When Robyn Appleton set out to find spectacled bears in Peru, she wasn’t expecting to find anything like Laura. Not only was Laura in an ecosystem not typically associated with the bears—an equatorial dry forest area populated by steep cliffs—but she was friendly, too, and curious about the human beings that had come to see her. After eight months of looking for a spectacled bear, the first one that Robyn found came within a meter of her. Their mutual curiosity would define the relationship for the months to come.
Robyn wasn’t the only one excited by the sudden appearance of the supposedly reclusive spectacled bear. The nearby town embraced Laura whole-heartedly, even putting a picture of her in the local paper. Her white-lined face exuded a natural charisma, and within eight months Robyn was able to establish the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.
Before Laura, little was known about the spectacled bear. This was part of what drew Robyn to study the species, and Laura opened up a whole new world for the team. Through Laura, everything about the bears could be studied: what they ate, their basic biology, and how they moved through their often treacherous landscape. “Often,” Robyn said, “we wondered who was watching who.” Even as they watched and studied Laura, she watched and studied them in return, often sneaking closer and closer.
It wasn’t that Laura made things easy. She was known for being “a bit of a brat.” Camera traps were torn down as soon as they were put up. Robyn attempted to take facial photos (spectacled bears all have unique white facial patterns), and Laura would very helpfully present only her rear. None of that could take away from Laura’s importance, however; she was also the first bear that Robyn managed to put a GPS collar on. A radio collar is critically important to understand both where an animal is going and how it’s using the habitat it resides in, which in turn can lead to further protection of critical areas.
Unfortunately, through tracking Laura, Robyn also learned about some of the major problems surrounding the spectacled bears of her region in Peru. After Laura had two sets of cubs, both of whom passed away, Robyn was justifiably concerned. Laura’s body weight had fallen drastically and it seemed like she was looking worse and worse every time she was spotted. Eventually, Laura too vanished, leaving everyone heartbroken and searching for a cause.
Spectacled bears like Laura rely on the sapote fruit, a round, green fruit native to much of central and South America. The bears have to leave the safety of the steep cliffs to access the fruit. Any human disturbance will send them running back up to the safety of their stony homes. Habitat fragmentation has also made it difficult for bears to find continuous areas of the fruit large enough to feast on, and they are forced to venture further and further from the cubs as they seek out enough to survive on.
Although Laura is gone, her legacy is not forgotten. With a better understanding of the food bears need to survive, Robyn has already worked with local communities to protect several key areas of sapote growth. No bear has to suffer like Laura did—and the fat and happy bears caught on camera are the living proof.
Robyn Appleton of Spectacled Bear Conservation was a guest speaker at WCN’s 2015 Wildlife Conservation Expo.
-Text by Elizabeth Rogers