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A first-person account of traveling to see the elusive species in the wild.
Looking out the airplane window flying into Cusco, Peru, is a bit unnerving. Large folds of mountain range, some rich green and some snow-capped, stretch as far as the eye can see. The plane tucks itself between the mountains as it descends onto a small airstrip that only appears minutes before landing. This view, upon my arrival in Cusco, gave me a glimpse into the seeming absurdity of trying to study a threatened, elusive species that lives in such unforgiving terrain that spans five countries.
My work as a conservation engagement specialist at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo taught me about the Andean bear and the Zoo’s program, but never had I traveled to South America. Your Zoo is a founding and managing member of the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance (ABCA), which works in South America to create range-wide programs to monitor and protect the Andean bear.
I met my guide and trekking mates at 5 a.m. A two-hour drive through increasingly rural areas outside Cusco landed us at the train station. We boarded the train, and I sat by the window. For the next hour or so, I watched small farms blend into wild forest and the mountains begin to envelop us. Abruptly, the train stopped and we were rushed out – not onto a platform or a formal station, but a simple trailhead within the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail weaves through muggy jungle and cuts across steep, scrubby mountainsides. I imagined ancient people using these paths to transport goods and run messages. These people would stop to rest at small way stations, or tampus, along their way. We stopped at a couple of these stone structures along the trail, and we stopped often. Even after becoming acclimated to the altitude, the hike is challenging. Much of the trail is original Inca construction, which was incredible to consider as we climbed hundreds of large stone steps.
The entire existence and experience of Machu Picchu seems impossible. There are no words strong enough to describe how it feels to see this level of human ingenuity Andean bears have been found to have a presence in 95% of the area that makes up Machu Picchu.
I did not see any Andean bears on my Inca Trail trek. I didn’t expect to – they’re notoriously elusive – but I allowed myself a modest bit of hope and kept my eyes peeled.
Andean bears, like Machu Picchu, are shrouded in intrigue. The last remaining species of the short-faced bears, and the only bear species native to South America, Andean bears move through the tropical tundra and cloud forests of the Andes mountain range in Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.
These bears live within a specific altitude range and are increasingly threatened by human activity. For example, a coffee farmer that climbs the hillside and replaces native trees with neat, fenced-in rows of coffee trees, might make it impossible for Andean bears to navigate around the farm within the constraints of their range. And if the bears attempt to go through agricultural areas, they could be met by humans feeling threatened by their presence – and angry about any damage to their crops.
Protecting these bears is exceedingly difficult given their vast, unforgiving range, something I was only able to fully appreciate after hiking a small portion of it myself. But this work is as important as it is challenging. Andean bears are an umbrella species: their protection also means the protection of many species that share their habitat. Andean bear conservation is whole-ecosystem conservation.
It can be difficult to raise awareness and support for the protection of an animal that people seldom get to see. Experiencing a small piece of their habitat – misty forest, sprawling mountain range, ancient cities connected by arduous trails – instilled in me an immediate sense of the significance of Andean bear conservation. It made me proud to say that Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is helping to lead the charge on protecting Andean bears and engaging our community to better appreciate them. These bears live in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, represent a unique species among bears, and roam among the ruins of ancient civilizations; it’s unequivocally important to protect Andean bears, but it’s also bigger than just this species.
The Conservation Dinner: Bluegrass + Barbeque on October 2 will have proceeds donated to the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance. Purchase your reservations today!