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By Douglas Chadwick

There’s more to the story of grizzlies than most of us are aware, for populations of this species—Ursus arctos, also commonly called the brown bear—can be found outside North America from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, west to Scandinavia and all the way south to India. Some hold out in the mountains of Spain, France, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, western China, and a number of other countries across Eurasia.

It is a tribute to these bears’ toughness, intelligence, and adaptability that they have survived within such a wide array of landscapes and climates. Even so, few people would ever picture these animals in the Gobi Desert, a vast, unforgiving realm of stone and sand where temperatures hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit or more in summer, minus 40 Fahrenheit in winter, and just two to eight inches of rain fall annually. After all, in Mongolian, gobi means “waterless place.”

Lizard and snakes? Sure. The wild goats known as ibex, at home in arid lands? Yes. Wild and wooly, double-humped Bactrian camels? This is one of their strongholds. But a grizzly? Among sun-baked, treeless hills and mountains and gravel plains where mirages dance in the air? Although scientific explorers failed to observe any until 1943, people in southwestern Mongolia had known about the creatures they called mazaalai for generations.

Douglas Chadwick overlooking a Gobi grizzly bear. Photo by Hunter J. Causey

They’re real. I stroked the fur of two of them last spring during an expedition led by Harry Reynolds, a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game bear biologist and two-term president of the International Bear Association. The other bear expert on hand was Canadian ecologist Mike Proctor, who serves on Vital Ground’s advisory board. He was making his fourth trip to assist Reynolds with the Gobi Bear Project, begun in 2005. Rangers from Great Gobi Special Protected Area, along with Mongolian scientists, rounded out the team.

In addition to capturing two grizzlies and placing GPS satellite radio collars on them, the crew observed a free-roaming bear for hours and identified perhaps ten others from the latest photos taken by automatic cameras set up at strategic sites. These aren’t large numbers, but they are important. You see, fewer than 50 Gobi bears still exist, and the actual number may be just two to three dozen.

Although these extraordinary animals have been classified as a distinct subspecies, Ursus arctos gobiensis, some authorities suspect they might be an outlying enclave of a subspecies farther west or a different subspecies to the north. On the other hand, some scientists think Gobi bears might even be a separate species. Whatever the case, they remain unique—the world’s only exclusively desert-dwelling bears of any kind.

Their claws are worn to nubs by digging through rocks for roots, and their teeth wear down early because they can’t avoid taking in gravel and sand with their food. Small and lean compared to other grizzlies, they still strike the observer as majestic and in some ways even more indomitable, striding the Gobi in defiance of one of the most extreme environments any mammal has to contend with.

A misguided effort to increase livestock production in the desert during the 1960s and ‘70s, when Mongolia was under Soviet control, led to overgrazing of the naturally sparse desert vegetation, increased disturbance, and poaching. By the start of the 1980s, Gobi bear numbers appeared to have shrunk by at least half. So had the territory they roamed. It is currently tied to just three small mountain ranges within the part of the Great Gobi Special Protected Area known as Gobi A, set aside in 1975. Each of these ranges holds several oases. But those water sources are miles apart from one another, and many offer little in the way of food. Moreover, to get from one mountain chain to the next requires crossing about 50 miles of unrelentingly stark and inhospitable desert floor.

Early in the 1990s, the government began placing artificial feeding stations with grain pellets at most of the oases. This was partly to compensate for the loss of foraging opportunities due to earlier livestock overuse. It was also simply to help Gobi bears get through the early spring when, like other Ursus arctos, they emerge thin and hungry from half a year of hibernation, before plants have started growing. The hope was that extra nutrition during this critical period might strengthen the bears’ chances of survival and bump up their reproductive rate.

Unfortunately, the funds needed to buy grain pellets have not always been available from the Mongolian government. Years go by when feeders at afford the fuel for rangers to deliver pellets to all the sites, monitor wildlife, and guard against illegal miners sneaking in under the cover of darkness to dig for gold. Thirty thousand dollars per year would cover the costs of producing more nutritious grain pellets, purchasing fuel for the rangers to effectively cover more ground, and making sure the bears can find a meal when they most need it.

I realize how ironic this sounds coming from Vital Ground, because while working to protect key habitats here in North American grizzly country, we spend a great deal of time trying to convince people not to feed bears. Well, Gobi bears have already broken a lot of rules about what grizzlies are and what they do. Almost entirely vegetarian, they have no history of aggression toward livestock or people, and very few humans inhabit the region. Providing supplemental nutrition is not going to increase the risk of conflicts with people. If these extraordinary animals, teetering on the edge of oblivion, are to endure and multiply, they need every advantage we can offer them.

So for now, please do feed the bears—the golden bears of the Gobi Desert, that is!


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