The San Diego Zoo’s first three Andean bears arrived in 1938 as part of the Hancock Pacific Scientific Expedition. They were named Polly, Toby, and Punch. At the time, there were only two other Andean bears in captivity, so we were excited to have them join us. One of the three lived until 1958, establishing a longevity record of over 20 years for the species.
The Zoo is currently home to two male Andean bears, Turbo and Tommy. Turbo was born in 2010 and came to us in 2013 from a zoo in Germany. Tommy was born in 1986 and came to the Zoo as a youngster with a female of the same age. One morning before the Zoo opened, the little female found a very small opening, just big enough for a video camera but too small for a bear, or so we thought, in a top corner of her bedroom. She climbed out, ran down the sidewalk, and jumped into a pool, which then held a 2,000-pound sea lion named Charlie. Both animals were so astonished at this unexpected meeting that they didn’t react to each other at all, so keepers easily returned the bear to her own exhibit. She never escaped again, but was soon nicknamed Miss Houdini after magician Harry Houdini, who specialized as an escape artist.
Miss Houdini surprised us again in 1990 when she became one of the youngest Andean bears to give birth. She was too inexperienced to keep her cub warm, so he was rushed to the nursery. The cub was named Pepino, which means cucumber in Spanish, since he was as cold as a cucumber when the keeper found him. He became the first Andean bear ever hand-raised from birth. Tommy and Miss Houdini had more cubs over the years, including twins, and Miss Houdini proved to be a great mom. Their cubs grew and had cubs of their own.
An uncertain future
Like too many animal species, wild Andean bears are vulnerable to extinction. The main risks to the bears are poaching, conflict between bears and humans when humans believe that the bears are a threat to their crops or livestock, and habitat loss. No one knows how many of these bears remain, but Andean bear habitat is being lost at a rate of approximately two to four percent per year, destroyed for mining operations, farming, and lumber; this loss is not slowing down.
The construction of new roads fragments bear habitat as well. As their habitat shrinks, bears may stray onto farmland, feeding on the crops that replaced their natural diet. Hunted in the past for their meat, fat, and body parts, Andean bears are now protected by international trade laws.
Helping bears in Peru
A Species Survival Plan through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is in place for this bear species, and San Diego Zoo Global has an Andean Bear Conservation Program. Its goal is to help increase scientific knowledge about these bears to advance their conservation, to train and mentor Peruvian conservationists, and to promote an understanding that the bears are integral parts of a healthy ecosystem essential for all and worthy of conservation.
One of the flagship species of national parks in the Andes, the Andean bear is an animal that people recognize easily and is used as the symbol of the parks. Local people in bear habitats are being educated about the benefits of preserving habitat for the bears for tourism, for the protection of water sources, and for the natural heritage of future generations.
We work in partnership with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. This nonprofit organization has been working in the dry forests of northwestern Peru since 2006, building strong relationships with the local communities, and together we’re making incredible discoveries about bear biology. For example, we now believe that survival of the bear population in the dry forest of northwest Peru depends on the fruit of the sapote tree. It is apparent that it is necessary to conserve the sapote tree, which is critically endangered in Peru, and other natural resources for the benefit of the bears and all the other wildlife that share their special part of the world.