On December 12, 2012, the National Zoo posted on Facebook that their Andean bear, Billie Jean, was showing signs of labor. Thanks to web cams, many of us watched nervously as Billie Jean paced in her den and otherwise showed natural behavior for a bear about to give birth. The zoo staff had reported cautious optimism in November after an ultrasound revealed twins. Billie Jean had already proven herself to be a good mother to a previous set of twins in 2010. Like all bear species, Andean bears can resorb one or both fetuses at any stage of the pregnancy. And sometimes bears will harm or kill cubs after birth for reasons we do not always understand.
This pregnancy was particularly poignant for the zoo staff because it was completely unexpected. Nikki, the father of these cubs, had been humanely euthanized in August, 2012 after a year-long battle with skin cancer. Though natural breeding was observed between Billie Jean and Nikki in April, 2012, it could not be assumed that conception occurred. The prospect of Nikki’s legacy carrying on in two more healthy cubs would be an encouraging event in terms of conservation of Andean bears.
Many zoos are involved with conservation of Andean bears in the wild. For example, San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy works with biologists in Peru to study natural Andean bear behavior, using cameras and studying the patterns of bears fitted with radio collars.
According to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, there were 146 captive Andean bears reported to the International Species Information System in 2005. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, in 2008 there were an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 wild Andean bears with additional commentary that is not encouraging:
“It is likely that Andean bear populations will decline by more than 30% within a 30-year window that includes both the past and future. Habitat loss continues at a rate of 2-4% per year, and the level of exploitation is thought to be high in many portions of the range. These threats have not ceased, nor are there any indications that they will diminish in the near future. Even though many protected areas have been established over the past 20 years and more are expected to be added in the next few years, those areas protect only a fraction of the remaining Andean bear habitat. Moreover, even within protected areas, bears are vulnerable to habitat destruction and poaching because many areas are inadequately patrolled. Road development and the advance of agriculture are particularly insidious because they diminish and fragment habitat, and also attract bears, which are killed when depredating crops. Increasing mining and oil exploitation pose additional significant threats to this species.” (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22066/0)
The Andean bear is the only remaining species of bear native to South America and it is the very last living species of evolutionary short-faced bear. Andean bears live in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Panama. They prefer dense cloud forests, abundant in food and shelter. Andean bears contribute to seed dispersal in the ecosystems in which they live. They are also the largest carnivore on the South American continent and the sole bear species to survive in South America after the end of the last ice age. The Incas considered them to be divine beings.
In this context, the birth of healthy twin cubs was anxiously anticipated as we all watched Billie Jean restlessly moving around, much like human females do as labor progresses. And then it happened. Billie Jean gave birth to cubs early in the morning of December 13, 2012. The first cub was born at 12:01 a.m. and the second at 2:02 a.m.
The bear den webcams stayed online and I can only imagine how many synchronized giggles and coos there were across the globe as thousands of us watched the cubs grow. Like an extended family, over the next several weeks we all diligently snapped photos in the form of CTRL ALT PRT SC and posted them in the Flicker account created by the National Zoo. Many of our pictures were posted on the zoo’s website, including a few of mine as pictured here. I felt like a gushing aunt as I announced to my husband that there would be a spring trip to D.C. to see these two rascals in person.
I booked a room in Alexandria, Virginia and kept my fingers crossed that the cubs would grow enough by mid-May to be allowed on exhibit with their mother. The timing was perfect. Our visit to the National Zoo coincided with the very first day the cubs, Kurt and Nicole, were on exhibit to the public. For an hour, dozens of us snapped hundreds of photos, laughed, fawned and exhaled in relief. We knew two little miracles when we saw them. And we were all honored to be there.
You can read about Kurt and Nicole’s first year by visiting the National Zoo’s website http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/Amazonia/AndeanBears/andean-bear-cam.cfm