GUASCA, Colombia – A Colombian sanctuary just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Bogota that provides a refuge for vulnerable spectacled bears is finding it harder to raise funds and obtain fruit and vegetables for these animals due to coronavirus-triggered restrictions.
Nine of these Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) who were rescued from circuses and other urban environments in different parts of Colombia are being rehabilitated at the sanctuary, which is located in a cloud forest intersected by streams and bordering the Chingaza National Natural Park, near the town of Guasca.
The Spectacled Bear Sanctuary is maintained by a like-named foundation and covers an area of 54.9 hectares (135 acres) that is only accessible by a bumpy, unpaved road.
“It’s a private initiative for the care and conservation of the spectacled bear, which is a species in a critical state, threatened and in danger of extinction in our country. It’s a species that’s extremely important for the conservation and maintenance of the high Andes ecosystems,” the sanctuary’s director, veterinarian Orlando Feliciano, told EFE.
Feliciano performs his work in partnership with another veterinarian and two technicians, “who are tasked with feeding the bears on a daily basis” and looking out for their wellbeing.
“Those three people have spent the entire quarantine at the reserve and I’ve been a bit more like drifting in and out, since someone has to go for the food, raise the funds, do the logistics part so the sanctuary doesn’t cease operating,” he said.
Bambi, a spectacled bear whose claws were amputated and has reduced vision as a result of blows she received more than a decade ago, is the face both of the sanctuary and of efforts to preserve that species in Colombia.
Unlike other bears that are released back into their habitat once they have recovered, Bambi can never return to the wild because she lacks the capabilities needed to survive.
“She was rescued by us more than a decade ago from an Ecuadorian circus that traveled through the country, even though there was a ban on exhibiting wild animals. Bambi is a bear that has suffered from the actions of man, an animal whose claws were amputated and is nearly blind,” the veterinarian said.
The 25-year-old bear is now accustomed to living inside an enormous cage set up in the middle of the forest. A total of 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of food are brought to Bambi every day and, despite the mistreatment she suffered in the past, she is currently in good health.
Were she to be released into the wild, however, she would be unable to find food, climb trees or defend herself from the occasional predator, Feliciano said.
Most of the roughly 25-million-peso ($6,800) cost of maintaining the reserve comes from donors such as the Jaime Duque theme park, which is located outside Bogota and has been closed since mid-March due to a government-decreed lockdown aimed at mitigating the impact of the novel coronavirus.
“During the pandemic we’ve had to seek out the solidarity of the community at large,” Feliciano said, adding that people can make their contributions at the reserve’s website or the foundation’s Instagram page.
An environmentalist who has devoted more than three decades of his life to protecting endangered species, he also called on authorities to lay aside their “institutional indifference.”
“Part of this work we’re performing should be taken up by … state agencies. But we’re very alone in this work. We basically depend on the will of private companies, the funds we generate as a foundation and the contributions the community can provide us,” Feliciano said.
Logistical problems also have cropped up as a result of the coronavirus-triggered lockdown.
Most notably, the Corabastos wholesale market where Feliciano buys fruit and vegetables for the animals is operating at reduced capacity due to a COVID-19 outbreak that authorities are trying to contain.
“We’ve been very affected in terms of food availability and have had to resort to smaller markets … go to other places where fruit is available,” the veterinarian said, adding that their task is complicated by the government’s mobility restrictions.
Even so, Feliciano said he is staying firm in his mission to preserve this Andean species and help Bambi, “the symbol of bear conservation in the country.”