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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”