When I was first charged with writing a story about Andean spectacled bears by the editor of this esteemed publication you can imagine my joy. Such a relevant, interesting, topical, compelling… if you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic here. The first thought that penetrated my brain-machine when I heard I would be writing a story about bears was “how the hell am I supposed to write a NEWS story about bears?” The second was, “are there even any bears IN Bolivia?” and the third was, “I’m going to get a beer god damn it.” After letting the idea simmer for a couple weeks, and after doing a bit of research and meeting up with the lovely Ximena Velez-Liendo, of the biologist persuasion, I was instilled with a new hope for this previously hopeless endeavor. I heard tell of a secret grove in the middle of the jungle, a young cub that had just been delivered from the jaws of capture and a story that promised to take me deep into the mountains. Foolishly, I did not bring insect repellant.
After dragging myself out of my hotel room in La Paz at 8:30am on a Tuesday morning I forced down some fruit and bread and a something else and swallowed a mystery pill that a lovely French girl gave me – she said it would help with my stomach. These altitudes don't agree with me; I don’t think Australians are supposed to dwell at heights above 45m for extended periods of time. I told the taxi to please take me to Villa Fatima, where I would rendezvous with my unfortunately short, yet nonetheless wonderful biologist companion. The bus ride to Coroico, through the foggy Andes and past the enticingly named 'death road' would take two hours. Bears await. Some cocoa leaves on the bus helped to calm my blast furnace of a stomach and soon I was feeling spritely and excited. The lady in front of me was wearing a tall, round bowler hat of the sort that Bolivian women love so dearly. I cursed Toyota for their lackluster suspension as the bus bumped and churned its traveling human contents along the road.
At around 11:30am we arrived at the sanctuary; a locked gate to a bridge, a river at the bottom of a deep valley. At the entrance and I remember wondering if these bears could swim – that river looks awfully shallow. We were greeted by a fair skinned biologist named Vicky, with whom Ximena was already familiar, and crossed the bridge into what looked more like a tiny village than a wildlife sanctuary. A few cabins on our left and to the right, a cafeteria surrounded by chicken wire to keep the animals away from the people food – each building nestled comfortably into the surrounding jungle. The first animals I noticed – I heard these guys before I saw them, and would continue to hear them all day – were the parrots. Three or four brightly coloured birds squawked Spanish ‘hola’s from their respective perches – who would have thought, el loros pueden hablar español. I guess I’m not going to be getting anything out of these Hispanic bastards until my Spanish lessons are a bit further along, all I could discern now was a bunch of unintelligible craw craw craws… maybe I should ask Ximena to translate later, but for now, I hold my cards to my chest.
The story that I am pursuing, before I get too much further into this retelling, is one of sorrow and loss. There is always hope and there is always time to laugh, but do not for a second fool yourself into thinking that this is supposed to make you feel good. There you go, take that 'human pride'. Sorry guys, things got a little dreary there for a second.
The young bear that had so piqued my interest in this trip is a cub that presently goes by the name of Tipni – a shameless cross-promotion of environmental interests by these conservationists to be sure, but one to be admired nonetheless. While I have previously stated that I intend to call the bear by my own name, (Eugene) as it happens, the bear in question was actually female. Rather than suffix my chosen name with the feminine ‘a’ to make ‘Eugena’ I have decided to forgo stubbornness for the time being and stick with Tipni – this whole business is surely confusing enough as it is for the little chica. She was taken from the wild by poachers with sibling, presumably at a very young age, and held captive for some time – probably a few months – in poor conditions. Her original captor had intended to sell her on the black market but authorities had got there in time and she was now in the safe hands of Vicky and her team of volunteers at the sanctuary. What had become of her sibling, and what misery had befallen her I would soon discover.
Before meeting Tipni we went to feed Aruna, the other spectacled bear currently living in the enclosure. Aruna was fully grown and had free roam of a large hillside with a river running through and plenty of vegetation – all in all my best estimates would be around 150m x 100m. The bear ate fruit: grapes, banana, papaya, and a few large bromeliads which it stripped from the base to get at the core – these, I am told, are the spectacled bear’s most important food source. I noticed that Aruna moved very similarly to a dog, scratching with hind legs and periodically batting away insects – Ximena told me that this is because all carnivorous mammals are divided into two main groups; dog-like and cat-like. Evidently, the bears fall into the former... this will be on the test. After what can only be described as a crash course in bear, we said goodbye to Aruna for the time being and went to meet Tipni. The time had come, as the insects secretly devoured my legs and the sun bore down on my hot, sweaty, jungle-man face I felt that now was the time when all would be made clear. Here it is Aidan, here is your story. Write monkey, write.
The hill was steep and the path up doubled back on itself twice, thus prolonging my anticipation. As the top of the her cage appeared over the crest of the last hill, the prancing woman inside me screamed, “SHE IS SO CUTE AND LITTLE I WANT TO TAKE HER HOME”... she flapped her hands too. I caught myself just in time though, thinking for a second that perhaps it was Tipni's ability to evoke such an emotional reaction that got her in trouble in the first place. I won't go around blaming the victim here though; that would be like blaming pretty girls for sexual harrasment – “come on honey pretty, why you gots to teeeease me like dat?” No, the adorable allure of a bear cub is no grounds to justify bear cub theivery. Besides, we could discern, Ximena told me, from the unhealthy light brown tinge of the fur on her ears and her severely stunted growth, that the bunch of heartless coke fiends had left her malnourished. What a way to treat a lady. I hear you asking, “but how can you tell that her growth was stunted without knowing exactly how old she is.” I hear you loud and clear, and I'm going to tell you – you look at the size of her teeth. Satisfied, smartass?
As Tipni climbed the small tree that jutted out from the centre of the floor in her 5x5 metre enclosure to take nuts from our esteemed biologist's hand, I knew that there would be no 'angle' to this story. No framing quote, no smiling tooth of a news anchor's face delivering the feel-good story of the night, “and today, an exceptionally cute bear has been saved from captivity, prepare your sighs viewers.” I could frame this as the sort of hopeful story that gives you the warmest of fuzzies deep down in your belly, but I shouldn't, and I won't. The fact of the matter is, a bear cub has been taken from it's mother in the wild, with her sibling – which, by the way, was killed by the dog at the conservation park, just to rub salt in that wound there. They were taken by a bunch of poachers who, for one reason or another, wanted to make some money off of an exotic native animal. Yes the poachers have been stopped, but the bear, call it Tipni or Eugena or N34, still remains an orphan. Its former sibling remains dead.
What happens now is simply an attempt to make the best of a terrible situation. This is what we humans do, we break things, we apologise, and then we trick ourselves into feeling good about the cleanup. The one piece of solace that can be taken from this all-too-familiar saga is that there are people like Vicky and her team with the will and the facilities to do provide a home to endangered animals, taken from the wild and sold into exploitation. That is the silver lining. Most people are out to do good things most of the time, and for every thousand good intentions there is one strong voice willing to act. Out in the darkness, while the demons run amok.
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