capturing the heart of Machu Picchu: SBC’s expedition to deploy camera traps across the park

“Conduct a field study to install camera traps in the Machu Picchu historic sanctuary and evaluate the health of the spectacled bear population and how bears use their habitat.”

The assignment seemed simple enough. Maybe routine to the SBC field team, a group of tenacious people known for their 15 years of epic research trips into the unforgiving climate and terrain of the dry forest in northern Peru. But within the boundaries of Machu Picchu – 125 square miles of towering ridges, steep valleys and sweeping forest in the Andes mountains – “field study” quickly became “major expedition”. 

In coordination with the Peruvian government, SBC has successfully completed our first expedition into Machu Picchu by installing more than 200 camera traps across the park. This is the largest field program in the history of both SBC and Machu Picchu, and it is the first study of this scale conducted in the Peruvian high Andes mountain ecosystem.

The result will be an unprecedented baseline dataset that helps us understand the health of the bear population, how spectacled bears (and other species) use habitat within the park, and the potential impacts of tourism and forest fires on them. In collaboration with the Peruvian government, we will use the data to strengthen park management and conservation action for spectacled bears.

We first identified camera trap locations using the results of our 2022 camera trap pilot study in Machu Picchu and developed a grid of stations in Google Earth. Then we adjusted points in the field if areas were inaccessible due to impossible terrain, or if we learned from park rangers and community members about areas where they have seen bears. Our team deployed cameras in remote, unexplored areas of the park and across incredibly diverse ecosystems.

We had more than 25 people split into four or more groups, camping in the field for over three weeks. Together we collectively hiked over a thousand miles to cover Machu Picchu. Imagine putting a camera every half mile over an area the size of San Francisco while navigating challenging terrain with a heavy backpack – scrambling up and down steep cliffs, fording streams, bushwhacking with machetes to move through dense forest, and adapting to dramatic changes in elevation and climate.

Our team included Machu Picchu park rangers whose in depth knowledge of the landscape, the resident bear population, and the iconic ruins and culture guided us to success. 

This expedition was no easy feat. It required an incredible team effort, expert logistics and an immense amount of gear, food and supplies.

Machu Picchu is mountainous with a huge range of elevation and temperature, so we had to be prepared for all conditions. The Salkantay mountain area at nearly 16,000 feet was the highest point of our expedition. This was the first time most of our team experienced high altitude and cold weather. Some nights the temperature dropped to 32F with frost on the tents. Just a few days earlier we were hiking in hot, humid conditions at 7,000 feet above sea level.

Every day until we installed the last camera, we were energized by the stunning variety of ecosystems, plants and animal species encountered at every turn. Knowing the data we collect will ultimately benefit bears and all biodiversity found in the park was powerful inspiration to give it our all.

The iconic Incan ruins along with the spectacular biodiversity in Machu Picchu are why it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. But our data will help to protect an even larger area. Our long-term, shared goal with the Peruvian government is to have Machu Picchu and the surrounding landscape designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to protect more than 6,500 square miles of habitat.

But the adventure isn’t over yet. In Fall 2023 we will return to the wilds of Machu Picchu to retrieve the camera traps and see what data we have collected on bears and other species. Our biologists will use the information to identify areas with high bear detections and the key locations for our bear collaring program, the critical next step in our study. 

This expedition was the important first step in collecting the data urgently needed by the Peruvian government to identify science-based conservation actions and strengthen protection of spectacled bears in Machu Picchu.

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