SPECIES FACT FILE
Scientific name: Tremarctos ornatus
English names: Spectacled bear, Andean bear
Spanish and local names: Oso Andino, Jucumari, Juku, Ukuku
At la Senda Verde: Aruma and Ajayu, Males; Tipnis, Female.
Body Weight: Female: 60 to 80 Kilograms (130 to 176 pounds) Male: 100 to 175 Kilograms (220 to 386 pounds)
Size: 1.8 meters (6.5 feet) long. Males are up to 50% larger than females
Andean Bears are the only species of Bears in South America and are relatives of the extinct Arctotherium, the largest bear that ever lived. These type of bears of the Tremarctinae subfamily developed wider and shorter snouts as an adaptation to a mostly carnivore diet. The Andean bears are the exception, while they keep this feature inherited from their relatives, they‘re second to the Panda as the most herbivore of all bears, their diet being comprised of only 5% meat.
Andean Bears are the second largest mammal in South America, being outweighed only by the Tapir. They have dark fur and white or yellow markings on their chest, neck and face, which may resemble to spectacles, hence spectacled bears.
The Andean Bear makes a living in all the ecosystems found in the eastern slopes of the central and northern Andes; from the Merida mountains in Venezuela, passing through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Northern Argentina. They are more abundant in the cloud forests, ranging from altitudes of 800 to 4,500 above sea level, but are also found in interandean dry valleys and scrublands.
Habitat fragmentation due to roads, agriculture and mining are main causes for this species being marked as threatened by the IUCN red list, with less than 2,000 bears remaining in the wild. In Colombia where the bear’s habitat is most fragmented, there are many efforts carried out with communities to protect this flagship species of the Andes. The largest Spectacled Bear protected habitat is found in the Tambopata-Madidi region between Peru and Bolivia, where the largest population of this species thrives. Maybe because of this, in Bolivia, there are currently no laws to protect this threatened species.
This is about to change, thanks to the work of Ximena Vélez-Liendo, a Bolivian biologist who has dedicated her career to study and protect the Andean Bear and has recently won the Whitley Award of conservation, which will allow her to carry on an ambitious project to protect this species in Bolivia. Working together, Ximena and Senda Verde are proposing a law project to the Bolivian government to avoid stories like that of Ajayu, one of Senda Verde’s rescued Andean bears that was brutally beaten. The law will carry his name, the Ajayu law.
The common English name, Spectacled Bear, makes reference to the white markings on their face, neck and chest which may resemble eyeglasses on some individuals. Its other common name, Andean Bear, refers to the land they live in, the Andes Mountains. The etymology of the scientific name, Tremarctos Ornatus, is quite fun. First, trem comes from a Greek word meaning “hole” and is reference to a peculiar hole this species has on the humerus. Arctos is the Greek word for “bear”. Finally ornatus means “decorated” as a reference to their facial markings which give them their English name.
Andean Bears are mostly solitary, but have been seen eating together in places where there is abundance of food, like a tree with ripe fruit or a corn field. Their diet consists of different types of leaves, plant hearts, roots, barks, insects, honey and small mammals. They are the only bear that eats bromeliads and this along with palm hearts comprise most of their diet.
Spectacled bears are avid tree climbers and can build tree platforms with leaves and branches which they use to feed and to rest. Female Spectacled bears are half the size of their male counterparts; they mate once per year and can have up to four cubs. The cubs will stay in the den for three months and will then accompany the mother until they are fully grown. Spectacled bears have no natural predators, only bear cubs do and can be hunted by Jaguars and Pumas.
Symbology and Mysticism.
Although there haven’t been found many archaeological art pieces with spectacled bears in them, there is no reason to believe native cultures in South America have not had the presence of the Andean Bear as a highly respectable being in their mythology in the past. In present indigenous cultures it plays important roles as a mediator between the sky and the earth, as in the Quechua cultures around Cuzco, where an important yearly ritual involves people dressing as spectacled bears and invoking them.
In southern Bolivia and northern Argentina there is a widespread legend of a monkey-like hairy beast, possibly an extinct hominid that steals people from nearby towns and rapes them. This is what the name “Jucumari” actually means or refers to, but this hominid seems to be confused with the hairy Andean Bear and hence why this Bear gets this local name. In Quechua, Jucumari means “monkey man of the forests”. It is curious the relationship this legend has with the Yukpa Myth of “Mashiramu” in Venezuela, that believes the Andean Bear, Mashiramu, is a descendant of Tavoukcha, a Yukpa ancestor that ascended to the clouds to bring monkeys to the earth and mated with them, having Mashiramu as a son.
SPECTACLED BEAR FUN FACTS
- Female Andean Bears can carry their litter on their backs or by clutching a cub with one paw and walking on three legs or standing with the hind legs.
- Andean Bears that live in dry interandean valleys can eat cacti with spines with no apparent harm to them.
- Andean Bears have a wide range of vocal sounds they can make, which they use to communicate. Many of them are soft, purring sounds that are very un-bear-like.
- Andean bears are very easy to identify from the distance because their “spectacles” or markings are very distinct one individual from the other.
- Andean bears in Bolivia have been seen to have a unique escape technique: they will crutch and make themselves a little ball and roll down the mountain.
AT LA SENDA VERDE:
He is the first bear to arrive and was the game-changer for LSV. After he arrived we knew that our mission was to shelter and rescue animals. Aruma means “night” in Aymara language, but his first name was Quimeñito, this because he came in from the town of Quime. A little boy and his dad had stumbled in the forest with a mother bear with two cubs. The mother and one of the cubs fled but the other cub stood there frozen. He was then taken by the little boy and was trying to sell it in the town of Quime. People called the police and the bear cub was confiscated from the little boy. He was first taken to the zoo at La Paz, soon to be sent to Senda Verde where he has been living happily for the last 9 years. He turned 10 years old in July 2017. Recent image of Ajayu at LSV.
The female bear, she was confiscated from a family in the town of Incahuasi, in the Department of Chuquisaca. This rural family’s dogs had chased a mother bear and had killed one of the cubs, the other cub was captured by the family. She was being kept leashed to a tin can, with no proper care whatsoever. The local police found out about it and the director of the environment bureau herself went to pick her up. She was sent on a plane to La Paz and immediately taken to LSV. She arrived almost dead of undernourishment, her hair was light brown and was full of dreadlocks. Withing the first three months she gained 20 kilograms. She didn’t know how to use her teeth or her hands to eat and was a big challenge for the caretakers to make her well.
This male bear was another game changer for LSV. He was saved by the police in Cochabamba from being brutally beaten to death by a local nearby community in 2016. He arrived to La Paz and La Senda Verde took care of his treatments. He received several surgeries, one to save his left eye and one to save his jaw from a severe infection. He stopped eating for days and had to be force fed. It was quite a struggle to save him, but with time he got better and is now weighing 100 kilograms. As a result from this brutal story is that LSV has become more involved in trying to change legislation in Bolivia to protect this species and avoid stories like this one from happening again. We are now working alongside biologist Ximena Vélez-Liendo to present a law project that will be called the Ajayu law, named after this bear. Ajayu means spirit in Aymara language.
Visit the special case file of Ajayu (coming soon).