Bears and Bees: How Honey Helps Save the Spectacled Bear

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For six months, researchers set camera traps over a 600 square kilometer area, trying to catch a glimpse of the rare spectacled bear. But aside from the occasional shot of an indistinguishable hairy figure with its head out of focus, the elusive species had avoided the lens.

The photo was a breakthrough for Bolivian conservationist Ximena Velez-Liendo and her team. “We were over the moon because it wasn’t just a bear, it was a breeding population,” she says. “It was one of the happiest times of my life.”

Five years later, Velez-Liendo has gathered vital details about the enigmatic creatures and devised a strategy to protect them.

As the only species of bear in South America, the spectacled or Andean bear is renowned worldwide thanks in large part to Paddington Bear, the fictional character from “the deepest and deepest Peru”. dark”. But in reality, populations across the continent are dwindling.

Fewer than 10,000 spectacled bears remain, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists the species as vulnerable. In Bolivia, the southernmost country in the world where spectacled bears are found and where Velez-Liendo’s work is focused, it is estimated that there are around 3,000 individuals.
The severe drought, a consequence of climate change, has led local farmers to replace crop production with cattle ranches, says Velez-Liendo. The bears, struggling to find food in their own shrinking habitat, encroach on this land and sometimes kill livestock, leading farmers to kill the bears in retaliation. Deforestation and exploitation land for oil and mining contributes to habitat loss, while drought unbalances the ecosystem, bringing the species closer to extinction.

Velez-Liendo wants to keep the “majestic” and “charismatic” creatures to which she has devoted the last 20 years of her life. But his recipe for preservation calls for an unusual ingredient: honey.

A spectacled bear is filmed bathing in a watering hole in northern Peru. Credit: SBC

Bears and beekeepers

Based in the inter-Andean dry forest of southern Bolivia and funded by Chester Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford, the project not only monitors the population of bears in the region, but also trains local people as beekeepers. The idea is that by generating a healthy income from honey, it offers an economical alternative to raising cattle.

“The main threat (to bears) is definitely people,” says Velez-Liendo, and “livestock is the main reason people kill bears.” But cattle ranching is not well suited to high altitudes and produces small yields at significant environmental cost, requiring 20 times more land, water and resources than in the lowlands, she adds.

The team therefore set up community apiaries, where local people could learn and practice beekeeping. After the first honey harvest, people started building their own private hives. The honey – branded “Valle de Osos”, which means “Valley of the Bears” – was put up for sale and the money started pouring in.

The honey label refers to bears, as they are the origin of the project, says Velez-Liendo.

There have been three harvests since the beekeeping project began in 2018, yielding 2,750 kilograms of honey and nearly $20,000 in revenue, Velez-Liendo said, more than double that generated from livestock.

circle of life

At the same time, the process teaches locals about the ecosystem and the bear’s crucial role in maintaining it: by spreading seeds, bears help restore forests, which helps secure water supplies. “People need to see the benefit of protecting the bears,” says Velez-Liendo, and through beekeeping, “we show them that by protecting the bear, they are protecting the forest, and by protecting the forest, they protect the bees.”

Velez-Liendo (left) works closely with local communities on the project.
The project has been widely recognized as crucial for the preservation of the species, winning the 2017 Whitley Award for grassroots wildlife defenders. Last month, the Whitley Fund for Nature announced it would fund Velez-Liendo for the next two years as it works to create a ‘productive protected landscape’ – a management framework that respects the use traditional land while combining restoration and positive nature economic activity.
She hopes that by presenting a viable framework, other countries with spectacled bear populations will follow. Conservation efforts are already underway across South America, including Ecuador, where a bear corridor was created north of the capital, Quito, and in Peru, where the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC) works with indigenous communities to create private protected areas, as well as to provide alternative livelihood programs.

Community engagement is essential in lasting demographic change, agrees Canadian biologist Robyn Appleton, who founded the SBC in 2009. “If you don’t have communities on your side, you won’t be doing any conservation,” she says . “You could have the last bear in Peru, and it wouldn’t matter.”

By building relationships with local communities, Appleton says they have been able to reduce the use of slash and burn – the clearing of land by burning all the trees and plants on it.

The important message to get across is that protecting the bear also protects people. “We love bears and we care about wildlife, but we also care about humans,” Appleton says. “For us, it’s about protecting a place – protecting humans, protecting wildlife, protecting the ecosystem. They all work together.”

A group of spectacled bears are seen scaling the forest in search of food. Credit: SBC

Andean Gardeners

Spectacled bears play a vital role in the survival of the entire ecosystem, of which not much remains. Bolivia’s dry forests, which fringe the eastern Andes with dense shrubs and thickets, are critical danger. According to a study by the Arizona Nature Conservation Center, only 6% remains intact.

Primarily vegetarians, spectacled bears feed on fruits, berries and cacti, and travel up to five miles a day, scattering seeds in the area as they defecate and generating new growth and new biodiversity.

“Bears are the gardeners of the Andes,” says Velez-Liendo. “In areas where bears have been exterminated, the quality of the forest is extremely poor.”

Thanks to Velez-Liendo’s bear program, scientists are now more aware than ever of the other life forms that exist in the ecosystem. Eight species of wild cats have been spotted at the site, including jaguars and pumas, and there have also been sightings of the critically endangered chinchilla rat.

“Through all of our efforts to protect a single species, we are protecting 31 species of mammals, about 50 species of birds, and 20 species of other amphibians,” says Velez-Liendo. “By protecting bears, we are protecting an entire ecosystem.”

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