The Andean bear is the only bear species in South America. Could be at risk by 2030

The wild spotted bear is about to be in danger.

In the highlands of northern Ecuador, the country’s government recognizes El Corredor del Oso Andino (Andean Bear Corridor) as a protected area, and a means of ensuring the migration path of Andean bears known as spotted bears. The only species of bear in South America, the spotted bear, lives on the slopes of the Andes, covering Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

The bear is often black, apart from the white or cream facial markings around the eyes and nose, which gave rise to the spotted name. These docile and elusive creatures weigh up to 300 pounds, and females weigh around 150 pounds. Its diet consists mainly of plants and occasional small animals, but it can hunt larger animals such as adult deer or llamas.

In 1985, Rodrigo Ontaneda and Rebecca Justicia visited the lush cloud forest northeast of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Surprised with their biodiversity, Ontanida and Justicia have been devastated by the deforestation of tropical forests in the area and have decided to set aside 100 hectares of land in the hope that their neighbors will follow suit.

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Three years later, when 45 plots of land covering approximately 14,826 acres were offered for sale, quick thinking and fundraising made it possible to purchase the land for what would become the Maquipucuna Reserve and Foundation. Maquipucuna Sanctuary is home to the bear’s favorite “pacche tree” with its signature aguacatillos (a type of wild avocado that appears two months out of the year and is only found in this small area). During this time, up to 20 different bears were seen at a time enjoying the feast peacefully in the treetops.

Maquipucuna Reserve offers sustainable tourism offerings with luxury eco-lodges and campgrounds. Activities such as a guided hike through the Cloud Forest Reserve allow visitors to discover diverse wildlife during feeding season, including birds and bears. After spending just one day in this biodiverse region, it is not surprising how Ontaneda and Justicia were inspired to protect this sensitive environment.

“As long as a healthy forest equals more than cut forests, then it is sustainable,” Justicia says, emphasizing that local employment is the main driving force in an ongoing commitment to biodiversity.

For Ontanida, Justicia and the reserve workers, the goal is not just to preserve the forest but to enable nearby towns and individuals to do the same through sustainable tourism. They also led the creation of a broader conservation corridor strategy for the Chocó Andino Biosphere Region in northwestern Ecuador, with the Maquipucuna Reserve at its core—and it’s in the works.

Jasmine Harb

The bear is considered an umbrella and landscape species due to its vital role as a seed dispersal, deactivator, and forest engineer. The presence of healthy bear communities indicates a large area of ​​clean and protected habitat. With a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, some bears were first observed in the Maquipucuna where the cubs have since returned as juveniles and adults. Although not all bears return to the reserve, the Foundation is actively working with regional communities on the Trap Camera Monitor project to learn more about the migratory patterns and habits of these often elusive animals.

Based on current trends, it is unfortunately estimated that the Andean bear will be endangered by 2030. The work done by Ontanida, Justicia, the Macipukona Reserve and other organizations active across the Chocó Andino Biosphere Region is the best chance for the survival of this species.

Protecting the only bear in South America is also about preserving the animal’s cultural association. The speckled bear is of deep-rooted significance in this region. Many indigenous peoples hold special legends and beliefs about bears, including the Quechua belief that dreaming of Andean bears means that the dreamer will meet a witch.

Jasmine Harb

While the spotted bear occupies a place in mythology, the legends surrounding it can also contribute to its endangerment. There is a belief that bear fat has medicinal properties in the treatment of tumors and burns. Some Shuar peoples who use bear decorative items continue to hunt anima, although these practices are now illegal in Ecuador. With an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 bears remaining in the wild, it has never been more important to appreciate the spotted bear and support efforts to protect this special animal.

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