Justina’s cub is never far from her side, hovering close like a shadow. Mother and cub spend most of their time in the mountains, but at dawn, and again at dusk, they make their way down to eat. Biology has blessed these bears with lean bodies and massive claws to maneuver Peru’s steep cliffs, yet cursed them with almost total dependence on a singular food source. The sapote fruit comprising their entire diet for half the year grows at the base of the mountains, near the farms that blanket rural Peru. As agriculture expands, this precious food source is increasingly jeopardized. Life for spectacled bears here is a house of cards, remove sapote and the bear population will topple. Conservationists at Spectacled Bear Conservation (SBC) are determined to prevent this from happening. This year, they formalized a plan to acquire land to protect the sapote groves, create continuous bear habitat, and ensure bears have a future in the dry forest.
Access to sapote is especially important for bears with cubs, like Justina. Without sapote, mothers can’t lactate, which threatens the lives of their cubs. Dry forest bears already have high cub mortality and genetic disadvantages that make them prone to reproductive challenges—they breed infrequently and with low success. This is because years of destructive agriculture have left the dry forest fragmented; cut off from other bear populations, these bears have become inbred. In 2019, SBC analyzed over 10 years of their data, finding that inaccessible food and genetic isolation has made bears highly compromised and susceptible to disease. Additionally, the agriculture responsible for consuming and fragmenting the bears’ habitat has already started destroying sapote at an alarming rate. Thankfully, there is a simple and available solution to this dual problem: buy the land before it’s gone.
SBC identified strategically located land parcels that wealthy land-owners are keen to sell. One section of land will connect dry forest bears with higher elevation bear populations. This connectivity will give dry forest bears access to additional food sources and genetically diverse breeding partners, thereby improving the population’s long-term health. The other section of land is at the base of the mountains where the sapote grows. Purchasing this land will form a buffer between encroaching agricultural development and intact sapote groves. SBC plans to buy this land as soon as possible, then continue purchasing additional land over time. This would create a more contiguous bear habitat that SBC can sustain through their ongoing community engagement efforts.
Conservation solutions are not typically this clear-cut, but for dry forest bears, the equation is simple. There is private land in the dry forest that offers the bears connectivity and access to sapote, both of which are critical to the population’s survival. This land is for sale. If SBC purchases it before it is lost to agriculture, they can secure a future for Justina, her cub, and all of Peru’s dry forest bears.