Spectacle on Mount Chaparri

Visionary thinkers in Peru launch a private reserve to help endangered bears and reward local people

  • Tui De Roy
  • Jun 01, 2002
WE ARE IN NORTHERN Peru searching for secretive spectacled bears. No luck so far. Instead, we awake to the mournful courtship calls of small, gray doves drifting up from a fog-filled valley and, closer by, the nervous buzz of a tiny amazilia hummingbird. But as I climb out of my sleeping bag, I survey our surroundings and discover that, in the failing light of dusk, we had inadvertently set up camp near clear signs of our quest: Etched in the smooth trunk of a sturdy tree are large, slashing claw marks. Not too long ago, a bear had climbed up to survey its territory.

For three days now, along with a small group of fellow bear enthusiasts, I have been skirting around a 4,500-foot-high, craggy rock formation called Mount Chaparri in hopes of just such a discovery. The claw marks are a palpable sign not only that bears are close by, but that a remarkable social experiment involving wildlife and people is working.

Mount Chaparri--which stretches from the foothills of the lofty Andean Cordillera into lowland desert plains like the sharp claw of a mountain-size dinosaur--is a key part of this endangered bear's range. The coastal desert gives way to a unique habitat of deciduous dry forest before rising into mountainous cloud forest further inland. No rain falls for at least nine months of the year, but cool mist wafts in over the lowlands from the distant sea. It is in these cloud forests along the steep Andes from Venezuela to Brazil that the bear typically lives.

For the people near Mount Chaparri, its imposing bulk has always commanded magical status. Until recently, only shamans dared live in its shadow, collecting herbs from its sacred flanks where bears and other wildlife found respite from heavy hunting pressures. But last December, the mountain, along with 117 square miles of surrounding habitat, became the first legally declared private conservation reserve in Peru. In the process, the bear, which was once persecuted as a cattle predator, has morphed from villain to mascot in the locals' hearts.

This history-making accomplishment is the work of two visionary men. One is Heinz Plenge, Peru's foremost wildlife photographer. The other is Bernie Peyton, a spectacled bear biologist from Berkeley, California--respected as the world expert on the species. Through their joint dreams, an unconventional scheme is emerging that will compensate local people for the wise stewardship of their wild heritage.

We get a firsthand sense of what's at stake as we continue our exploration. Our path takes us along a clear, gurgling stream up to its source in a steep-sided canyon, where desert frogs sing and wild tomatoes grow. While a majestic Andean condor sweeps low over our heads, we scramble up a precipitous arroyo to a knife-edge ridge between two watersheds.

Photo: ©; MARK JONES (Note: Copying photo requires photographer's permission.

named "Cuto" explores the crags and trees in a five-acre enclosure within the newly created Chaparri Private Ecological Reserve, the first of its kind in Peru. The goal is to help this endangered species regain ground in the low-lying, semi-desert that leads to the cloud forest at the foot of the Andes. It is hoped that Cuto may one day return to the wild.

Bear signs increase noticeably as we pass close under the brooding presence of Mount Chaparri and descend into the valley on the other side: Here, a young pasallo tree shredded for the tender, edible pulp inside its trunk; there, a patch of ripe nightshade berries where a bear fed and left droppings. Still, we spot no wild bears, although it is likely that they have been watching us. To see the animals, we must complete the loop back to our starting point, a spacious, quasi-natural rehabilitation center, tucked away in a secluded valley. The place serves as a halfway home for bears rescued from illegal captivity. Nearby, a discreet house constructed of straw-colored adobe overlooks a permanent spring-fed stream.

Here I find Heinz Plenge. A soft-spoken Peruvian whose great-grandparents came from Germany, Plenge is putting the finishing touches on his new solar-powered home in the wilderness. Over lunch he tells me his story. "It all started three years ago," he begins. "I'd just turned 50 and knew I couldn't spend the rest of my days trudging though mountains and jungles to take pictures." His dream was to find a quiet place surrounded by wildlife where he'd be able to point his camera out the window even in his old age.

Having traveled and worked in every last corner of Peru, Plenge returned to his roots in the northern dry forest where he'd cut his teeth as a wildlife photographer. When, to his delight, he discovered that bears still clung to the hinterlands, he approached the local farming community of Santa Catalina de Chongoyape--where 2,000 or so dirt-poor and downtrodden residents held communal title to their marginal lands.

Plenge had devised an ingenious, simple plan. After weeks of patiently attending community meetings, he slowly laid out his ideas to win over skeptical locals: He would help them organize to defend their rights if in return they would adopt long-term goals to safeguard their resources and environment. They listened and Plenge delivered, wresting water rights from politicians and officials who had favored ambitious agricultural schemes over the needs of poor farmers. For the first time, community residents could start irrigating their fields from a reservoir in their valley. To safeguard the watershed, the community, in turn, would cease cutting the trees from surrounding hillsides.

Plenge also offered to organize cattle-owning community members so they could legally expel thousands of cows belonging to outsiders who paid no fees while over-grazing the arid commons. He also argued that if the local people would get together to suspend hunting in the region for a few years, and likewise prevent outsiders from doing so, they'd be able to set aside a small hunting preserve when deer numbers rose. Then they could sell guiding services and hefty deer-shooting licenses to city slickers.

Plenge's notions captured the community's imagination, and the scheme took off. Soon residents allowed him to build his dream retreat at the foot of the mountain. Within a few more months of deliberations, the delegates voted to set aside their non-arable lands--86 percent of their community property--as the legally bound Chaparri Private Ecological Reserve.

It was at this time that a couple of timely coincidences conspired to bring the bears back into the picture. Out of the blue, Plenge got a call from his long-time friend, bear-specialist Peyton, whom he hadn't seen in years. "Heinz, I've been a researcher all my life," Peyton told Plenge. "Now I want to do something more creative." At the same time, news reached Plenge that a captive bear was about to be confiscated by the government agency in charge of wildlife and natural resources.

"Everything happened very fast after that," recalls Plenge. Peyton came down from California and the bear, a young female named "Linda" (or "Yinda" depending on local pronunciation), was taken to Chaparri, where the community welcomed her as a symbol of their new direction. The two men dug deep into their own pockets to build a natural enclosure guarded by solar-powered electric fencing where the animal could roam freely and find wild foods to supplement a balanced diet prepared daily by a full-time caretaker.

Not long after, a country circus rumbled into Chongoyape town, where it was met not by cheers of delight but by an angry crowd that summoned the police to confiscate an illegal show bear. Suddenly the Chaparri project became a local media sensation, and more rescued bears were proffered. Subsequently, when a mining company--BHP Billinton--learned about the residents' ecological resolve, it gave the community back 65,000 acres of prime agricultural land it had acquired earlier.

By the time we finish talking, the sun is sinking over Chaparri's shoulder, and shadows rustling in the thickets announce the presence of a growing number of wild desert foxes in another of Plenge's innovative schemes. He has discovered that they love nothing better than the seed pods of the native acacia trees extirpated in past years from much of the landscape. The pods are sold by the sackful as horse fodder, and Plenge buys them and strews them across the plain from the back of his old Isuzu 4x4, letting the foxes, which excrete the seeds, do the reforestation work that would otherwise cost a fortune.

Never short of ideas, he keeps conceiving of more and more schemes to restore the local ecosystem to its former health. From a zoo in the capital of Lima he has just brought 26 deer to bolster the wild population. Peccaries should be next, and a herd of locally extinct guanacos has been promised from another region where there are still wild herds. Andean condors will receive a helping hand with deliveries of supplemental food--marine mammal carcasses that have naturally washed up on beaches. The turkeylike white-winged guans, which had disappeared for a century until a few were rediscovered 30 years ago, will be reintroduced into the wild.

If Plenge is the conductor who is driving this train of change, Peyton is its engineer, bringing technical know-how from the outside world to lube the machinery and make sure it doesn't stall. The two men were together 25 years ago when Peyton, as a young student, spotted his first wild bear in Chaparri. Now Peyton is dedicating his every resource into furthering the Chaparri project as a model of sustainable use. "To me, conservation means hiring locals, improving their education, taking care of their real needs and providing the dignity they deserve," he says. Not everything about their plan has been easy. In some outlying sections of the community, persecution of wild bears continued unabated. So Plenge came up with the idea of harnessing the local fervor for football (soccer). With the help of local leaders, he organized a big tournament and named it the "Bear's Cup." Only villages that pledged to protect bears could participate. Peyton designed an engaging logo of a bear clutching a football for team Jerseys--17 men's, 17 women's and 14 children's teams to date--and carved bronze bear trophies to award winners. It was a roaring success.

But much work remains to be done. Education and health care still must be brought to the local people, a management plan is needed and new financial opportunities must be sought for the community. Peyton is especially concerned with involving the women and children as he is passionate about rewarding their dedication with tangible benefits. "These people have been ignored for centuries," Peyton says. "They are like a seed in the desert waiting for just a little nourishment to flourish."

A fund-raising program is desperately needed as both men have exhausted their personal resources to maintain momentum. Grant proposals are flying and some donations are arriving. An adopt-a-bear program is about to be launched, and long-term research proposals are being drawn up. Already Peyton and Plenge are thinking about bears and people in other regions and are scoping out possibilities for two other similar projects in other parts of Peru.

Early one morning I find a beautiful male bear in his prime laid out luxuriously on a sun-warmed rock, just as the cool morning fog dissipates around him. His name is "Cuto," and he looks wild and free--almost. He yawns lazily, his long, pink tongue stretching in a big curl, then blinks slowly as he surveys the tranquil valley below. His black fur gleams with health. When he turns his head, he reveals the unique white pattern around his muzzle and eyes, which differs in each individual and gives the species its name.

If all goes well, one day soon either Cuto or some of the other bears housed here may be searching the semi-desert scrub for native berries, or climbing the fawn-colored ramparts of Mount Chaparri in search of their very favorite food--the tender hearts of giant aerial bromeliad plants growing on the sheer rock faces. But there are serious scientific and management questions which must still be answered--like finding out which gene pool Cuto belongs to, whether he'll be able to fend for himself in the wild and, crucially, if his tameness will not turn him into a "problem bear," raiding farmers' crops and livestock rather than heading for the hills. Linda, the first captive to come to the facility, has already made her transition to the wild successfully. Only a few months after she arrived, she escaped. A month later she was recaptured, then escaped again. The next time she was sighted, she was ushering a small cub ahead of her up the valley, proving beyond doubt that making the readjustment to a wild existence after long confinement is quite feasible. Whenever she is spotted in the plains, rather than fetch their shotguns as they might have once done, cattlemen watch over her until she returns to the safety of the canyons.

Other residents at the bear facility may face less ambitious futures, their age and terrible scars from years of cruel captivity make them poor candidates for life in the wild. One of these is "Domingo," a white-muzzled, 30-year-old veteran who spent the bulk of his life in a small cage. He had been given barely enough food to stay alive. Although this has left him arthritic and partially blind, he still commands dominant status among the other bears. And his thick, shiny fur reflects his new healthy diet of fruit, gruel and corn--which he gets in addition to a total of 38 wild bear foods available in the five-acre natural enclosures.

Domingo now spends his days in blissful repose in a cool, man-made cave--retirement in paradise--emerging only for his morning stroll or to receive a few corn cobs from his protector. After a life of misery, he is at peace now. Plenge smiles as the bear takes the offerings gently from his fingers. No words are needed to describe a dream come true.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates