The mountainous forests of Ecuador are a hotspot for wildlife species such as monkeys, bats and sloths, but none are more endangered than the Andean spectacled bear. So-called because their facial markings resemble glasses, these rare bears are at serious risk due to the ever-present threat of poaching and deforestation on the Ecuador-Peru border. Fortunately, the Ecuadorian Environment Secretary Lorena Tapia has recently joined forces with scientists and conservationists from Cornell University in New York. The aim is to provide incentives for local people to safeguard existing forests and prioritise sustainability, which will reduce deforestation levels and subsequently save the bears’ habitat.
The team have also enlisted the help of Andean bear expert Santiago Molina, from the charitable organisation Andean Bear Foundation, to set up cameras and radio tracking devices to collect data on the bears’ environmental requirements and use of habitat. The charity hopes that the information gathered from this project will enable the implementation of a better strategy to secure the bears’ conservation, protection and survival, as well as to educate the local communities about these gentle creatures. Plans are also under way to reintroduce captive and orphaned bears into the wild, in order to boost numbers of wild Andean bears in the future.
So far, the project has not been without its pitfalls, however: the fact that the bears are so endangered means there are very few living in the Andes region, so it can take days of video footage to merely catch a glimpse. The rugged, elevated terrain and limited road access also hinders the researchers’ ability to access the conservation site, but this has not put them off. Researcher Angela Fuller hopes that a ‘large collaborative effort’ between the Cornell members and local inhabitants could ‘integrate the ecological, social and economic concerns within the region,’ whilst ensuring that the protection of the bears remains paramount.
The Andean bears’ face, neck and chest markings are, like human fingerprints, unique to each bear, and with the status of being Latin America’s only native bear, it is surely high time that serious efforts are made to protect these intensely shy and vulnerable animals — as well as ensure the sustainability of their mountain habitats. If the project proves to be a success, the team plan to use their findings to protect other local endangered species such as jaguars, pumas and ocelots, as well as numerous endemic bird and amphibian species.