Push to save South America’s lone bear species


Alarmed by the rapid decline in spectacled-bear populations, Colombian environmental authorities and non-governmental organizations have launched a variety of initiatives to boost protection of the endangered animal.

The campaigns range from efforts to study bear migration in national-park cloud forests and páramos, where the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is found, to a project aimed at caring for bears wounded by hunters or seized from animal trackers. Organizers also plan to dissuade peasant communities from killing the animal, South America’s only bear species, when they see
it near corn fields and cattle.

Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development hopes to receive at least US$200,000 from the Dutch government this year for bear-conservation programs. Ministry officials add that US$20 million in reforestation work planned this year will benefit the spectacled bear. And regional environmental authorities, meanwhile, are spending millions more to restore biological corridors, which also could aid the animal.

Aside from promoting conservation and expansion of bear habitat, these efforts will involve projects to trap spectacled bears, take DNA samples and place radio collars on their necks in order to track the animals and study their populations.

“This will be our most important year yet in programs to protect the spectacled bear,” says Leonardo Muñoz, the ministry’s director of ecosystems. “The bear is in an absolutely critical state and we plan to carry out a strong and aggressive campaign to preserve it.”

Experts estimate there are 18,000 to 20,000 spectacled bears in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Colombia and Peru harbor the largest populations of the species, with an estimated 8,000 and 6,000 individuals, respectively.

In Colombia, the spectacled bear has been squeezed into ever-smaller habitat by the disappearance of 70% of Andean cloud forests and the alteration of at least 50% of páramos in recent decades, thanks partly to rampant cultivation of illegal drug crops and expansion of the agricultural frontier.

The bear is listed as “in danger of extinction” under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), and is earmarked for protection throughout the continent. The bear’s low reproduction rate, long cub-rearing stage and taste for corn make it especially vulnerable.

Concern in neighboring nations

Experts estimate that in Ecuador, the spectacled-bear population has fallen 25% in the last decade to 2,000 today. There, efforts have been initiated to care for bears seized from traffickers and to prepare them for reintroduction into the wild. In Venezuela, where only 1,000 of the bears survive in the wild, scientists are studying the genetics and feeding habits of the animal in Mérida state’s La Culata National Park. They also are publicly promoting protection of the animal. In Peru, meanwhile, national authorities and private institutions are planning biological corridors aimed at preserving bear habitat.

In Colombia, signs of progress at the local level have given cause for hope. In September, peasant farmers in the Huila state municipality of Pitalito, which has a long tradition of bear hunting, saw a bear trundle out of the forest to eat corn. Rather than killing the animal and feasting on it, as they would have in previous years, the farmers allowed the bear to feed.

For three and a half months, the community gathered to watch as the six-and-a-half-foot, 375-pound (two-meter, 170-kg) male, named “Danubio,” visited their cornfields and ate fruits at the edge of the forest. They formed groups to ward off hunters, and began studying other bears in their area. They decided to tolerate the loss of some of their corn to bears and, if those losses become too great, to scare the animals away rather than shooting them.

Residents hope to create a reserve to protect both the spectacled bear and the endangered mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque). “We want the bear to be a symbol for the area,” says Joachín Sánchez of the National Parks Office. “The community wants to develop study and nature-watching programs related to the bear and other threatened species.”

Changing attitudes

Authorities say the community’s view of nature and specifically the bears began to change when they took part in development of a 500,000-acre (200,000-ha) biological corridor between the high Andean forests of the Cueva de los Guácharos National Park in Huila and Puracé National Park in Huila and Cauca.

That effort, begun at the end of 2002 and financed by US$1.5 million from the French government and the UN, involved local farmers in reforestation, biological surveys of the forest, adoption of organic agriculture and conservation education. Organizers say the community now has a dramatically different attitude about its natural surroundings and local wildlife.

In 2000, authorities in the central state of Boyacá launched an education campaign at community centers and schools in 25 municipalities, emphasizing protection of the bear and other threatened species. They also began contracting peasant farmers to care for bears wounded by hunters or seized from traffickers intent on selling them to circuses.

When a bear cub shot by hunters was recovered in the Serrania de Perijá near Venezuela and taken to Garagoa in 2001, for example, authorities contracted a local farmer to help rehabilitate it. The bear was reintroduced into the wild last June. Some 100 members of the community turned out to celebrate. Now, many of them help local authorities track the bear and study its movements, habitat and interaction with other human populations.

“We have seen that teaching local communities to protect the bear also gets them to protect the high Andean forests and páramos where the bear lives,” says Luis Gómez, a biologist at the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Chivor, the local environmental authority. “And conversely, getting them to protect those ecosystems gets them to protect the bear.”

- Steve Ambrus

Juan Carlos Amezquita
Coordinator of Fauna
Regional Autonomous Corporation of Cauca
Popayán, Colombia
Tel: +(572) 820-3232
Email: jcarlosamezquita@hotmail.com
Luis Harold Gómez
Regional Autonomous Corporation of Chivor
Garagoa, Colombia
Tel: +(578) 750-0661
Email: lharoldgomez@hotmail.com
Hector Restrepo
Wii Foundation
Medellín, Colombia
Tel: +(574) 239-5205
Email: hector_restrepo@yahoo.es
Claudia Rodrí­guez
Biologist in Ecosystems Department
Colombian Ministry of the Environment, Housing, and Territorial Development
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 332-3434 ext. 340; 332-3400, ext. 47
Email: crodriguez@minambiente.gov.co
Joaquín Sánchez
Local Coordinator of Bio-Macizo Project
National Parks Office
Pitalito, Colombia
Tel: +(578) 836-2389
Email: jofersanpe2003@yahoo.com.mx
Juan Carlos Velásquez Estrada
Office of Education and Participation
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 340-6210 ext. 1157, 1158
Fax: +(571) 288-9816
Email: educacion@minambiente.gov.co