The wild spotted bear is on the verge of becoming an endangered species.
In the northern highlands of Ecuador, El Corredor del Oso Andino (The Andean Bear Corridor) is recognized by the country’s government as a protected area and a way to ensure the migratory path of Andean bears known as speckled bears. South America’s only species of bear, the spotted bear, lives on the slopes of the Andes, spanning Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
The bear is mostly black in color, except for its white or cream-colored facial markings around the eyes and nose, which give rise to the speckled name. These docile and elusive creatures weigh up to 300 pounds, with females weighing around 150 pounds. Its diet consists mainly of plants and the occasional small animal, but it can hunt animals as large as a deer or an adult llama.
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In 1985, Rodrigo Ontaneda and Rebecca Justicia first visited the lush cloud forest northeast of Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Spellbound by biodiversity, Ontaneda and Justicia were devastated by the deforestation of the region’s rainforests and decided to set aside 100 hectares of land in the hope that their neighbors would follow.
Three years later, when 45 lots covering approximately 14,826 acres were offered for sale, some quick thinking and fundraising resulted in the purchase of land for what would become the Maquipucuna Reserve and Foundation. The Maquipucuna Reserve is home to the bear’s favorite “pacche tree” with its iconic aguacatillos (a type of wild avocado that appears two months a year and is only found in this small area). Meanwhile, there have been sightings of up to 20 different bears at a time enjoying a quiet feast in the treetops.
The Maquipucuna Reserve offers sustainable tourism offers with a luxury ecolodge and camping accommodation. Activities such as guided hikes through the cloud forest reserve allow visitors to view a variety of wildlife during the feeding season, including birds and bears. After spending just one day in this biodiverse region, it’s no surprise how Ontaneda and Justicia have been inspired to protect this delicate environment.
“As long as the intact forest is worth more than the logged forests, it is sustainable,” says Justicia, highlighting how local employment is a major driver of the continued commitment to biodiversity.
For Ontaneda, Justicia and the reserve workers, the goal is not just to preserve the forest, but to empower nearby towns and individuals to do the same through sustainable tourism. They have also spearheaded the establishment of a broader conservation corridor strategy for the Chocó Andino biosphere region of northwest Ecuador, with the Maquipucuna Reserve at its core, and it works.
The bear is considered both an umbrella and landscape species due to its vital role as a seed disperser, disruptor and architect of forests. The presence of healthy bear communities indicates an important area of clean and protected habitat. With a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, some bears first seen in Maquipucuna as cubs have since returned as juveniles and adults. While not all bears return to the reserve, the foundation is actively working with regional communities on a camera trap monitoring project to learn more about the migration patterns and habits of these often elusive animals.
Based on current trends, it is sadly estimated that the Andean bear will be endangered by 2030. The work done by Ontaneda and Justicia, the Maquipucuna Reserve and other organizations active in the biosphere region Chocó Andino is the best chance for this species to survive.
Protecting the only bear in South America also means preserving a cultural link with the animal. The spotted bear has deep-rooted importance in this region. Several local indigenous peoples have particular myths and beliefs about bears, including a Kichwa belief that dreaming of Andean bears means the dreamer will encounter a witch.
If the spotted bear holds a place in legends, the myths that surround it can also contribute to its endangerment. Bear grease is believed to have medicinal properties to heal tumors and burns. Some Shuar peoples who use bear ornaments continue to hunt anima even though these practices are now illegal in Ecuador. With an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 bears in the wild, it has never been more important to appreciate the spotted bear and support efforts to protect this iconic animal.