To Save Latin America’s Only Bear Species, Biologists Must Understand its Unexpected Habits

Renowned as being the most important coffee-producing region in the country, the central Andean region of Colombia, called the Cordillera, is also a hotspot of biodiversity and endemism that claims more than 11,000,000 acres (4.5 million hectares), two national parks, and various other protected areas.

Over centuries, its fertile valleys, good climate, and rich soils have made this area a prime site for settlement and, as a result, most of the remaining forested areas are now found only at high elevations.

In spite of the threats posed by heavily populated areas and forest fragmentation to species survival, particularly of large-sized species, research done by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) indicates that the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also known as the spectacled bear, inhabits the Cordillera’s rural landscape. This dark-colored bear, named for the whitish markings around its eyes, has become the focus of a regional planning effort launched by the National Parks Unit of Colombia and WCS as part of the organization’s Living Landscapes Program, which integrates conservation with development needs in the Cordillera.

Gustavo Kattan, program coordinator for WCS in Colombia, explains that the bear needs large areas of forest cover — approximately 25 bears can survive within 62 square miles of forest. Since protecting this area will also conserve other populations of flora and fauna, the Andean bear becomes “the umbrella species that protects others,” Kattan says. Integrating human economic needs into regional conservation planning is important for the survival of the bear, because it reduces forest fragmentation and hunting.

The first step for the “Regional Planning for Spectacled Bear Conservation in the Central Andes of Colombia” project is to learn about the bear’s habitat needs. WCS-Colombia, with help from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Division of International Affairs, is creating a map of bear habitat availability and threats by collecting information from satellite imagery of vegetation cover, information on current threats, and field data on the bear’s habitat use.

Spectacled bears are Latin America’s only bear species. They are very strong animals, yet shy, peaceful, and elusive, avoiding contact with humans. They inhabit the three main mountain ranges of the Andes, from Mérida in Venezuela to the border between Argentina and Bolivia. They are also present in the Darién forests of Panama. Adult males can measure between five and six and a half feet from head to tail, and weigh between 300 and 385 pounds; females are approximately two thirds the size of males. The bear is principally vegetarian and its fur is usually black, although it can have dark red-brown tones on its upper body.

To better understand the Andean bear’s habits, WCS-Colombia is collecting information for the northern part of the Central Andean region of Colombia, while the World Wildlife Fund in Colombia is working in the southern region. Their work contributes to a broader initiative to use the Andean bear for landscape planning in the northern part of the Andes in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. WCS’s Living Landscapes Program identifies umbrella species, such as the spectacled bear, which require large areas of habitat and whose survival is linked to the survival of numerous species of related flora and fauna; for this reason, landscape planning is based around their needs.

This research has spotlighted the Andean bear’s use of rural landscapes. “When we look at maps and aerial photos, the bear’s situation seems grim but then, in the field, we find signs that the bears are using rural landscapes as long as there are some patches of forest and resources,” says Kattan.

Isaac Goldstein, a Venezuelan conservation ecologist associated with WCS, and a well known Andean bear expert, finds that one of the main challenges to making wise conservation decisions is the lack of information on the bear population in the large tropical Andes. “We have been surprised to find the bear at 820 feet above sea level, in areas much lower than had previously been known,” he notes. Without better information about the bear’s habits, biologists who need to make recommendations about which forested areas are most important to the animal’s survival risk making incorrect assumptions.

It was originally estimated that the bear’s range in the Andes, where 75 percent of the population is concentrated, was about 304,500 square miles, an area that has been reduced in half by deforestation. The current population is estimated to be about 18,000 bears, but more field data is needed to confirm this figure.

Kattan notes that the presence of the bear in rural Colombian landscapes will provide research opportunities, but he emphasizes that it is also a challenge because of conflicts the bears cause with farmers when they destroy crops or attack cattle.

Referring to the problems of forest fragmentation and guerilla warfare in the tropical Andes, Goldstein remarks that “no other site could have such harsh conditions.”

Contacts: Gustavo Kattan, WCS-Colombia, tel +57-2/683-1103 Isaac Goldstein, WCS, tel +58-414/717-6792

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