What Should Be Done With Yachak, the Cattle-Killing Bear of the Andes- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
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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)

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

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(Continued from page 2)

“But we have no facilities, no infrastructure, for tourism” says Asencio Farinango one afternoon in late January, during a stand-around discussion in a field beside the Quechua man’s home. Farinango is a rancher. He is also the unofficial mayor of the rural communities surrounding the central village of Mariano Acosta, set in a valley of sugarcane and fruit trees and flanked by steep mountain slopes. In this area, about 15 families have been affected by rogue bears. Farinango himself has only lost livestock to pumas (they were alpacas), but he relays to Laguna the frustration of those whose cows have been killed.

What Farinango says is true: There is no money to be made at the current time from tourists. The area is only accessible via a network of dirt and cobblestone roads so bumpy that area residents hitchhiking between village and home could nearly be tossed from the bed of a pickup truck. There are no lodges here, or even campgrounds—and there has been no publicity or advertising. Moreover, the likelihood of seeing a wild spectacled bear is miniscule. Laguna has visited these mountains almost every weekend for three years since he joined the Andean Bear Foundation; only ten times has he glimpsed a free-moving animal.

Farinango says ranchers nearby who have lost cattle to bears have asked local officials for assistance or reimbursement. The government, Farinango says, “is unconcerned and hasn’t responded.” Yachak, meanwhile, has killed nearly $150,000 worth of animals,

Laguna believes the most favorable option for ending Yachak’s killing bender is to catch him—if possible—fit him with a GPS collar, and keep him under constant surveillance. Six other bears known to occasionally kill livestock will, hopefully, be similarly tracked. This strategy, though laborious and cumbersome, should allow hired guards with dogs to respond when problem bears are detected approaching cattle and harry them back into the woods. By watching the bears’ movements—or lack thereof—they also hope to see that the protected animals are not killed by local vigilantes.

But Yachak has so far proven too sly to enter a baited box trap or place his foot in a cable snare—both methods that Laguna and many other researchers have employed to capture, then tag and release, bears. This isn’t surprising to Madel, who says old male grizzlies can be extremely difficult to capture. Even if a problem bear is trapped, and a radio collar secured around its neck, such animals can be very resistant to reconditioning back to a natural diet. Then, there is the possibility that the bear will manage to remove its collar. The Falls Creek Male did exactly this in the late 1980s after its first capture, Madel says, and thereby paved the way for years and years of unseen attacks on cattle herds.

Madel is firm in his opinion that, if Yachak is captured, he should be euthanized. Madel says he would feel differently if Yachak was a female. Dominant males, he explains, are quickly replaced by subordinates when the older animals die. Female bears, quite literally, carry with them the future of their species.   

“If they’re killing [livestock] animals, we give females three chances before we euthanize them,” Madel says. Toward males, state trappers are less patient. “We give them one chance, or no chance.” 

On February 4, in his most violent outing to date, Yachak kills four cows and injures two others, bumping up his appalling tab by several thousand dollars. It’s a devastating loss for a country family that earns only several hundred dollars per month, largely from milk sales—and Yachak, it appears, is now killing for sport.    

Another daunting problem has also arisen—something Madel says he has never heard of among grizzlies but which Laguna has verified through his motion-triggered cameras and from information provided by witnesses: A resident female bear has taught her cub to kill. Together, the pair took several cows during the young bear’s upbringing. Now, the adolescent male, 20 months old, has left his mother’s care and gone into the future not only with a taste for beef but also the skills to get it. Laguna says he believes keeping the cattle herds out of the high country would be the surest, fastest fix to the matter.     

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