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Adventures in bear country


As a child learning about Paddington Bear’s adventures I never thought I would one day have the opportunity to visit his home land.  Michael Bond describes Paddington as hailing from ‘darkest Peru’, where I have had the pleasure to spend an extended amount of time in recent years.

Close up of a spectacled bearClose up of a spectacled bear

Paddington was undoubtedly inspired by the only bear native to South America, known as the Andean bear, or spectacled bear, due to the distinctive ring-like markings around its eyes.  These bears generally make their home in the lush cloud forests of the Andean mountains, but have the ability to roam from the more tropical lowlands, around 250m up to the around 4,750m in the high Andes.

I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these elusive creatures, high up in the mountains of Peru, at nearly 4,000m, where there was no vegetation to obscure my view.  In the lower cloud forests they keep themselves well disguised amongst the abundant vegetation.

The winding road

More recently I joined our team in Colombia in the project area around the Pasto-Mocoa road. This road winds its way through the Andean mountains and is an essential means for communication, transport and trade for many communities in the region. However, it is extremely dangerous, with hairpin bends and sheer drops, cutting through the dense cloud forest. This landscape receives a lot of rain and cloud, and with many switchbacks only able to accommodate one lane of traffic, travel along this road is tense, treacherous and prone to landslides.

Lorries head to head, Pasto Mocoa road, Colombia © Karina Berg / WWF-UKLorries head to head, Pasto Mocoa road, Colombia © Karina Berg / WWF-UK

Understandably development is in progress along this road to improve it and make it a safer route for transport. However, this development impacts on the surrounding area, as in some parts re-routing is required.   This environment just happens to be home to the spectacled bear along with many other species. We’re convening many different organisations in the development process, those directly affected, like the local communities, as well as those implementing the improvements including the governments and development corporations. Together they aim to reduce the negative environmental and social impact associated with the road development.

Paddington and friends

You may have read a previous blog  in which I shared some video captured by community monitors working with WWF Colombia. These dedicated individuals head out into the mountains on a daily basis, walking across enormous landscapes where our focus is to minimise the impact of the development. They are patrolling the terrain in search of evidence of the spectacled bear and the mountain tapir, locally known as the danta, which also shares the same habitat as the spectacled bear.

Community monitors, Sibundoy © Karina Berg / WWF-UKCommunity monitors, Sibundoy © Karina Berg / WWF-UK

We have installed camera traps in key areas and the images recorded allow us to capture physical evidence of these fantastic animals, which supplements the information that the community monitors are able to collect. We’ve been training the monitors how to use the camera traps, so part of their daily patrol is to ensure the cameras are functioning and collect the data so that it can be analysed and we can begin to better understand the populations of these shy species and how the development is impacting them.

These species act as indicators to the health of the forest.  In order to survive they require vast areas of land to forage for food. Demonstrable evidence of these species points towards a healthy habitat.  Road development inevitably changes the surrounding environment. It brings more people, which increase the threat to the forests and in turn to the species that make it their home.

Paddington’s relatives that inhabit forests from their northern most range in Venezuela, down to the southern forests in Bolivia are under increasing pressure from not only the development of roads, but also expanding agriculture, livestock and communities at large. Our efforts in the region will hopefully mean that generations to come will have the opportunity to enjoy glimpses of the spectacled bear and the mountain tapir, and ensure these precious landscapes, ancestral home to the bear with a penchant for marmalade sandwiches, will be maintained in the long term.

Are you going to see the new Paddington Bear movie? What do you think of spectacled bears? Leave us a comment.

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