taken about a mile and half to the edge of town and placed in the “bone pile”. Polar bears come to feast on the remains, which continue to be a strong attractant for weeks. Kaktovik, which is home to approximately 300 people year round, adds a population of polar bears numbering 15-40 and up to 80 in the late summer and fall. As a result, Kaktovik is becoming more and more popular with tourists from all over the world coming to see the polar bears.

The bears primarily stay on the barrier islands just outside of town, but there is a great potential for human-bear conflict, and the DZS is interested in seeing how Kaktovik handles the conflict. Usually, the bears are kept away with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and trucks, but sometimes more force is necessary. Shotguns loaded with “cracker shells” or bean bags are then used to keep the bears away. An important safety measure that has been established is the Polar Bear Patrol. This patrol drives around Kaktovik every night from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. protecting the community from bears wandering into town. This year, there was more whale meat at the bone pile than last year, so bears seemed to stay near the pile and away from town. Last year, while I was in Kaktovik, an incident occurred when a bear consumed some dog food from underneath the house next to ours and entered another house to feed on seal blubber.

We came to Kaktovik a week earlier than last year hoping to also observe brown bears. Brown bears have also been affected by the warming climate. They are moving farther north and coming into more contact with polar bears, overlapping more in resource use and, in some places, even hybridizing with polar bears. At Kaktovik, both bear species have been observed feeding on the whale remains, and the DZS is interested in better understanding the overlap in resource use between these species. Unfortunately, no brown bears were seen this year during our time in Kaktovik, and locals informed us that only two or three brown bears had been seen this year.

Kaktovik is just one of the communities on Alaska’s North Slope that face unique circumstances with our Earth’s changing climate. The increased interaction with polar bears and brown bears is a fascinating situation and will become increasingly important for the management of both species. With continued monitoring of bears on the North Slope, the safety of both the public and the bears will remain the top priority of the community, and the DZS will assist in this effort.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society and Betsie Meister is the associate curator of mammals.