A dark spectacled bear looks to it's right

A spectacled bear looks back at the camera as it stands against the backdrop of its former home, which is now scorched land. © Daniel Mideros.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: A Slim Outlook for Spectacled Bears

Daniel Mideros' winning image from Wildlife Photographer of the Year 58 captures the stark reality of what life looks like for spectacled bears - an endemic and umbrella species of the Andes Mountains in South America.

During the first lockdown, Daniel decided to photograph the hidden wildlife in Ecuador by using a camera trap. He teamed up with the local scientific, non-governmental organisation Fundación Cóndor Andino and learned that spectacled bears had been spotted on the canyons, close to the edges of Ecuador's capital city Quito.

This was unusual, as these bears are painfully shy and avoid humans at all costs. Daniel's curiosity was piqued! He wanted to know why the bears were roaming so near to urban life.

'I started focusing on spectacled bears because although they're large animals, people rarely see them as they are so secretive,' explains Daniel. 'Some people don't even know that spectacled bears live in Ecuador.'

Wildlife photographer Daniel Mideros smiles at the camera.

Daniel is passionate about nature and delivers eco-friendly wildlife photography tours in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile through his company Photo Wildlife Tours. He also enjoys outdoor sports.

Spectacled bears are sensitive creatures and are aware of even small changes in their environment. It took Daniel several months to set up his camera trap along a wildlife corridor to avoid scaring them off. He first set up the camera casing within the trees and left it there for weeks. Upon his return, he added his camera, and a few weeks after that, added some lights.

'The first time I managed to photograph a spectacled bear, I was shocked,' Daniel recalls. 'When I was young, you had to travel far and work hard to catch a glimpse of a spectacled bear. But in my photos, there are spectacled bears with the city in the background. This means urban life has expanded and encroached into the bears habitat.'

The hidden lives of spectacled bears

Little is known about spectacled bears. These solitary creatures are endemic to the Andes Mountains and inhabit a variety of landscapes, including paramos, tropical dry forests, humid montane forests, moist lowlands, shrublands and grasslands.

Bears require a large amount of space, with males needing about 23 kilometres square of land during the wet season and females needing around half that. Spectacled bears are only found together when mating or rearing cubs. On rare occasions, these bears have been seen gathering in groups of up to nine when there's an abundance of food.

Though spectacled bears are omnivorous, 95% of their diet consists of more than 300 types of plants, from fruits, flowers and buds to palm trees, bamboos and tree bark. They are one of the few animals that eat tough, fibrous plants such as bromeliads and cacti, which in turn helps to maintain the populations of these vegetations.

Spectacled bears are an umbrella species as they disperse the seeds of the plants they eat across their wide range of habitats. The extinction of these bears could mean the collapse of their ecosystem in the tropical Andes from Venezuela to northern Argentina. Not only this, but it could also affect ecosystems shared by other iconic mammals such as tapirs, deer and even jaguars.

A spectacled bear walks through bushes and looks into the camera.

Spectacled bears are shy creatures that tend to run away when confronted by other animals or people, although mothers can become aggressive when their cubs are threatened. © Daniel Mideros.

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Spectacled bears face multiple threats

Spectacled bears have been slowly losing their home over the last 500 years. However, this has increased drastically in the last 50 years with 80% of their habitat having now been destroyed. Huge swaths of forests have been chopped down to make space for crops and livestock, as well as logging for farms and other construction.

'The biggest problem is livestock farming because it takes up a massive amount of land,' explains Daniel. 'Another big issue is mono plantation, like eucalyptus and pine. Growing these specific trees and only one type of plant over a large amount of space really damages the soil.'

It's possible for degraded land to be restored but the longer the land has been used for mono plantation, the longer it will take for the soil to replenish itself. Mono plantations have boomed in Ecuador and other parts of South America since the 1950s.

Some corporate companies have argued that mono plantations help with absorbing carbon, however research shows that while old-growth forests are carbon sinks, plantations and new forests emit carbon due to the disruption to soil and degradation of the old forest. 

Mining for oil and gas, building dams and high-tension power lines and the general expansion of urban areas continue to contribute to the extensive fragmentation of the bears' home. This means that the amount of space the bears are able to move around has shrunk considerably.

Being isolated in pockets of forests and paramos patches can force the bears to mate with relatives, which can lower their genetic diversity. This results in offspring that are less resilient to diseases and environmental changes. It also reduces the number of ecological services they offer, such as seed dispersal and population control, which helps sustain many other organisms.

A shrinking forest range means less food for the bears to eat, pushing them to roam closer to farms and built-up areas. In some instances, bears have eaten livestock, causing angry farmers to retaliate. This often leads to the death of bears, contributing to the decline of the already dwindling population.

A spectacled bear rests on a tree branch.

Spectacled bears have a keen sense of smell and can sniff out ripe fruits in the forest canopy. Around 5% of their diet consists of small mammals, such as birds and rodents, insects and in some cases livestock. © Daniel Mideros.

Other pressures faced by spectacled bears include hunting for the wildlife trade and cultural beliefs associated with myths and rituals for some native people. The impact climate change is having on bear populations is not fully understood, although extreme weather events, such as fires and floods, can reduce their food sources.

'The aim of my project is to make people aware of how our lifestyle is causing irreparable damage to nature,' says Daniel. 'We have to understand that the world we live in is home to many living things, not just humans. Bears are important mammals that balance an entire ecosystem. But they are endangered and this can have a ripple effect on other animal and plant species.'

'I want to show people and the government that these large bears are moving around the city's edges. This means we've destroyed far too much their habitat.'

'We need to stop breaking up the natural corridors that these bears and other animals rely on for movement. We have to find a way to raise awareness about the importance of these bears in nature and exert pressure on the government to stop mining concessions, sale of lands for large industries inside or outside the national parks and big extraction companies.'

Research by the Fundación Cóndor Andino explores how human activities are threatening Ecuadorian biodiversity. Their work contributes to decisions made by the state and private companies but this is usually a challenging situation as the companies tend to only care about the profit.

A spectacled bear lies on its side on a tree branch.

Spectacled bears are one of four extant bears in the world. Scientists think they live for around 20 years in the wild but more research is needed. © Daniel Mideros.

Spectacled bears were listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List in 1973 and some conservation work has been rolled out, however it has done little to help. Protected areas are either not large enough or too isolated to support the species survival, and legislations have not been properly enforced, allowing for illegal poaching to take place.

Spectacled bears are highly adaptable and have in the past been able to survive human interference simply by climbing up trees. Once up in the canopies, they build platforms to hide, store food and rest. But severe fragmentation of their habitat means they can't do this anymore.

Once spread throughout the entire Andes Mountains, spectacled bears now live in only 7% of their original range. It is likely this will decrease, as some protected areas might be exploited for further extractivist explorations.

'People can help by supporting the local organisations that work with these animals,' says Daniel. 'Come and see the excellent work they do, learn about these animals and how you can make a difference.'

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