What Should Be Done With Yachak, the Cattle-Killing Bear of the Andes

Conservationists and ranchers in Ecuador struggle to make peace while an elusive spectacled bear feasts on valuable livestock

Caught in the act by a motion-sensing infrared camera, Yachak, nicknamed by local researchers, feeds on a cow carcass--just one of the 250-plus livestock head the old male has killed in about three years. (Courtesy of Andres Laguna)

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The ranchers of the region had been supportive of the grizzly population—even happy, Madel says, to see it rebounding.

“But after a while, they were irate,” he says. “This bear was really setting back the conservation effort.” 

In 2001, the bear was finally trapped and euthanized. The animal’s advanced age and poor health—including severely worn teeth—made the decision to put it down an easy one, Madel says.

But the bear situation is very different in Ecuador. Here, the population of spectacled bears is not rebounding, nor is it holding steady. Rather, it is shrinking, recoiling from the expanding human population and the cattle herds that encroach further and further into the high country every year. Just 3,000 spectacled bears remain in all of Ecuador, and perhaps just 18,000 throughout their range, from the southern Panama isthmus to Argentina. Leading bear experts worry that the species might be extinct in 30 years.

Only several dozen spectacled bears may live in the mountainous bear country on the north slope of the 18,996-foot Volcán Cayambe, and Yachak, one of just two breeding males in this population, according to Laguna, is too valuable to his kind to kill.

“From the conservationist point of view, it is not acceptable to lose this bear,” Laguna says. He even wonders if eliminating Yachak from the population would make space for younger males to move into the region and begin causing similar problems. 

Almost every weekend, Laguna makes a four-hour trip from Quito to the bear country near the border, either to retrieve the memory cards from a pair of motion-detecting cameras or to locate newly reported bear kills and place his cameras on nearby trunks. Laguna’s cameras have identified 36 individual bears in the region, each with distinctive facial markings like goggles.

Laguna’s fieldwork also involves working with local ranchers, hearing their complaints and listening to their bear-related tribulations. These meetings often take place informally by the side of the road, with sweeping views of Andean valleys and high treeless tundra leading up to the slopes of Cayambe. It is precisely these highlands into which cattle herds have been expanding in recent years as more and more local farmers switch from producing sugarcane and avocados to raising animals for milk and cheese. As this shift occurs, conflicts with bears will only increase, Laguna predicts, whether or not Yachak is removed from the population. Laguna fears that, unless peace is attained between bears and ranchers, the spectacled bear will be gone from these mountains within ten years. 

Laguna, often accompanied by several colleagues, has frequently explained to ranchers that their actions—edging their cattle into the cloud forest—are ultimately causing the strife between them and the bears. Laguna says deadly incidents between spectacled bears and livestock are almost always the result of poor herd management—not a propensity of the bears to kill.

The Andean Bear Foundation has urged farmers to keep their animals to the pasturelands surrounding their villages. Also on the table is an idea to develop an ecotourism economy in these mountains, based, chiefly, on the opportunity for visitors to pay to see a spectacled bear.


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