spectacled bear, on September 20, 2023 at the Guayllabamba Zoo (Ecuador). EFE/José Jácome

Tracking Ecuador’s solitary spectacled bears

Susana Madera

Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador, Sept 26 (EFE). – Ecuador is on the trail of a few lonely “giants,” the Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) that live in the lush Condor mountain range, about which there is very little information.

The Andean bear is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Also known as “spectacled bears” because of the distinct markings that some individuals have around their eyes, they can grow up to two meters (6.5 feet) tall and weigh up to 130 kilograms (286 pounds).

Spectacled bear, on September 20, 2023 at the Guayllabamba Zoo (Ecuador). EFE/José Jácome

Striking, charismatic, solitary, good swimmers and climbers, the bears of the Condor Mountains bordering Peru have scientists on tenterhooks, trying for months to capture specimens to put on tracking collars.

The collars are designed to collect information about their movements and lifestyles to expand conservation plans for the species.

Off the grid

A research project for conserving the Andean bear in the Cóndor mountain range began in 2019.

Experts want to “understand this population that was previously unknown, that was off the grid,” Martín Bustamante, director of the Quito Zoo, told EFE.

Scientists want to know if and how the bears relate to other populations and the threats they face, among other things.

For now, they have found a “significant” population. So far, they have seen 40 but have not been able to capture any.

“We know that there are many, that they move constantly, that there are adult males and females, and that there are reproductive events because we see cubs,” Bustamante explained.

Using camera traps has allowed the scientists to observe “that it is an active population.

The director of the Quito Zoo, Martín Bustamante, speaks during an interview with EFE on September 20, 2023, in Guayllabamba (Ecuador). EFE/José Jácome

Experts from the Quito Zoo, the University of San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), and the Canadian mining company Lundin Gold are participating in the research to determine the genetic identity of the Andean bears of the Condor mountain range to compare them with studies carried out in western Quito or Loja (south).

Juan Carlos Fonseca, a biologist at the Fruta del Norte underground gold mine operated by Lundin Gold, told EFE that they are trying to put monitoring collars on them and take blood and hair samples for genetic studies to help determine conservation strategies.

Genetic identity

Because of its genetic composition, “each population has its history,” and each one “is also a challenge for conservation because we have to maintain these lineages, this evolutionary history,” Bustamante stressed.

However, they still cannot understand the percentage differences in the genetic structure of the bears, which influences, among other things, their habits and diet, especially in the Condor Mountains, located in the middle of an Amazonian landscape.

“It is a place where, for example, animal species reach higher than in other mountainous areas. The forests are different, and on the plateaus, some areas resemble swamps, about 2,000 meters above sea level,” he said.

All this makes the plant and animal communities different, with their ecology, and the bear is “one of the key players” because of its role in the ecosystems.

The bear needs several hectares to live, and its passage through the forest is a promoter of dynamism: it breaks branches and parts of trees when it feeds, which forces the vegetation to enter into its own regeneration dynamics.

Although, in general, “very little is known about the bears of the Cordillera del Cóndor,” Bustamante emphasizes that the sector has “a healthy and diverse population” that shares the same space with pumas, tapirs, mountain dogs, squirrels, and coatis. EFE


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