April 2012

Baby Bear

called Eugenia or Tipnis or N34

With a lot of humor Aidan Jones describe how he fell in love with a cub saved from an unfortunate fate.

By: Aidan Jones
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Adelaine -Australia

Tipnis Bear
Photo: Ximena Vélez Liendo

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, that was what is commonly referred to as ‘sarcasm’. 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.” After letting the idea simmer for a couple of weeks, and after doing a bit of research and meeting up with Ximena Velez- Liendo, of the biologist persuasion, I was instilled with a new hope for this previously hopeless endeavour. I heard 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 repellent.

“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 volunteers at the sanctuary.”

I dragged myself out of my hotel room in La Paz at 8:30am on a Tuesday morning. 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 passed the enticingly named ‘death road’ would take two hours. Bears await. Some coca 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 was annoyed with Toyota for their lacklustre suspension as the bus bumped and churned its traveling human contents along the road.

At around 11:30am we arrived at the sanctuary to find a locked gate to a bridge and a river at the bottom of a deep valley. At the entrance and I remember wondering if these bears could swim – that river looked 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 loro puede hablar español? I guess I’m not going to be getting anything out of these until my Spanish lessons are a bit further along – all I can discern right now are 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.

Andean Bear
Photo: Ximena Vélez Liendo

So the young bear that had so piqued my interest in this trip is a cub that presently goes by the name of Tipnis – 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 though, the bear in question is actually female. Rather than suffix my chosen name with the feminine ‘a’ and simply shuffling my cards to make the name ‘Eugenia’ I have decided to forgo stubbornness for the time being and stick with Tipnis – 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 Tipnis 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 Tipnis. 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.

“It was Tipnis’ability to evoke such a frenzied emotional reaction that got her in trouble in the first place. The adorable allure of bear cub is no grounds to justify such animal larceny.”

The hill was steep and the path up doubled back on itself twice, thus prolonging my anticipation. As the top of 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 Tipnis’ ability to evoke such a frenzied emotional reaction that got her in trouble in the first place. The adorable allure of a bear cub is no grounds to justify such animal larceny. 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, they didn’t love her like I do. 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.

As Tipnis 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 its mother in the wild, with her sibling – which, by the way, was killed by the dog at the conservation park. 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 Tipnis or Eugenia or N34, still remains an orphan and 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 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 of the darkness, while the demons run amok.

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