08 September 2012

Hello, Paddington Bear!

I must have had a deprived childhood – I never read the Paddington Bear books and I didn’t even know Paddington came from “deepest, darkest Peru” until one of our volunteers mentioned it many months ago. Since then, I have been planning a blog on the dear bear. I even contacted the official PaddingtonBear website to ask why author Michael Bond chose Peru for his bear’s country of origin. The response:

When Michael Bond wrote the very first Paddington book back in the 1950s, he said that Paddington came from Africa. Before it was published his agent pointed out to him that there aren't any bears in Africa so he had to change it. He did some research and discovered that there were a few bears living in the foothills of the Andes in Peru, known as Spectacled or Andean bears. He decided that Peru sounded like an exotic and interesting country and so he decided that it would make a perfect place for Paddington to come from.

However, when I finally met Paddington in real life, he wasn’t wearing a red hat or a blue duffel coat. But then, the Spectacled Bears I met weren’t wearing spectacles either! But they are the cutest creatures, perhaps even more cute than Paddington.

On our second day in Chiclayo, Sarah and I took a tour to the Chaparri Nature Reserve. It was a rapid ride south from Chiclayo with a Speedy Gonzales driver who only spoke Spanish but tried his best to communicate with us and, as 2 part-Spanish speakers are better than one, we understood at least the gist, if not every detail, of what he said.

The land became more fertile as we headed south; there was even more sugar cane, lots of maize, incredibly green rice fields, and tobacco. There was more water too, in a well-constructed irrigation system of ditches and canals, and we had a short stop at a reservoir for some photos.

At the little settlement of Chongoyape, we turned inland and picked up a member of the reserve staff, who was our guide around the tracks in the reserve. After a 30-minute bumpy ride over dirt roads, we began our 3-hour walk around the trails. This was a dry forest area at the end of the dry season so there was very little water in the river beds we crossed and the landscape was quite brown. It reminded me of what I imagine parts of Africa to be like and half expected to see an elephant or giraffe around every corner.

Despite the dry, there was an abundance of stunning bird life including another Burrowing Owl, a Turtupilin Macho, hummingbirds on yellow-flowered knopfia (hot pokers), mocking birds (that imitate the calls made by other birds, hence the name “mocking”), the White-winged Guan or Pava Aliblanca (a bird thought to be extinct for 100 years then rediscovered in 1977), and Antshrikes, amongst others.

The highlight of the day, of course, was our time with the Osos de Anteojos, the Spectacled Bears. Twenty-five-year-old Papa Bear came from a circus where he had been so badly mistreated that he cannot be rehabilitated into the wilds of the reserve. He lives with Mama Bear and Baby Bear, who will soon be released into the reserve to fend for himself. Wild bears live in the hills behind the area where the tourist trails and accommodation are located, so visitors rarely see them, except in September, when one particular tree flowers and fruits, drawing the bears down from the hills to enjoy these treats.

The bears may not wear spectacles but are so-named because many have lighter-coloured circular markings around their eyes. Every face marking is different so individuals are easily identifiable. The bears live to about 30 years or age and are mostly vegetarian - they really liked the sweet potatoes our guide was feeding them.

Although we didn’t see any, there are many other animals living within the reserve: puma, ocelot, deer, llamas and another type of camelid, the huanaco. There are also snakes, iguana and other lizards, many beautifully coloured butterflies that were just too fluttery to photograph, and there are spiders, in particular the whip spider, which I bravely, or foolishly – I haven’t yet decided which – allowed to sit on my hand.

It was a delightful day, away from the city and people, with just Mother Nature’s beautiful creatures and our lovely guide for company. One day, I would love to go back and stay in the eco-lodge accommodation and spend a week enjoying the wildlife, the peace and tranquility of Chaparri.

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