By Mark Blazis
Having been a part of 40 expeditions into Amazonia and the Andes and a dozen more into the Galapagos Islands, I was recently invited to be the consulting biologist for a television documentary in Ecuador featuring CSI Miami’s Jorja Fox, Extreme Animal Rescue actor/producer William MacNamara and Ecuadorian television producer Laszlo Karolyi. We began filming in the high Andes, releasing a rare spectacled bear — the only species of bear in South America — back into the wild.
Bubu, as he is internationally known, is arguably the third most famous bear in the world, next to Yogi and Smokey. He even has his own website, thanks to the Andean Bear Project, which is attempting to restore their tiny population. Today, they’re killed for raiding sugar cane, beehives, corn crops, and occasionally feeding on livestock.
After a farmer killed Bubu’s mother, the tiny orphan was rescued, confined to a zoo, and later given his own natural rehabilitation site high in the Andes at Hacienda Yanhurco, adjacent to Cotopaxi and Antisana volcanoes. There he grew, learning how to survive in his true wild home.
After sedating and radio-collaring Bubu, our team helicoptered him into his new, remote home. Giving a helicopter ride to a temporarily sedated 200-pound bear lying right next to the pilot seat is an adrenaline rush, potentially dangerous to crew and bear.
But Bubu’s release was a total success, despite periodic zero-visibility conditions around the cloud-covered volcanoes. Bubu now has total freedom. With luck, he’ll find a mate and add his genes to an impoverished pool.
Today Bubu is wandering the vast mountain wilderness that he only recently looked at yearningly from his rehabilitation enclosure. He’s excitedly exercising his brain and keen nose to forage, searching for wild fruits and berries, orchid bulbs, grasses and rodents.
Much of his home range has been fragmented by farms and development, isolating small populations of these fragile bears and making reproduction difficult. Without connective corridors to join populations, their long-range survival will be challenging.
Although our team went to Ecuador to help rescue one endangered species, we found ourselves hoping to rescue two. We soon discovered that without immediate international awareness and outrage, a second population may prove even more imperiled.
We subsequently flew into Kapawi, the deepest Ecuadorian rainforest on the border of Peru. There we encountered the primitive but noble Achuar Indians, whose very existence as we know it is imperiled by the inexorable forces of oil and politics.
Sleeping among them in their primitive village, we were awakened several hours before dawn by frog-like retchings and invited to drink wayusa. Two bowls of this tea quickly induce violent vomiting, energizing them for the dawn hunt. The Achuar gave us unprecedented filming opportunities, believing we might take their desperate message to the world.
This proud tribe, inhabiting Ecuador’s last massive, pristine rainforest, has found itself facing oil explorers who have been given concessions to assess their land for development. The Achuar have heard of the atrocities of Texaco in their country: pollution, cancers, the depletion of fish and forest. Up until now, only the Achuar remain unbribed by gifts of chainsaws and boat motors. They are willing to die to protect their land.
Word must go out immediately to persuade President Correia’s administration — which gave the Ecuadorian environment constitutional protection, a gesture that now seems deceptively hypocritical and self-serving — from proceeding with this wilderness and cultural destruction.
Despite the unanimous protestations of the Achuar, the plan is ready to be implemented. Three thousand Achuar warriors with spears are poised to defend their land against superior military forces. They will lose if the outside world doesn’t speak up for them now.
Credit: By Mark Blazis, Outdoors Editor for the Worcester (Mass), Telegram, www.Telegram.com; photo credit: the Andean spectacled bear, one of Ecuador´s endangered spcies.