The impressive Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru are incredibly popular with humans, with more people visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site site than any other in South America. They're also popular with bears, apparently.

This ursine ambler is an Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also known as the spectacled bear because of its distinctive facial markings – and it's no tourist in these parts.

A joint wildlife survey recently completed by Peru's Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado (SERNANP) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) suggests that the ancient ruins are also very possibly the bear's home.

According to the survey, the species is much more common within the boundaries of the UNESCO site (and in the areas surrounding it) than we thought. Researchers found evidence of Andean bears in more than 95% of the 368-square-kilometre area studied, which includes the entirety of Machu Picchu. Although it was previously known that some bears lived within the study range, the survey revealed an unexpectedly large population.

The year-long survey found Andean bears present in more than 95 percent of the study area. Image: Ever Chuchullo

Finding so many resident bears at one of the most-visited sites in South America came as a surprise to researchers, according to WCS Andean Bear Program Coordinator Dr Isaac Goldstein.

"It is amazing that this world-famous location is also important habitat for Andean bears," Goldstein said in a press release. "The results of the survey will help us to understand the needs of this species and how to manage Andean bears in this location."

The only surviving bear native in South America, the species ranges from Venezuela to Argentina, but numbers are dwindling. Thanks to habitat destruction and over-hunting, the bears are now listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, with only an estimated 6,000-10,000 individuals remaining in the wild.

Information gathered as part of the recent survey could help conservationists protect those survivors. The results show the Machu Picchu population doesn't exist in isolation: it's part of a much larger extended network connected by high-altitude montane grasslands. Maintaining these wildlife corridors is crucial for keeping the bear populations healthy.

In the meantime, if you visit Machu Picchu, don't be surprised if you see a bear ambling along, taking in the sights – and keep your distance.


Top image: Ever Chuchullo