FEATURE - Project to save rare bear in land of Paddington
Author: Jude Webber
But one of Paddington's cousins - the spectacled bear, named for the distinctive fur markings around its eyes - is under threat in the Andes, where it has lived since its ancestors lumbered south at the end of the Ice Age.
Which is why bear lovers have created a foundation to save the rare bear and have set up a sanctuary in southern Peru, at the foot of the famous Inca citadel Machu Picchu, where they hope spectacled bear cubs will be born next year.
British actor, author and comedian Stephen Fry, star of the film "Wilde" and TV comedy "Jeeves and Wooster," is a patron of the project, and has traveled to Peru to oversee the efforts to protect the only bear species still existing in South America.
"Twenty years ago there were 15,000 to 20,000 of them in South America. Now they estimate there are 800 to 2,000. Nobody knows," Fry told a fund-raising dinner in Peru, where earlier this year he filmed a documentary on the project, following up a program broadcast last year tracing Paddington's fictitious family roots. Both shows were aired by the BBC in Britain.
Paddington became one of Britain's best loved children's characters after former BBC cameraman Michael Bond wrote "A Bear Called Paddington" in 1958. More than a dozen books chronicling the bear's adventures have been translated into nearly 30 languages and have sold 30 million copies worldwide.
In the initial program, Fry had his first brush with the real thing when he traveled to the snow-capped Huaraz region in Peru's central Andes to rescue "Yogi," a spectacled bear that had been kept by villagers in a cage no bigger than a table.
The foundation, called Bear Rescue, bought Yogi's freedom with tools, corn, flour and corrugated iron, then flew him to their state-of-the-art, computer-monitored compound in Aguas Calientes in southern Peru at the foot of the mountain where the stone citadel of Machu Picchu is perched.
There, Yogi was later introduced to a female, Paula, who had been rescued from an informal zoo in southern Peru.
"It was love at first sight ... There was not one unmelted heart," Fry said.
The bears are monitored by Web cameras, which Bear Rescue hopes will record the birth of spectacled bear cubs "before a year and a half is out," Fry added.
He said he was drawn to the whimsical Paddington project and fell in love with the real-life bears.
"I'm not just in it to make television programs, it's more important for the bear," he said. "The bear is a symbol not just of Peru or South America but the very issue of conservation."
Paddington - which has grown into a multimillion-dollar merchandising industry of children's toys and games - nearly didn't come from Peru at all.
Bond's first draft of "A Bear Called Paddington" had the ursine hero - famously found by English couple Mr. and Mrs. Brown in London's Paddington station with a label around his neck saying, "Please look after this bear. Thank you," - as having come from darkest Africa as a stowaway on a ship.
But Bond's agent pointed out that there were no bears in Africa. So after a trip to the library and London zoo, Bond switched Paddington's provenance to Peru.
"The few bears still existing there are about the right size and nothing much is known about them, which seemed a good thing," he said in a Web interview. "Making it Darkest Peru, with a capital D, added a touch of mystery."
Spectacled bears are black or dark brown, growing up to 6 feet (1.8 metres) long with signature light markings on their faces or around their eyes.
Sometimes known as Andean bears because they live on the slopes of the Andes in parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the nocturnal mammals eat mostly fruits, seeds and bulbs with occasional animals, birds and insects.
But according to some experts, the species is likely to be so diminished in the wild by 2005 that lack of genetic diversity would seriously threaten its survival.
Bear Rescue curre