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Cover photo: An Anden Bear on top of the trees in the Yungas of the La Paz department. Viviana Albarracín

“As a member of the Ursidae family and one of the eight species of bears worldwide, the Andean bear or Jucumari is the only one that inhabits South America. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness about this species and the threats it faces. Just like the panda bear or the polar bear are endangered, the Andean bear is also threatened. It needs and deserves our protection,” comments Viviana Albarracín, a specialist with over 15 years of experience in the conservation of this magnificent mammal.

Albarracín is an ecology and environmental engineer with extensive experience in environmental management and public outreach, with a particular interest in the study and conservation of the Spectacled bear. In an interview with Armonía, Albarracín highlights the importance of the Andean bear in Bolivia’s biodiversity, its cultural legacy, and its role in ecosystem services for people.

“What characterizes the Andean bear are the spots around its face and neck. These are different in each individual and can even be barely visible in those bears that appear completely black at first glance. The spots of the Andean bear gave it the vernacular name of Spectacled bear. These spots are whitish or lighter than the fur of the rest of its body, and they act like fingerprints to recognize each bear. The male Andean bear can reach a height between 1.8 and 2 meters when standing on two legs, while the female reaches 1.5 to 1.6 meters,” points out the expert.

The Andean bear inhabits a narrow strip along the Andes mountain range, from the western foothills of Venezuela, through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, to the southern central Andes of Bolivia. Regarding numbers, according to Albarracín, there is no specific data, but estimates range from 13,000 to 18,000 individuals throughout its distribution. In Bolivia, the Andean bear can be found in the strip of mountain forests from La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, to Tarija.

Photo: Viviana Albarracín and Framco Echenique installing trap cameras to study the Andean bear in the municipality of Mairana, Santa Cruz department. Nicole Ávalos.

The Andean bear faces serious threats that have led it to be categorized as a Vulnerable to Extinction species, according to the assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Currently, efforts are being deployed to update that assessment, and unfortunately, it is likely to move the Anean bear to a higher-risk category, such as an Endangered species. Among the main threats to the Andean bear are habitat loss, wildfires, hunting for retaliation, and illegal wildlife trafficking.

 In some places where bears coexist with humans, conflicts can occur, mainly due to the consumption of crops or livestock. Since the Andean bear’s habitat has been transformed for crops, such as corn, these become a food source for the bear. Additionally, due to livestock expansion, cows occasionally become available prey. It has been observed that the Andean bear can attack a cow or feed on them when they have been killed by another animal. “This leads farmers to retaliate against the bears, seeking and killing them,” laments Albarracín.

 Myths and legends about the Andean bear

“There are people who consume Andean bear meat because there are various superstitions about it. Some say it gives you strength and courage, others say it should not be consumed because it can make you bad-tempered. There are different perceptions about it,” says Albarracín. Additionally, in mythology, the Andean bear is seen as a protective entity for humans. Albarracín highlights that when one talks about the importance of the Andean bear, people respond that it is protection for the community. There is even a legend that tells about it.

“It’s about a tourist who was walking through the jungle. He gets lost and calls the bear, which according to the region has different names, tomasito, Jucumari, among others. It is then that the bear appears before the tourist, like a kind of superhero, and protects him from the puma. Where there is a bear, there is no puma, people say, they see it as a kind of protection,” recounts the ecologist and environmental engineer.

Protecting the Andean bear with Key Biodiversity Areas

Key Biodiversity Areas or KBAs are a fundamental tool for promoting the protection of strategic areas for the most vulnerable flora and fauna globally and nationally. In Bolivia, KBAs also emerge as an opportunity for the management and conservation of those areas of great natural value.

“Apolobamba, for example, is one of these areas. It is a region where the Andean bear inhabits, and I am glad to know that besides being a protected area, it is also a KBA,” highlights the specialist. Beyond the cultural and social context surrounding the Andean bear, Albarracín emphasizes the importance of this mammal as an indicator of ecosystem health and its crucial role in conserving biodiversity and water resources. “By taking care of it, we also take care of all the biodiversity it interacts with. It is an indicator of the good condition of ecosystems,” says Albarracín.

Animals like the Andean bear require a lot of space, food, and water, so by conserving it, other species of flora and fauna, forests, and entire ecosystems in its territory are also protected. It is strategic for the protection and management of natural resources. “It is said that where there are bears, there is water, and where there is water, there is life; it is like the protector of the headwaters of rivers.”

It is also a “gardener.” Albarracín explains that the Andean bear’s diet is mainly composed of plants and fruits, whose seeds will later be dispersed in its feces. In this way, the Andean bear contributes to the regeneration of forests. Being a large animal, the Andean bear also breaks branches and lets light reach the plants closer to the ground.

For the conservation of the Andean bear and its habitat to be successful, the expert emphasizes the need for coordinated conservation programs involving various institutions, non-governmental organizations, and local communities. She also highlights the role of environmental education and outreach to raise awareness and sensitize people about the Andean bear and the need to protect it.

One of the main advances for bear conservation in Bolivia is that it has an action plan to guide management, research, and protection efforts from 2020 to 2025. Based on this plan, the Ministry of Environment and Water, governorates, municipalities, universities, and NGOs are involved in safeguarding this species. Throughout Bolivia, there are research and conservation projects for bears, such as the Andean Carnivores Program in Bolivia, which focuses on the Andean bear.

Environmental education, dissemination, and outreach are also fundamental in strategies to protect threatened species. Professionals like Viviana Albarracín are part of the strategy for the Andean bear, conducting outreach campaigns in schools and universities, seeking to change or stop negative interactions with the bear.

“There are no published records of bear attacks on people in their distribution. We need to know more, develop more research on the bear because we cannot protect something we do not know. We must get more involved with the wildlife we have. The Andean bear is extraordinary,” concludes the ecologist.

The project “Key Biodiversity Areas: establishing the 30×30 plan” is implemented in Bolivia by the Armonía Association, in coordination with Birdlife and funded by the Bezos Earth Fund.


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