It is no secret that bear-viewing professionals have the amazing opportunity to spend hundreds of hours every season in the direct presence of wild bears. While some may take that privilege for granted, I consider myself extremely lucky. I understand that our actions, and simply being there, can negatively affect the bears. Therefore, it is my goal to use that time to learn as much as possible to maximize the benefits for guests and bears alike. Through our presence and the data I collect, I hope to contribute to the scientific knowledge of bears and aid in the advancement of bear management and ecotourism. The way I see it, the better we can understand their species, the more appropriately we can behave around them, whether that is in our neighborhoods or in the wild. Greater understanding means greater tolerance, and tolerance means coexistence.
Social Behavior, Language & Communication of Bears.
Thanks to National Geographic, 2019 marks the formal beginning of bear vocalization and body language research. Having provided much of the necessary equipment to carry out video and audio recordings of bear-bear interactions in the field, National Geographic Explorer grants is forever in my gratitude. This is an incredibly exciting step towards understanding how bears speak to one another.
Currently, we have a very primitive understanding of how bears communicate and there is still much to learn. We know that they use visual, auditory, and olfactory cues to send messages, but the one we are most familiar with is their vocal repertoire. Bear vocalizations are relatively simple compared to other social species, but we still have very little understanding of how context influences meaning, and the roles of ‘syntax’ (sounds used in different combinations to create different meanings), pitch, and interval (how quickly sounds are delivered or repeated). Using a video camera, microphone, and note pad, I document the context of the situation, vocalizations, and body language displayed during the encounter. What I don’t observe is hopefully caught on the video camera for further review.
But this requires a lifetime of work. Studying language is extremely difficult and is full of anecdotal evidence that, while interesting, is difficult to publish. That doesn’t make it less important to me, though. After all, bears can’t speak English, so I believe that they will communicate with us very similarly to the ways they would each other. The more we learn about their social interaction, the better we can coexist.
This is an extremely broad umbrella that includes: the effects of ecotourism on wildlife, human safety, guide training, Best Practices, conservation initiatives, environmental degradation, public vs. private reserves and tours…the list is virtually endless. Ecotourism itself, particularly wildlife viewing, has seen exponential growth in recent decades. It is no surprise that we are somewhat scrambling to gather data on the many important topics surrounding it. See my newest blog very soon for more on ecotourism.
Bear viewing is one area of ecotourism that has seen the most growth, and in some ways it is amazing that more safety issues have not arisen. Most of this can likely be attributed to very tolerant and forgiving bears. Still, the pressure on bear populations to put up with growing crowds is increasing and we have many unanswered questions. Bear-viewing practices around the world vary, from boats and helicopters to ‘blinds’, platforms, and walking tours. Each method has its own challenges, not the least of which is the mountain of controversy surrounding not only how, but IF, bear-viewing should be permitted. Additionally, individual differences among bears and people mean that every viewing opportunity will produce different results that can have both positive and negative effects. The behaviors of both species and their individual life experiences influence the outcome of each interaction.
Human/Bear Interactions & Conflict
This relates to both of the above topics and can range from a random woodland encounter to bear ‘felons’ that destroy cars in search of food. The relationship between bears and humans is complex and dynamic, and is influenced by many factors known and unknown. Food is a major driver in conflicts, and fear is important on both the human and bear side of interaction. Our understanding of food and fear, as well as human psychology, can help us relate and learn how best to manage this relationship.