The incredible encounter between a park ranger and an Andean bear

For almost two hours, Jhon Alexis Franco-Padilla was able to enjoy for the first time the imposing presence of a bear of this type in its natural habitat: the Las Hermosas – Gloria Valencia de Castaño National Natural Park (Valle del Cauca and Tolima).

Andean bear sighting (Tremarctos ornatus) in the PNN Las Hermosas.

© Jhon Alexis Franco-Padilla
Andean bear sighting (Tremarctos ornatus) in the PNN Las Hermosas.

Jhon Alexis Franco-Padilla is 23 years old. He has just graduated from his career as a management professional in ecology and tourism, and he has been working in the Las Hermosas National Natural Park for just one year. At the beginning of February he had an encounter that many of his older companions have not been able to achieve: he saw an Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also known as the spectacled bear, up close. It was 11 in the morning and Jhon and his partner Néstor Roncancio were completing six days of tours of the páramo to install and collect the records of camera traps that are used in the Park to monitor species such as the páramo tapir and the Andean bear. (The last chance to save the Andean bear)

It was very cold (they were 3,705 meters high) and the fog was thick. It seemed like a day like any other. But just as they were setting up a camera trap on the line that divides the mountain between Valle del Cauca and Tolima, they felt it. Nestor saw him first and warned him without making much noise. Jhon raised his head and his hands began to tremble, “but from emotion, not from fear. It is one of the most incredible things that has happened to me. Above all, because every day we work precisely to preserve it. “

The bear was about 300 meters from them, climbing up and down some moss-covered stones while looking at the moor and the Santa Teresa lagoon, one of the 387 lagoons that make up this park. “He looked like the king of that place,” says Jhon. The wind, which was hitting very hard and against the bear, helped the animal – capable of smelling carrion from 8 kilometers away – not sniff them and thus they could observe it for almost two hours. (A genetic look at the Andean bear)

“This species is very elusive and generally runs away from humans. It is best not to make too much noise and, in case it is a bear with young, to move away. Like all mothers, they are very protective of their children, ”she says. Jhon and Néstor are part of a monitoring program for páramo tapir and Andean bear that WWF Colombia, National Parks and ISAGEN have been carrying out since 2018, within the framework of a strategic alliance to consolidate a landscape vision over the territory (which makes it clear that We must not only protect these species within protected areas but also in their surroundings, since it is essential that the biological corridors through which they transit maintain their connectivity). They visit the Park two or three times a month in search of evidence that accounts for the health of the ecosystem. And there the Andean bear is decisive.

This is an umbrella species, that is, an animal that, by requiring large areas of land to survive naturally, functions as a channel for the conservation of the entire associated ecosystem. Therefore, if the species is well, there is a guarantee that its environment is in good health. So monitoring them is key, as countless species other than them are benefited by efforts focused on their conservation.

Now, among his teammates, Jhon is a kind of lucky charm, as he is the youngest of the team and the one who could spot him the fastest: “there are former teammates who spent years working in the Park and never saw one”. How much the one he saw measured or weighed, he does not know, since determining it based on a single sighting is difficult. “Of course, it wore the characteristic mask of the species, brown and, by its size, it can be deduced that it was a male,” he says. Due to its nature as an umbrella species, it is key to conserve the Andean bear, and camera trap monitoring is a tool to do so.

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