The truck bounces and shakes almost the entire way to Gramalote, the path is often more rocks and craters than actual road. It takes conservationists from Spectacled Bear Conservation (SBC) nine hours to reach the village, sluggishly winding their way up the steep curves of the mountain. SBC has spent 10 years protecting spectacled bears in the low elevation dry forest, but Gramalote offers an entryway into high elevation terrain. It is here in the high alpine cloud forest and páramo where SBC has discovered a whole new population of bears. The people of Gramalote are the gatekeepers to these bears.
In northern Peru, land is typically owned by the local people who decide how it can be used. Many of these people live in remote mountain villages, like Gramalote, in traditional lifestyles they’ve sustained for generations. A year ago, conservationists at SBC suspected there were bears on the 50,000 acres of pristine forest owned by the Gramalote community; to find out, they needed permission to access the land.
In exchange for helping install pipes in the village’s school, which lacked running water, the community allowed SBC to set up a few camera traps on their land. SBC’s hunch was right, in just the first month their camera traps photographed ten bears in the area. This may sound small, but previously, in a different location, SBC found only eight bears using 200 camera traps over a four-year span. Ten bears in one month was a windfall. SBC is now eager to install additional camera traps with the hopes of identifying more bears and to better understand what bears need to maintain a viable, healthy population. This requires them to have continuous access to this area, which means building a lasting, trusting relationship with the villagers in Gramalote.
A young woman now makes an income creating woolen “felti” bears.
Based on the great success they’ve had working with local communities via their women’s handicraft program—SBC recently brought the program to Gramalote. The “felti” program teaches women how to create decorative woolen animals that SBC sells globally, investing the money back into the program. Women are able to generate an ongoing stream of vital income for their families and gain a sense of empowerment as they become more financially independent. This provides an excellent incentive for the community to work with conservationists. In fact, the people of Gramalote have recently agreed to help SBC turn their part of the cloud forest into a protected area; protecting not only bears, but an entire rich ecosystem of diverse plants and animals.
SBC’s work in Gramalote has been an effective step towards creating a contiguous protected area across all of northern Peru’s bear habitat. This is their long-term goal; they aim to do it one village at a time.