A spectacular spectacled bear story
Don Rosalino Ortiz, a maize farmer in the small Massif Central village of El Pensil in Colombia’s south-east, arrived to his mountain-side field one early morning only to find it almost completely destroyed. Fearing that it might have been the work of monkeys or the raccoon-like coati, he sent his son out to find the culprits. The son returned with news that the crops were indeed being destroyed, but by something slightly larger than a monkey. It was the work of a bear, a spectacled bear.
Named for its unique facial markings across its brow, spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) measure between 1.5–2m from head to tail and weigh between 140–175kg Found in small numbers throughout the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia, this species favours plants such as palms, orchids, fruits, and just about any other food available at high altitudes. Due to habitat loss, though, some have been known to search for ‘greener pastures’, particularly fertile agricultural lands, in search of a quick feed.
“This bear is more than two metres tall and heavily built,” said Gilberto Muñoz, another farmer whose corn fields have been affected by the bear, which locals refer to as Danubio after the hill where he is often found feeding. “It seems that he has become fat on all the maize he has eaten.”
Farmers in South America have been known to protect their crops by spraying special pesticides on their corn fields to repel this species of bear. But the locals of El Pensil decided against such extreme action and have allowed this particular bear to stay, at least for the time being.
“Normally, when a bear raids a farmer’s field it becomes a problem ending in the death of the animal,” stated Luis Carlos Rosero, from Fundación Wii, an organization working with spectacled bear conservation in Colombia. “We believe it’s necessary to take immediate action to ensure that the animal’s life is respected.”
The day after it became known that a bear was raiding the maize fields, the Ortiz family arranged a community meeting with their neighbours to decide what to do about the animal. The decision: “Let it eat the corn, let’s conserve it, surely, we have more to gain if we let it live than if we kill it.”
Responding to a call from El Pensil seeking advice on how to manage the village’s unexpected, and potentially dangerous visitor, Fundación Wii, together with WWF Colombia and the Colombia National Parks Unit (Unidad Administrativa Especial del Sistema de Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia) mobilized into action.
“Without a doubt, this was one of the most exciting pieces of news to reach those of us working on spectacled bear conservation,” said Luis Germán Naranjo, the ecoregional coordinator for WWF’s Northern Andes programme. “Hearing about the presence of a spectacled bear is always good news, it means that Andean landscapes are still providing habitat to a species of vital importance for the local ecosystem.”
On their first visit, wildlife and conservation officials came to observe the bear and to meet with the community. There was general agreement that the bear’s movements should be initially monitored from a distance before deciding whether or not to re-locate it to its natural habitat in the 200,000ha Guácharos – Puracé Biological Corridor. They also familiarized locals with an environmental education and awareness-raising programme being carried out as part of the region’s Biological Corridor Project (BCP). This programme, led by the regional environmental authority for the Alto Magdalena region (CAM) and the Southern Andes section of the Colombian National Parks Unit, aims to conserve exceptional natural resources and biological diversity between the National Parks of Puracé and Cueva de los Guácharos.
On a subsequent visit, WWF helped organize observation brigades to monitor the bear’s visits to the area, and workshops were given to inform the community about the bear’s presence and what to do if they came across it. Villagers were instructed to inform local environmental authorities in the event of seeing the bear, and if possible, to drive it back into the nearby protected forest area, either by making noise or using barking dogs.
“I can’t put into words the emotion you feel when you see one of these animals in front of you,” Naranjo added. “The spectacled bear is one of the flagship species within the Northern Andes. Its conservation is fundamental, and the response from the village community is an example which must be supported.”
Spectacled bears are listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union – IUCN, and have an Appendix I listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a listing that bans international commercial trade in species threatened with extinction.
WWF, together with such partner organizations as Fundación para la Defensa de la Naturaleza (FUDENA) in Venezuela and Fundación Natura in Ecuador, have set out conservation targets in the Northern Andes Ecoregional Complex (NAEC) to help protect the future of the Andean spectacled bear, including expanding the region’s systems of protected areas and increasing the connectivity of large uninterrupted tracks of natural habitats, as well as controlling hunting, and reducing human-bear conflicts by working with local communities.
"The Biological Corridor Project is encouraging communities to plant crops for bears on the highest part of the mountain slope and away from the town to avoid potential human-bear conflict,” said Olga Lucia Hernàndez, WWF’s Northern Andes Officer. “We are also supporting an Andean bear conservation and monitoring programme within the biological corridor."
In the hands of the community
The population of El Pensil has traditionally lived off agriculture and subsistence hunting. For generations, these rural inhabitants have hunted agoutis (guinea pig-like rodents), chachalacas (pheasant-like birds), deer, and other forest animals. However, the villages within the biological corridor — Montecristo, El Carmen, El Salao and El Pensil — have been part of an environmental awareness-raising process that focuses on conservation and sustainable management of natural resources. The results are already beginning to be seen, particularly with regards to efforts made to save the spectacled bear. And, changes have also been made towards introducing more sustainable farming practices. To date, almost 37 rural communities from the region have received training in such issues as sustainable crops, organic farming, reforestation, and river catchment management.
“The community’s response shows that we have made an impact within these families with regard to conservation,” stated Joaquín Zambrano, CAM director. “This change of attitude is a sign of the important role that communities play in decision making in favour of nature and their standard of living.”
“We are convinced that our change in attitude means that not only are we going to save Danubio, but we’re also going to take seriously the responsibility of conserving this region’s natural wealth,” added Rosalino Ortiz, the son of the owner of the cornfield who first spotted the bear.
The maize harvests have ended now making Danubio’s presence in the area more sporadic. All that seems to remain are his footprints and the remains of a few corn cobs, indicating that he has gone back to the forest.
* María Ximena Galeano is a Communications Officer with WWF Colombia
WWF Northern Andes Ecoregional Programme
Established in 1999, the Northern Andes Ecoregional Programme aims to expand protected area systems in the region in order to increase ecosystem representation within these areas. It also aims to ensure the connectivity between large blocks of natural vegetation in landscapes with land uses that are compatible with conservation objectives; maintain ecological and evolutionary processes along altitudinal gradients; and maintain viable populations of focal species, such as the spectacled bear, as well as the mountain tapir and Andean condor.
WWF Colombia Programme Office began work on specific conservation projects in different regions of the country in 1964. Activities related to conservation and sustainable development are aimed at achieving global results in forest, freshwater, ocean and coast ecosystems, using umbrella species and taking into account the effects of climate change and indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals.
In Colombia, these results are obtained by means of environmental education, capacity building, environmental policy, and communications strategies. These strategies seek to have a significant impact on the Chocó Ecoregion, the Northern Andes Ecoregion and the Orinoco Basin, as well as the sustainable management of its natural resources.