Peru’s Chaparrí Reserve: Home of miraculous spectacled bears

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They call the mother bear Milagros, and for a month, she’s been seen taking care of her cubs.

While the visitors to Chaparrí Ecological Reserve look on, the family of spectacled bears eats, plays and rests among the branches. Sometimes they get as close as 10 meters to the visitors, who have come from as far away as Europe.

The bears’ calm demonstrates their feeling of safety in Chaparrí, some 70 kilometers from Chiclayo, Lambayeque. A shy species, they are easily spooked and usually avoid human contact. Nonetheless, Milagros is not any old bear, and her history justifies the name that the park guards gave her.

They brought her to Chaparrí eight years ago. She was an orphan, traumatized by a horrible experience. A villager found Milagros at the accident site of TANS Flight 222, which had crashed against a hill in Amazonas on January 9th, 2003. The villager, the first to arrive on the scene, did not find any survivors from the flight, but he did find a bear cub, alone and terrified. It’s unknown whether Milagros’ mother died in the accident, or if she ran away terrified, leaving her daughter behind.

At Chaparrí, they fed her milk from a bottle, and a childless female bear adopted her. Milagros grew up, but she continued to be a rare bear. She escaped the reserve three times and had to be tracked down, once climbing the electric fence and another time climbing a tree that hugged the perimeter. When she was finally set free on purpose, the researchers put a tracking collar on her, but it was no match for the abuse Milagros gave it, and the researchers lost track of her.

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Milagros with her cubs, Panda and Gill-Gill

And now she is the first rescued bear to have cubs in Chaparrí. After a year of not being seen, Milagros reappeared in the reserve with her two cubs (whose genders are still unknown) at the end of September, just as a group of ten Peruvian tourists had stopped at a look-out spot. Their guide, Juan Carrasco, says they were astonished for ten minutes: “It was an enormous surprise,” he says.
The bear family has become accustomed to the presence of humans in the reserve, and numerous visitors have observed the bears. The two cubs already have been given names. One is called Panda for the black splotch near its eyes, and the other is called Gill-Gill in honor of David Gill, owner of the South Lakes Wild Animal Park in England, which has provided financial and technical support to Chaparrí.

No one knows for sure, but it’s estimated that there are some 5,000-20,000 spectacled bears in the wild, half of them in Peru. For Heinz Plenge, the photographer and nature-lover behind the Chaparrí, the first private conservation area in Peru, the appearance of Milagros with Panda and Gill-Gill has been an emotional experience, after ten years of struggling to realize his dream. “It was like the birth of your own son,” he says of the moment when he was told the news. “I let loose some tears.”

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Heinz Plenge, with his camera

The efforts have run from placing eggs inside the reserve to an awareness campaign for the twenty surrounding communities, so they could help in the conservation efforts. During the first six years, no one saw a bear, just the footprints and feces of one or two. Now, it is believed that the reserve’s population is up to 30, and the number of bears who pass through (they are highly mobile, able to cross the Andes in a day or two) is estimated at more than 100.

The communities also deserve to be recognized. Carrasco, who lives in the Comunidad Campesina de Muchik Santa Catalina, next to the reserve, talks of a great change in the community. “Before, we were hunters and lumberjacks. That was our custom,” he says. “At first, we had a lot of doubts, but not anymore. The community members are now convinced of the need for conservation.”

Today, Chaparrí is the best place to see spectacled bears in the wild. More than 80% of the visitors manage to see a bear, including the tourists who just spend a few hours there. From Venezuela to Argentina, there is nowhere in the bears’ habitat like this, and the reserve now serves as an inspiration for others. Representatives from other communities in Peru, and even Chile, come to Chaparrí to study and emulate its successful conservation model.
 

Peru’s Chaparrí Reserve has rescued many threatened spectacled bears, and now it is the best place in the world to see the rare animal.

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