Seven Worlds, One Planet

The real life Paddington Bear

Despite defying so many expectations, meet the bear that still faces a serious image problem.

Serving as the inspiration for the beloved worldwide phenomenon Paddington Bear, the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is a remarkable animal.

An Andean bear rests in a tree
The main threat to Andean bears is the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. © BBC Studios
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The only bear species found in South America, many (but not all) of them have rings of coloured fur around their eyes ranging from whitish to yellowish. This makes it look like they’re wearing their own pair of au natural glasses giving rise to their other name of ‘spectacled bears’.

Unlike their fictional, marmalade-sandwich-obsessed counterpart, the Andean bear is not a social animal. They tend to live alone, only coming together for the mating season, which lasts from April to June. Andean bears are polyestrous, meaning they are have more than one period of fertility in a year. As a result, they are capable of delayed implantation. This means female bears are able to push pause on embryo development until a time when food is abundant - usually between November and February.

Despite their large size (an adult can grow to around 5-6 feet tall and weigh approximately 350 pounds), the Andean bear is an excellent climber thanks to their long front legs. They climb to find food when there are slim pickings on the ground. Though they are omnivores, their diet is predominately vegetarian, with only around 5% of their diet being made up of meat.

They harvest fruit, berries, cacti and honey (sadly, not marmalade). They also have incredible patience – it has been reported bears will sit in a tree for days just waiting for fruit to ripen. When fruits aren’t available, they use their strong jaws and wide, flat molars to chew on tough fibrous parts of plants such as bromeliad hearts, soft parts of palms, orchid bulbs and tree bark. When they need to, they will supplement their diet with meat – small rodents, birds and insects, making them the largest carnivores in South America.

Unfortunately for the Andean bear, it faces a multitude of threats. The main threat to the species is the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. Their homes are being destroyed to make way for human infrastructure, roads, illegal crops (such as coca and opium), timber and firewood, mining and petroleum exploration. Thanks to this habitat loss, the species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

As the bear’s habitat shrinks, they are being forced closer and closer to human habitats. This is particularly problematic when the bears are brought close to livestock. Farmers blame them for attacking cattle, leading to calls for the bears to be hunted, creating a spiraling situation. Even though they barely eat meat, the stigma that the Andean bears face is influential and ingrained.

These bears are also hunted for parts used in the wildlife trade. Their gall bladders are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine and WWF estimate that one can fetch US$150, which is five times the average monthly wage in Ecuador.

Fortunately, their demise is well-known and action is being taken to save the Andean Bears and their habitats. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have created an Andean Bear Occupancy Monitoring Methodology, a field-based strategy and suite of best practices. Co-ordinating with conservation scientists and National Parks Unit, this methodology aims to help gauge current population levels and maximise the impact of conservation work. They ran a pilot program in Colombia’s Chingaza National Natural Park and detected a 20% reduction of the occupancy of the area, pointing to a need to reevaluate management systems in order to protect the species.

The Andean bears seen in Seven Worlds, One Planet, were filmed in Maquipucuna ('tender hand'), a NGO run conservation site in the cloud forests of Ecuador. The 14,000 acre private reserve was founded by Rodrigo Ontaneda and Rebeca Justicia and received Protected Forest status from the Ecuadorian government in 1989. The bears spend around 10 weeks each year in Maquipucuna when they come to feast on wild avocados.

While the balancing of financial needs of the nation and protecting the bears is precarious, progress is being made. With careful management, we should be seeing more Andean bears in the future. Although maybe not waiting at Paddington station holding a sandwich.

Featured image by Chadden Hunter

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