- The bear was killed in Colombia during the same week a farmer was convicted for a previous killing.
- One expert estimates that as many as 10 bears are killed per year by humans in Colombia.
- Despite a special investigator and a big bounty for information, the main drivers of bear losses persist.
On a sleepy Sunday afternoon in March 2017, the South American country of Colombia was rocked by graphic images on national news and social media of a dead Andean bear.
The body bore all the hallmarks of South America’s only native bear: a male weighing about 100 kilograms (more than 220 pounds), measuring about 180 centimeters (nearly 71 inches) from head to tail, jet black in color, and bearing the distinctive facial markings that have garnered the species, Tremarctos ornatus, the nickname “spectacled bear.”
The bear was killed in Chingaza National Natural Park, a 189,000-acre reserve consisting mainly of cloud forest and thirty glacial lakes, nestled three kilometers (or just under two miles) above sea level in Colombia’s Andes mountains. According to local news reports, there are only 32 of the bears left in and around Chingaza.
A special investigator was appointed by the Colombian government to find the culprit and a $5,000 reward has been offered for information in a country where the monthly minimum wage is under $250.
Grim Groundhog Day
If Colombians were feeling a sense of grim deja-vu on this day, there was good reason. In January of 2016, a bear was also killed. The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos (who has since won a Nobel Peace Prize), went on television and social media exhorting police and environmental authorities to find and prosecute the killer.
Barely a week after the latest killing in 2017, the news broke that a farmer from Junin, a town not too far from the national park, had been convicted of the 2016 killing. Luis Miguel Gómez, a farmer who was 45 at the time, became the first Colombian to be convicted specifically for killing an Andean bear.
Gómez faces five years of home arrest and fines relating to unlicensed firearms and mistreatment of animals. He is also banned from any kind of contact with animals for six months.
The maximum penalty for crimes against wildlife was established in Colombia’s Law 1774 of 2016: 12 to 36 months of prison and fines ranging from $1,230 to $14,760.
Bears Under Threat
Despite these seemingly stiff measures and the fact that Colombia has had a conservation plan for the Andean bear in place for more than 15 years, this portly mammal is still listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The wording of the listing is common for large carnivores in Latin America.
“The main threat to the Andean Bear is from habitat loss, due to expansion of agriculture, grazing, mining, oil exploration, and road development,” according to the IUCN. “With diminishing and more fragmented habitat, Andean bears increasingly raid crops and kill livestock, resulting in more retaliatory killing and illegal hunting.”
Dr. Luis Germán Naranjo, Conservation Director for World WildLife Fund Colombia, speaking to Mongabay from the Colombian capital of Bogota, speaks to the root of the problem.
“The rewards to denounce the bear hunters can work, but it doesn’t solve the initial problem. The biggest challenge is that bears who live in protected areas can stray outside the national parks, where they can come into conflict with humans,” Naranjo said.
The bears usually have a diet that is 93 to 95 percent herbivorous, eating cactus, orchid bulbs, and even soft layers of bark, but once they wander into farmland, Naranjo says they may eat maíz (corn) and kill or scavenge from the bodies of cows.
“When this happens, or if there are jaguars in the area, farmers see no other options but to attack the bears,” he said. “It is necessary to work with the campesinos [farmers] to find better agricultural practices that reduce conflicts and help to protect the species.”
Efforts to conserve Colombia’s other apex megafauna, the jaguar, include the breeding of “jaguar-proof” cows and show that coexistence between farmers and wildlife is possible.
Counting bears with hairs
Valeria Ramirez Castañeda is a researcher at the Department of Biological Sciences at Colombia’s Los Andes University. She has led research to use DNA recovered from feces and hair in the field to infer identities of individual bears within other areas of Colombia.
Castañeda told Mongabay via email that it is difficult to get an exact population of the bears, as most counts are focused on small pockets.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 individuals in the Northern Andes region (which excludes most of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina). But, again, bear scientists admit that this number is hazy at best, as these shy, elusive creatures are separated into dozens, if not hundreds, of pockets throughout their range.
One habit that helps to get hair samples is the male bear’s fondness for scratching himself using small shrubs, leaving tiny hairs stuck to the shrubbery. The bears also construct cozy hammocks for themselves, more than four meters (13 feet) high in the trees, using smaller branches to fashion a secure and peaceful resting spot among the large boughs.
Efforts to count the bears have been underway in Bolivia, where the creatures are also under threat and also come into conflict with humans. Castañeda estimates that 10 bears per year are killed directly by humans in Colombia, with similar numbers likely in the rest of their range, which stretches from Venezuela to Argentina.
Twitter “Spectacle” campaign a real eye-opener
Many Colombians have a deep, proud connection with Andean Bears. On February 21 2016, in honor of International Save Bears Day, Colombians took to Twitter, posting photos with their hands in front of their faces like the bears’ distinctive “spectacles.” Enough people from around the world participated in this to be able to produce this striking image:
— GiovannyPulido (@GiovannyPulido) February 27, 2017
In the end, the bear killed in the March 2017 attack has been preserved in formaldehyde, in an effort, the government says, to raise awareness. Ultimately, the question remains: will these awareness efforts spark a real change or is it more likely that this will be a quick, awareness-raising action that won’t really stop a slow deterioration, unobserved by the world?
Andrew J. Wight is an Australian freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He’s covered everything from genetics and space internet, to sport at the Beijing Olympics and physics at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. He has appeared in COSMOS magazine, Colombia Reports and on TV for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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