I have always had a big soft spot for bears. I guess it all started with my Mum’s bedtime stories of Paddington Bear adventures, and Winnie the Pooh mischief.
Perhaps later it developed after close encounters with various bear species on my travels: Brown, Black, Grizzly, Panda, Ussuri Brown, Sunbear, and even the mighty Nanook Polar bear.
So after moving to Quito, Ecuador, I naturally became curious about South America´s only native bear species – the Andean bear (or Spectacled bear), scientific name Tremarctos Ornatus. I had already visited the Cloudforest more than 10 times with no Andean bear sightings and heard stories from seasoned guides that even they had never crossed paths with these shy and elusive creatures. So my chances of ever seeing one in the wild seemed as remote, to say the least.
Fast forward more than a decade, and a chance encounter with an old friend led me to a new clue on my Andean bear quest, a clue that would lead to not just one bear sighting, but an incredible five in just one day!
Keep reading to learn more about my Andean Bear encounter, as well as all of the Andean Bear facts and information that you ever wanted to know.
Before we start, let´s clear up the most common question and misconception: What is the difference between an Andean bear and a Spectacled bear?
The short answer is that they are one and the same bear, with the two names often used interchangeably.
The Spectacled bear name derives from the bear’s distinctive facial markings, that can make it appear to be wearing spectacles. In fact, each and every bear has its unique markings, some with full spectacles, some half, and some with no spectacles at all.
The Andean name, of course, comes from the Andes mountain range, where these peaceful bears call home.
As the name would suggest Andean bears are found in the Andes, mostly in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru & Bolivia, and occasionally as far south as northern Argentina, or north into southern Panama.
There is estimated to be a population of approximately 20,000 bears in South America, 2,000 of which roam Ecuador’s Andean forests.
Remember, these are very elusive and intensely shy creatures, who love to hide in dense forest and avoid humans as a rule.
The good news is that close to Quito there are 3 different areas where it may be possible to see bears:
This is arguably the best spot to see an Andean bear anywhere in the wild. Every year bears come to eat the ripe wild Avocados at Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Lodge, which is part of a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve. The unique thing about this is that bears are usually solitary animals, yet at Maquipucuna it is often possible to see many over a very small area.
Bear watching at Maquipucuna is seasonal but unpredictable – it can be mid-year or during the latter months of the year, and only lasts 1-2 weeks. Some years they are lucky enough to enjoy two bear viewing seasons. So keep an eye on Maquipucuna’s Facebook page for news when the fruits are ripening and the bears start to appear. It is possible to visit as a day tour or stay overnight at the lodge.
Cayambe Coca is a protected area of Cloud Forest and Highlands Paramo Plains, perfect habitat to spot migrating Andean Bears, but more patience and luck is needed here than at Maquipucuna. A 5-7day guided overnight trip is recommended to maximize your chances of spotting one. Speak to the guide office at Papallacta Hot Springs for more information.
Finally the Pimampiro lookout, approximately 1 and ¼ hour drive from Ibarra Town, and run by Project Organiser, Daniel Vasquez. It’s off of the beaten track for sure, and you should bring a good pair of binoculars, and be prepared to settle in and wait out much of the day. Pimampiro is a year-round bear destination, although sightings are of course not guaranteed. More information about how to visit Pimampiro can be found at @miradordelosoandino on Facebook.
Maquipucuna in bear season seemed like the safest bet to see an Andean bear, so throughout 2017 I waited patiently in Quito, biding my time until I started seeing amazing bear photos on Maquipucuna’s Facebook page – the bear had arrived!
It just happened to coincide with a public holiday on the final days of the year, so I eagerly packed my kit bag and headed into the forest, as giddy as an excited schoolboy.
At the crack of dawn the next morning I was a blur of activity, scrambling out of bed, pulling on trekking gear, shoveling down a hearty breakfast, in such a rush to hit the trail that I almost forgot my camera along the way.
After half an hour of brisk walking up a gently sloping hill, with enclosed forest walls to either side, suddenly the landscape opened up on our right side, with glorious panoramic views of the valley below and green, forest mountains beyond. Most importantly, scattered abundantly across the landscape were dozens of wild avocado trees, ripe fruits hanging invitingly … but so far not a single hungry bear in sight. It was going to be a waiting game.
It was around one hour later when a wave of excitement slowly filtered through the various bear enthusiasts that had assembled. A guide further up the trail had a confirmed bear sighting! Practically sprinting up the trail, it was less than 5 minutes before we found the guide, who gestured yonder into the avocado trees … and there he was, an adult Andean bear, slowly climbing up to reach the high-hanging fruit :)
My first impression was what an amazingly agile climber he was! I remember Baloo in the Jungle Book being rather on the heavy side to climb (persuading Mowgli to climb for him), but this ascent was of slow, purposeful elegance. The tree was tall and thin, with branches that looked too frail to support his weight, but clearly no problem for a dexterous bear on a determined misión to sate his hunger.
Our first bear had partial spectacle markings and was certainly not in any rush as he broke off avocado-laden branches, and calmly munched through them. Occasionally there would be a cursory glance our way, but his focus was clearly getting the small avocados into his belly.
An entire day up on the same trail ridge brought a total of 5 bear sightings, with most staying a couple of hours up any single tree. The clear, unblocked views, and calm laziness of the bears, made photography easy and left even the small kids in our group in silent awe.
At the end of a remarkable day, I must admit I was blown away not only by how many bears we had seen, but more so how close we came to them, and how many hours we could spend observing their behavior. For such a shy creature, this was an unexpectedly up close and personal wildlife experience.
My Andean bear odyssey complete, all that was left at the end of the day was to return to the lodge for a celebratory beer and enjoy the added bonus of a lecture by an esteemed bear expert, Santiago Molina.
The Andean bear is currently listed as “Vulnerable: at high risk of extinction in the wild” on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
As with many other large mammal species, the biggest threat is through the loss of forest habitat, which historically has been cleared for agriculture and cattle farming. As their habitat has shrunk, sadly there have been inevitable clashes with humans, where bears are attracted to crops as a food source, and farmers see them as a threat to their livelihood.
Clearly, something had to change, and that came through Bear Ecologist, Santiago Molina, who initiated a study of bears in Pichincha Province.
His first step was to better understand the bears, so camera traps were set up to monitor more than 60 bears, to estimate size and density of population, & feeding, movement and interaction habits. The results of this study led to the recognition of Andean Bears as an “emblematic species” by Quito Municipality.
Now that there was an agreed commitment to protect bears, the next question was How? Much debate led to a consensus to create a special ecological corridor covering 65,000 hectares, which links different zones where bears roam, thus giving them greater freedom of movement. So where previously bears lived in isolated National Parks & Reserves (for example Cayambe Coca, Antisana, Llanganantes, Sumaco), but faced manmade obstacles such as major roads that limited their movement, now they have greater freedom to migrate between the parks, and there is less fragmentation of the bear population. An added bonus is that the ecological corridor helps other large mammal species at the same time.
Work is also being done with the local communities, teaching them to view bears positively as they attract tourists that can benefit the local community, rather than as a threat to crops and livestock. More work is also needed to restrict farming and ranching in key ecological areas, to ensure better protection of habitat.
Despite the success of bear ecology over the past decade, this work is still very much ongoing. With growing public support and recognition of the Andean Bear in Ecuador, there is renewed hope that this shy species can successfully be protected in the future.
Andean bears are omnivores and considered the most vegetarian of all bear species. Their diet consists mostly of berries, vegetables & bromeliads, with just 5% of food being meat such as small rodents or birds.
Andean bears are extremely timid, and actively avoid human encounters. They will usually run away into the forest if your paths do accidentally cross.
Only in very unusual situations might they become aggressive, if they feel threatened, or are protecting young cubs.
Andean bears live in, or close to, the tropics. The warm climate produces good year-round food sources for active bears, so there is no biological need for Andean bears to hibernate like other bear species.
Like all good bears, they do enjoy a good nap, often sleeping in the trees, where they build nests from branches, twigs & leaves. Individual Andean bears have even been observed sleeping in the same tree for several days, waiting for the tree´s fruit to ripen.
During my 2 days at Maquipucuna, I made a rather unusual acquaintance there … Bertie the BBC cameraman.
Bertie was filming as part of the BBC “seven worlds: Planet Earth III” series and spent 2 whole weeks carrying heavy equipment up and down the bear trail from dawn to dusk, rain or shine.
Not only was Bertie a lovely bloke, but he was also a handy guy to follow into the forest, as, where bears went Bertie would follow. He inevitably found the best spots to set up his camera for optimal bear viewing, and his contagious enthusiasm kept us entertained during the bear lulls throughout the day.
I’d like to share this wonderful video with you, about his time at Maquipucuna, and the results of his hard work.
To put his work into perspective, he led 2 long weeks of filming, after which his footage might be aired on TV 3 years later, or may never see the light of day, depending on the documentary editing team. Even in the best case, he hoped to see only 2-3 minutes of his footage used as part of a long documentary series.
Dream job? It depends on your perspective I guess, but Bertie certainly seemed happy out in the forest each day, and I could fully appreciate his joyful passion with each new Andean bear sighting.
Written by John Potts
If you are interested in seeing Andean bears for yourself, then get in touch with me at [email protected], or complete our online form. Bears are a great passion of mine, so I will be delighted to help any other bear spotters in their quest.