“Oso!” Despite having lived in Corosha for over one year, hearing the field guides exclaim “oso” (Spanish for bear) still gives me the chills. The entire experience remains magical to me: I have lost count of how many times I have completed the two-hour hike to Copal, yet each time I encounter and marvel at more new species along the way. And when I finally reach Copal, the drastic change in environment from montane forest to vast natural pasture fragmented by elfin forest still fills me with whimsy. After following the white sandy paths to the observation point near the top of the mountain, my happiness only intensifies once I spot the bears. It’s feels like a perfect dream that one wishes would reoccur. Luckily, it’s my reality.
In September 2015, I wrote about my first sighting of Andean bears in Corosha. Community members had spoken of sightings throughout the years, but tourists had not yet visited the area. I originally came to Corosha with the haphazard idea to teach English and experience a new culture ... I was on vacation. However, my lackadaisical plans instantly changed once I observed my first Andean bear within ten minutes of entering its territory. These plans were solidified after spotting three more bears within the hour. The relatively unknown existence of this large population of Andean bears, a species threatened with extinction, motivated me to seriously develop my life plans so that I could help conserve these majestic animals and their awe-inspiring habitat. One year later, I divide my time between Corosha and Lima. In Corosha, the local community members and the Peruvian NGO Yunkawasi have jointly created a community-based ecotourism project to create more lucrative economic opportunities which simultaneously conserve the local environment. In Lima, I am pursuing a master’s degree in ecotourism so that I can increase my knowledge of community-based ecotourism and maximize my efforts in Corosha. The community’s ecotourism project is now composed of an association of fourteen field guides and also an association of fifteen women who provide lodging and meals to tourists, long-term volunteers, and biological researchers through a homestay program. In addition to Andean bears, the ecotourism project focuses on several endangered and critically endangered species of monkeys and birds and is committed to improving the well-being of both the local people and their environment.
I did not think I would ever experience the same level of euphoria that I did when I first saw the bears in 2015. However, a trip to Copal last August proved me wrong. The bears venture from Copal, over the mountain, and into the surrounding forests from around April to July each year. After a few months with zero sightings, I returned to Copal with Yunkawasi’s head field guide, Lucas Vega, and wildlife photographer, Bernardo Roca-Rey Ross. As always, the journey to Copal filled me with vigor and I was left mystified after entering the pampa. As we sat 2,700m above sea level, clouds floated below, sometimes obstructing our view, but nevertheless I was completely content to immerse myself in this tranquil environment. As is normal, it was not long before we spotted two bears. At approximately 1,500m and 800m away, I was excited to show Bernardo his first wild Andean bears, but I was anxious to spot one closer. We happily watched the two bears forage throughout the pasture for food, the sun intensifying their black fur. Corosha is unique from other Andean bear localities in Peru as observations are almost guaranteed nine months per year, a claim unheard of for wild Andean bears. As the sun appeared and I finally started to warm up, my body suddenly froze when Lucas quietly exclaimed, “oso.” Just 150m north of where we sat, an individual grazed seemingly unbothered in the pasture. I was ecstatic because after months of snapping photos of bears with my iPhone magnified by binoculars, Bernardo would be able to get a nice pic! However, as my eyes focused on the individual, I feared I had celebrated too soon. The black fur that I had observed on all Andean bears throughout the past eleven months was completely absent. Rather, this individual possessed a light golden pelage that glistened in the sun. I wondered if I was looking at a dog … I was completely and utterly confused. However, as I lifted my binoculars I immediately noticed similarities between the bears I had previously seen at Copal and this mystery individual. Most notably, this individual possessed the Andean bear’s most quintessential characteristic – eyes surrounded by thick rings of light colored fur, the feature for why Andean bears are also commonly called “spectacled bears.” I could not believe it - this was a bear! A golden colored Andean bear!! Just like Paddington!!! The three of us immediately started photographing and filming the bear before it moved farther. Bursting with excitement, I frantically texted photos to my friends, family, and to volunteers and researchers who had studied the bears in Corosha during the past year. The responses were of shock and astonishment. There have been reports of captive light colored Andean bears, but none have been documented in the wild. Though abnormal in appearance, this bear behaved as the others, continuing to nonchalantly forage in the pasture before eventually disappearing into a small fragment of forest.
As this is the first light colored Andean bear documented in the wild, there exists an obvious need to increase conservation efforts and scientific research of this species in Corosha. Andean bears are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are predicted to endure a 30% population reduction within thirty years due to continued habitat destruction and poaching (Goldstein et al., 2008). Therefore, it is critically important that conservation efforts immediately be focused to prevent this species’ extinction. The community of Corosha and Yunkawasi are currently planning the expansion of Corosha’s community protected area, Hierba Buena – Allpayacu to include Copal, legally protecting it from further degradation. Additionally, improvements in infrastructure at Copal (ex: trail maintenance, construction of lookout points, etc.) will increase its accessibility by tourists. A sustainable and well-managed increase in tourism will raise awareness for the several threatened species in Corosha and provide the local community with economic incentives to preserve more of their local environment, an area which comprises the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot, the most biologically diverse area on Earth (Tropical Andes). Ultimately, the sighting of this rare colored Andean bear emblematizes the high degree of biodiversity found within Corosha and proves that more of this montane forest remains to be explored. Even the unimaginable can be discovered - see for yourself and come explore Corosha to admire the Real Life Paddington Bear!
Field Coordinator, Yunkawasi
Goldstein, I., Velez-Liendo, X., Paisley, S. & Garshelis, D.L. (IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group). 2008. Tremarctos ornatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T22066A9355162. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T22066A9355162.en.Downloaded on 25 September 2016.
Tropical Andes. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2016, from http://www.cepf.net/where_we_work/regions/south_america/tropical_andes/Pages/default.aspx