ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPECTACLED BEAR

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BEAR TRACKING: SLOW GOING ON THE ROADS OF RURAL ECUADOR.

When Paddington Bear comes to visit his relatives I’ve absolutely no idea how he finds them. Quite possibly they are easier to spot in “…deepest, darkest Peru…” , where he hails from, though I doubt it some how, for spectacled bears (Tyemarctos Ornatus) are an elusive creature and apparently much is still to be learnt about them. Which is why we’ve headed off the beaten track in the Imbabura province of northern Ecuador, in the hope of sighting one. To those in the know the bears do leave a calling card – they scratch and wee on trees – but I couldn’t identify a bear scratch on a tree any more than than I could identify the smell of its urine. So, in reality, we are two rank amateurs without a clue what we’re doing, except for possessing a nugget of information: spectacled bears have developed a taste for corn on the cob, meaning that we shall be taking a particular interest in all the maize fields we pass. Like much of the wildlife the world over man’s encroachment on their environment is ringing the death knell for so many vulnerable species, and the spectacled bear is becoming critically endangered by the human quest for land and resources. Here in the cloud forests of Imbabura the bears’ habitat is being diminished by subsistence farming and uncontrolled logging. Along these back-roads you soon witness the destruction of the forest, and the patchwork of fields taking its place: lines of maize, as well as cattle, march ever upwards into the thick cloud hanging over the hills. The bears’ habitual source of nourishment – frailjon plants, figs, wild avocados – are gradually disappearing. Not surprisingly they are developing a taste for the farmers’ crops and, very occasionally, a cow also appears on the menu. A male spectacled bear can grow to 2.2 metres in height and weighs up to 200 kgs. They are powerful creatures and have no problem killing a cow or a bull and dragging the carcass to a sheltered spot to eat it. In Ecuador’s northern Andes 87 attacks on cattle have been attributed to bears since November 2009. These subsistence farmers just cannot afford to loose their cattle and crops. Without a coordinated response from government the farmers, sadly, are going to continue reaching for their guns.

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THE HIGH ANDES: SPECTACLED BEAR COUNTRY.

Unsurprisingly, we draw a blank wandering the byeways in our car. Undoubtedly it’s time to get a bit more serious and head for the higher ground, more specifically the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, where I’m absolutely convinced we shall uncover our secretive friend. We must negotiate a high peak, muddy tracks and the odd landslide to reach the Laguna de Cuicocha, where we park, grab our rucksacks and binoculars and march into the information office for the latest information on the whereabouts of the spectacled bears. ‘To find the bears you must go much further into the park,’ the ranger tells us. ‘You must walk a long way.’ I don’t much like the sound of this. And anyway, I’m thinking to myself: how can a man who spends his days in an office be so sure where the bears are? Determined not to be diverted by this latest snippet of intelligence we head out into the wilds…or, I should really say, the 8 kilometres of marked trail encircling the lake. It doesn’t take long out on the trail before I know the ranger is talking a load of tosh. In several places I identify a path of flattened grasses leading off into the bush – quite clearly these have been caused by a bear. Camera in hand, I’m starting to get pretty excited. A kilometre later, when it’s necessary to wander a short distance off the trail to relieve myself, I note a flaw in my earlier observations: when I retrace my steps to the trail my passage through the grasses looks exactly like that made by a bear. Damn! I’m beginning to suspect that if I follow any one of these paths I spotted earlier, rather than uncovering a bear nonchalantly chewing on a corn cob, or a marmalade sandwich for that matter, all I’m likely to stumble upon is a pile of crumpled toilet paper. Perhaps the ranger was right. I gaze at the mist-shrouded peaks above me and decide…I really don’t want to go up there.

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OUT OF BREATH AND OUT OF LUCK. THANK GOD I BROUGHT THE STICK! THE HIKE ROUND THE LAGUNA DE CUICHACA STARTS AT AN ALTITUDE OF 3,100 METRES AND RISES TO 3,500 METRES. HAVING JUST ARRIVED FROM THE COAST, WHERE THE MOST EXERCISE I DID WAS TO RE-INFLATE THE TYRES WITH THE COMPRESSOR, THIS HUNTING FOR SPECTACLED BEARS LARK HAS ALL COME AS A BIT OF A SHOCK.

I have to admit to drawing a blank. As far as spectacled bears go, it seems I shall just have to be content with photos from the National Geographic. And I only hope some means of securing their future can be found, so that we may go on photographing them…when we can find them. Bears aside, the hike round the lake is in itself most spectacular. The mass of wild flowers are stunning, as are the frequent sightings of humming birds. It took us four and a half hours to get round, which seemed to quite impress the ranger.

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THE LAGUNA DE CUICOCHA IS A COLLAPSED VOLCANIC CRATER. THE LAKE IS 200 METRES DEEP. THE TWO ISLANDS APPEARED AT A LATER DATE AND ARE SAID TO RESEMBLE THE SHAPE OF GUINEA PIGS – HENCE THE NAME “THE LAKE OF THE GUINEA PIGS”.
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THE ONLY BEARS WE FOUND ARE AT THE INFORMATION CENTRE…AND ARE MADE OF CEMENT. THERE’S ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO WALK ANY FURTHER!
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“YOUR FRIEND, THE ANDEAN BEAR, THANKS YOU FOR YOUR VISIT! COME AGAIN!”

For more information on the spectacled bear try http://www.andeanbear.org

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