- The Andean bear, or ukuku, is the only bear that lives in South America and despite being an elusive species, it has deep spiritual and cultural significance for Andean peoples.
- Enrique G. Ortiz of the Andes Amazon Fund writes about the bear and efforts to conserve it in Peru’s Kosñipata valley, including the recent establishment of the Andean Bear Interpretation Center at Wayqecha Biological Station to raise awareness and appreciation of the species.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
In the Andean region the ageless story of Juan Oso, a half-human and half-bear character, has been heard throughout generations. It is said that Juan lived all sad and alone in a dark cave, until the day he met and fell in love with a shepherdess of the paramos, the alpine seasonally flooded grassland found in the Andes. Seeing that her parents did not approve of the relationship, they both ran away to live happily together on top of a mountain.
And, like any true love story, this one also had a tragic ending: Years later, a mob still inflamed by the family of the missing bride, chased the couple to a cave and killed them, finding only afterwards their love nest full of gold bars.
Most curiously, this story is repeated throughout the whole Amazonian Andes, the territory that is home for the spectacled bear, or ukuku, as the Quechuas of southern Peru call it.
Paddington, “from the darkest of Peru”
Perhaps due to its size or almost human habits, the ukuku has always fascinated people. It is represented in the iconography of ancient pre-Columbian cultures, and for the mountain dweller, it is a symbol of the cloud forests, equivalent to the condor, the Andean “King of the skies”. The bear’s fame even reached Europe, where it is known by generations of English children who grew up reading the story of Paddington, “the little bear that came to London from the darkest of Peru.” It even inspired a recent film made by the producers of Harry Potter.
Weighing approximately 100 kilos and with a stocky body, the ukuku is the only bear that lives in South America. It is an elusive species that can be found mainly on the eastern slope of the Andes, the Amazonian cloud forest. This forest brings into mind images of fairy tales, with layers of phosphorescent green moss and ferns, carpets of orchid—of all sizes and colors, that go from the ground to the tops of the trees. That is the place where bright orange cock-of-the-rocks dance for the attention of a mate, alongside huge woolly monkeys bundled up in an unusually thick silvery-shined fur coat. The destruction of its natural habitat has placed this bear on the list of species threatened with extinction, and in countries like Venezuela it has almost disappeared. Fortunately, today it is protected in several conservation areas in the region. In Peru, perhaps the place with the largest population among all countries where it lives, it is often seen hanging out in the citadel of Machu Picchu, the famed “lost” Incan city.
The forest maker
This beautiful animal moves with great patience, walking as if in slow motion, but when it wants to run, it can beat even an Olympic champion. The ukuku likes to eat ground and arboreal bromeliads – those “air-plants” that are relatives of pineapples – in addition to picking berries. Occasionally, it climbs trees to take advantage of honey from wild bees.
But perhaps, one of its most remarkable roles is that the ukuku “makes” its own forest, dispersing the seeds of the plants that will later feed it and creating the environment for new plants. This makes it a keystone species in the forests’ natural regeneration.
The Andean inhabitants, for whom the ukuku is a much loved and even revered creature, have understood this very well, protecting it, and giving to it a special place in their traditional folklore. The bear is often a main character in Andean dances and customs, such as that of the Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, Cuzco.
In recognition of the ukuku’s special place in Andean cultural traditions and ecology, the local communities of Jajahuana and Juan Velasco Alvarado in Cuzco—together with the authorities and other local partners—have proudly inaugurated the Andean Bear Interpretation Center at a spectacular site adjacent to the world-renown Manu National Park. On the grounds of the Wayqecha Biological Station managed by the NGO Conservación Amazónica in the Kosñipata valley, visitors can walk along the paths where the bear lives, taste its food, learn about its habits, and enjoy the stories of the bear’s relationship with people as told by the villagers themselves. The center also offers the opportunity to explore the cloud forest treetops from the highest suspension bridge in the world.
There, looking at that magical world of the ukukus, I assure you that you will not only be marveled by one of the most spectacular landscapes you may have ever seen, but also let your imagination be carried away by love stories, like that of Juan Oso.