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South America's only bear species is under threat

Updated 5:03 AM ET, Fri January 21, 2022
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The spectacled bear, the species on which the character Paddington Bear is based, gets its name from the yellowish-white marks around its eyes that can look like a pair of glasses. Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program
It's South America's only bear species and lives in the mountainous regions and dry forests stretching from Venezuela as far south as Bolivia. Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program
But the bears face an uncertain future as populations are in decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists the species as vulnerable, estimates that fewer than 10,000 individuals remain across the entire continent. The main threats are habitat loss, climate change and human-bear conflict. Credit: SBC SBC
Spectacled bears usually feed on shoots and fruit, but some -- like this one photographed by a camera trap in Peru -- are starving. This can lead to them killing livestock, which leads to farmers killing bears in retaliation. Credit: SBC SBC
The dry forests where some bear populations are found, such as in Peru (pictured) and other regions, are critically endangered. The open and arid landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented and is vulnerable to extreme weather events such as drought or flooding. Credit: Michell Leon Michell Leon
Typically timid and elusive mammals, little is known about the species. But there are efforts to discover more about the creatures and protect them. The Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC) based in Peru is working to create and maintain protected areas of pristine habitat through the bears' range. Credit: SBC SBC
Direct photos of the bears are rare and extremely difficult to acquire, with researchers usually relying on discreet camera traps instead. But through more than a decade of intensive field work, the SBC is helping to showcase the species up close. Credit: SBC SBC
Bolivian conservationist Ximena Velez-Liendo (pictured) is also devoted to protecting the species in the inter-Andean dry forests of Bolivia. Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program
Her project not only monitors the bear population in the region, but it trains local people as beekeepers. This offers them an economic alternative to cattle ranching, therefore reducing habitat loss and human-bear conflict. Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program
The key message from both the SBC and Velez-Liendo is that protecting the bear protects the whole ecosystem. Spectacled bears are considered both a keystone and an umbrella species, meaning that they play a vital role in the survival of the whole ecosystem. Credit: SBC SBC
Velez-Liendo says that thanks to the research into bears, scientists now have access to more information on the wider ecosystem. In the project site in Bolivia, photos have been captured of species that had never before been seen in the area, such as a wildcat known as Geoffroy's leopard (pictured). Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program
Pumas (pictured), also called mountain lions or cougars, have also been spotted, as has the critically endangered chinchilla rat. "Because of all our efforts to protect just one species, we're protecting 31 species of mammals, about 50 species of birds, and 20 species of other amphibians," says Velez-Liendo. Ximena Velez-Liendo/Andean Bear Conservation Program