Day 10 — Admiral! There Be Bears at Inkaterra!

Sunday — April 12

The title of this post may seem familiar to “Trekkies.” Yes, I am paraphrasing a line from the movie Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home. When Scotty, his voice thick with a Scottish accent, calls up to Kirk, he is referring to whales — a species that has gone extinct in the future … it is a sci-fi movie, after all. My reference is to the vulnerable “spectacled bear,” the only surviving species of bear indigenous to South America (can trace its ancestors back to the Ice Age). But more about that later.

For a change, we woke up to sunshine. The birds were chirping their little hearts out as though they were trying to spread the joyous news of good weather. It was time for us to go forth and explore the grounds of the Inkaterra. Knowing how fickle the weather could be, we delayed breakfast and went for a meandering walk around the lush, tropical gardens.

It’s nice to wander around the property without being rained on.

Though we searched the canopy carefully, we did not get a glimpse of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, the national bird of Perú. The hummingbirds, however, were flitting about, gathering nectar from the feeders located throughout the property. We’d seen quite a few already in the Sacred Valley, but the opportunity to see them really up close here was a neat experience (even though they were difficult to photograph because they rarely stood still).

A chestnut breasted coronet gathers nectar at one of the feeders.

Hummingbird on a wire.

After a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the eco center to join our group for the visit to the Spectacled Bears (aka Andean Bears). I’ll warn you in advance that this will run long. I was really enchanted with these bears and want to share some of the “educational” details we were given as well as the visit itself.

I first became aware of the project that is operated by the Inka Terra Association (ITA) and the Peruvian National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) when I saw an episode of a TV show hosted by Jeff Corwin on Animal Planet. In the show, Corwin was helping to relocate “Peppi” from a zoo to his new home — the spectacled bear reserve on the grounds of the Inkaterra. (If you’re interested, there’s a blog about how the transfer unfolds here.)

Naturally, when we decided to stay at the Inkaterra, I started looking into how we could visit the project. It couldn’t have been easier; the information was right there on the hotel’s website as one of the activities offered to hotel guests. (The suggested donation has now become a mandatory one — $10/person. Since the money goes to the care of the two resident bears, this was not a problem for us.) We would have much preferred to see bears in the wild, but they are notoriously difficult to see even though there are a number of them in the area. Why? Three reasons: (1) the bears have widespread territories ranging in altitude from 3,000 feet to 10,000 feet (~1,000-3,000 m); (2) they spend a great deal of their time in the canopy of the cloud forest; and (3) they are very shy. With the limited time we had available to us, the reserve was our only realistic option.

Here’s something of interest. Because these bears traverse a more or less horizontal range, the ancient people of Perú considered them to be go-betweens, mediators if you will, of good and bad (as represented by the higher elevations for the former and the lower elevations for the latter).

We were joined by two other guests for our visit to the project site, which is located in the far reaches of the property and accessible only through a locked gate. Before we set out to see the ucumaris, as the bears are known locally (means huggable or nice bear), our guide gave us a 15-minute Powerpoint presentation that explained the focus of the project and the challenges the bears face in the wild — there are about 6,000 of them left; down from nearly 20,000 just a few decades ago, but up from a low of 1,000. About half the population lives in Perú. Habitat loss (especially deforestation due to intentionally-set fires) is a major challenge to the survival of the species, as are farmers who consider them pests (and thus poison them) and poachers who hunt them for their meat, their coat, and for traditional healing purposes (the hand, for example, is much valued in rituals performed by shamans).

The second part of the presentation introduced us to the resident bears. “Yogui” was the first to come to the reserve. He was rescued in 2001 from the Andean community of Vilcapata. As he is about 11 years old, there is still hope that he can be reintroduced into the wild. “Paola” was rescued in 2002 from a small village near Cusco. The conservation researchers hoped that she would mate with Yogui, but she didn’t much care for the “amorous attentions of a youngster.” She managed to escape from the reserve, thus reintroducing herself to the wild. She was sighted two years ago in the company of cubs; job well done Paola. “Peppi” came in late 2002 from the zoo in Cusco, where he was born and became imprinted on humans. He’s getting on in years (17 years old; expected life span is 25). Those two facts combine to make him a lifer at the reserve as he would be unable to survive in the wild.

Following the presentation, we were handed observation charts to note behavior that we observe during our visit and were escorted to the reserve where we met the two bears. Sad though it was to see them in captivity, I was happy to note that they each have a big enclosure, with a variety of things to keep them active. The keepers clean out the habitats daily, lay out food — in particular their favorite fruits, such as avocado, watermelon, grapes, passion fruit; and I think I spotted a bromeliad or two as well — varying the location of the tasty tidbits so as to keep the bears guessing and stimulate their instinct to search for food. It was great to witness the respect and the love the keepers have for the two animals in their care.

There was construction in Yogui’s enclosure — he’s about to get a new toy. In the meantime, he was hiding out in his den, munching on some fresh branches. Hoping that he’d show himself later, we went onto Peppi’s enclosure where we caught him eating breakfast. There was all kinds of fruit strewn about to satisfy any cravings he might have. He’d already scooped out half a watermelon, leaving behind nothing but the rind. He was chewing on some greenery when we arrived, but soon dumped that in favor of one his favorite foods — avocados.

Peppi loves avocados.

Unlike their cousins in other South American countries,
the bears of Perú don’t have the distinct spectacle markings around their eyes.

It was interesting the watch Peppi eat. First, he tore open the skin of the avocado. Then, he started eating the flesh. When he got to the seed in the center, he took it in his mouth, slurped it around to clean it off, spit it out on his arm, licked it a bit more to make sure there was no avocado flesh left on it before he threw the seed away. By the time he was done, there was nothing left but the skin, which he cast aside in favor of another avocado. After making short work of that avocado, he turned his attention to a bunch of grapes. Much to our amazement, he ate the bunch one grape at a time. He sure knew how to savor his meal. You don’t believe me? Check out this video clip that Mui took.

When Peppi retired to his den — spectacled bears pretty much eat and sleep, eat and sleep — we returned to the first enclosure to visit with Yogui. He was standing upright, arms resting on a crossbar on the fence where he was penned while the caretakers worked on his new toy. He looked just like someone who was sidled up to a bar, waiting for his drink to be served. In this case, he was intent on the activity around him, curious about what the caretakers were doing. His patience was rewarded with an occasional avocado slipped to him through the chain link fence. (Sorry no photos; not only was Yogui too close, but he had his back to us most of the time.)

With that, we returned to the eco center, paid our donation, and went to check out from our room.

Next Up: Day 10 — World of Orchids

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