When wildlife biologist and author Douglas Chadwick first heard tales of Gobi bears, he was dubious.
Stretching across 1,295,000 square kilometers (or about a half million square miles) of southern Mongolia and northern China, the Gobi Desert is a vast, harsh, and unforgiving environment. Could a bear really thrive there? Chadwick wondered. While he had his doubts, he immediately resolved to find out for himself, as he relates below in a Q&A with Mongabay and an excerpt of his latest book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond.
Gobi bears, or mazaalai in Mongolian, are actually a subspecies of Ursus arctos, more commonly known as brown bears or grizzly bears. But Ursus arctos gobiensis are the only bear of any species known to make their home exclusively in desert habitat. And due to the impacts of climate change in their already punishing environment, it’s believed that there may be fewer than 40 Gobi bears left in the world.
Chadwick, who has been a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine since the late 70s, reports that Gobi bears are distinct from their closest relatives in a number of other ways, as well. Their coats, for instance, “are often more bronze than brown and show blazes of white on the forequarters and neck.” The bears also “tend to be smaller than most North American grizzlies, whose living conditions are plush by comparison.”
Tracking Gobi Grizzlies is an adventure memoir in which Chadwick looks at how this extremely rare mammal has adapted to life in the world’s fifth-largest desert, one of the most remote and extreme landscapes on Earth. He also lays out a case for why it’s so critical that Gobi bears receive more conservation attention, because, as an umbrella species, saving the bears would also benefit the entire ecosystem and its inhabitants, from desert roses to Asiatic lynx, ibex, black-tailed gazelles, corsac foxes, snow leopards, and wild double-humped camels.
An excerpt of the book is below, as is a Q&A with Chadwick, who discusses why now was the right time for Tracking Gobi Grizzlies to be written, the conservation status of Gobi bears, and just how important the endangered bear’s survival is to the overall ecosystem.
Mongabay: As a wildlife biologist and author who has studied and written about everything from mountain goats and grizzlies to elephants and whales, how did you first come across the Gobi bear, and what intrigued you about the species?
Author, Doug Chadwick. Photo by Joe Riis.
Douglas Chadwick: High in the Altai Mountains of northern Mongolia, where the peaks gleamed with glacial ice, I was following snow leopard sign with an interpreter, Nadia Mijiddorj, when she started talking about bears. There were brown bears (Ursus arctos, also commonly called grizzlies) here, but Nadia wanted to tell me about a subspecies that lived at the southern end of the country. Where? In the heart of the Great Gobi Desert, she replied. The wind was blowing hard. Had I misunderstood? I’d spent hundreds of hours in Alaska and the Rockies watching grizzlies, fascinated by their blend of power and intelligence. I knew they were also found in wildlands across Eurasia. But the Gobi? I couldn’t begin to picture grizz in a place that dehydrated. Yet Nadia repeated the English name for the subspecies: Gobi bears. Mongolians knew them as mazaalai. They used to be more widespread in the desert, but their home today was a single rugged reserve. It held around 30 Gobi bears, she said. That was all that were left in the world. And before I’d given the slightest thought to when or how, I’d decided I was going to go find them.
Mongabay: Why was now the time to write this book?
Chadwick: It was 1943 before an explorer finally confirmed that, yes, instead of the desert Yetis or hairy wild race of forgotten humans that Mongolian legends told of, there were actual bears wandering the Gobi. Somehow, a unique variety of grizzly managed to contend with temperatures of -40 in winter and 120+ (F) in summer and long, parched, mostly barren stretches between the region’s few pools of water. Despite my wildlife background, I had never heard of this extraordinary fellow Earthling, Ursus arctos gobiensis.
After I returned to the U.S., nobody I told about Gobi bears was aware of them either. People aren’t going to push hard to save an imperiled life form unless they really care about it, and they can’t care if they don’t know it exists. So the next time I went to Mongolia, I had dual goals. One was to volunteer with the Gobi Bear Project in the field, assisting with research aimed at discovering ways to help the animals regain some of their former range and numbers. My second goal was to start getting information about these dustiest, thirstiest, and rarest of all bears out to the public. Otherwise, the next book about mazaalai might be written as a memorial for a creature that once animated a remote and storied corner of the globe but does so no more.
A Gobi bear. Photo by Joe Riis.
Mongabay: What bear species are the Gobi bear’s closest relatives? What are some of the most striking adaptations the Gobi bear has had to make in order to live in its desert habitat?
Chadwick: Brown/grizzly bears arose in the heart of Asia and then spread westward to Europe and eastward all the way across the Bering Land Bridge to North America. In fact, Gobi bears may be the lineage most directly related to those ancestral bears. The nearest modern relatives of mazaalai appear to be the Himalayan brown bear, Ursus arctos isabellinus; the Tibetan brown bear (often called the blue bear or horse bear), U. a. pruinosus; and the East Siberian brown bear, U. a. collaris. Compared to those neighboring subspecies in more generous habitats, gobiensis tends to be smaller and generally leaner. In lieu of body fat, it grows long, thick, unruly fur to serve as extra insulation. In a stony landscape without deep soil to burrow into for hibernation, mazaalai spend the winter in a mountainside cave or thicket of brush partly exposed to the Gobi’s winds and bitter cold. A distinctive blaze of white fur along the upper shoulder or part of the neck often marks the brown or golden coat, while stubby claws and heavily worn teeth tell of lives spent walking on rock, digging through rock rubble to get at plant roots and burrowing rodents, and taking in grit with many a mouthful of food.
The longer I tracked mazaalai movements, the more I came to realize that a good part of what allows these mammals to adapt to such a demanding environment are qualities they share with all grizzlies: an omnivorous diet coupled with a large, nimble brain. They were thinking their way through the Gobi’s uncompromising drylands, remembering routes they followed as cubs at their mother’s heels between far-flung waterholes, gauging and later recalling where the wild rhubarb grows thickest, which hillside is most likely to hold a flush of wild onion and grasses after a rain, when to concentrate on meals of wingless grasshoppers or ground beetles as conditions favor those insects, or perhaps shift to seeking out the carcasses of mammals to scavenge if a prolonged drought suppresses plant growth.
I know a lot of folks tend to think of big, fanged, potent animals such as grizzlies being driven mainly by raw instincts. Gobi bears seem to clearly illustrate instead that grizzlies are, like us, both what they are born to be and very much what they learn to be.
Mongabay: The Gobi bear is extremely rare, with possibly just a few dozen living in the wild. What are the chief threats to its survival? What are the most important conservation initiatives seeking to protect Gobi bear numbers, and in what direction are the bear’s numbers trending today?
Chadwick: The bears’ sole home, Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area-A (GGSPA for short), is immense – 18,000 square miles, with vast gravel plains separating mountain chains carved into mazes of canyons and cliffs. At that scale, it is virtually impossible to be sure every individual has been tallied at the water sources where automatic cameras are set up and fur samples collected for DNA identification. For all we know, some bears may rely on springs or small seeps that have not yet been located.
Since 2005, when the Gobi Bear Project team of GGSPA rangers, Mongolian scientists, and American grizzly bear specialist Harry Reynolds began catching an average of two mazaalai every year and fitting them with GPS radio collars, the known population appears to have slightly increased. From somewhere between 22 and 31, it grew to between 27 and as many as 36. That’s a small difference in numbers but a significant rise percentage-wise and cause for optimism.
On the other hand, even if the actual total turned out to be twice as large, the proportion of mature, successfully reproducing females among them would still be worrisomely small. The genetic diversity of gobiensis is already among the lowest recorded for a bear subspecies. For now, what counts is that those females are continuing to produce babies, and the young are surviving to adulthood. How does inbreeding in this isolated population compare with other challenges to survival? Polar bears have become a universally recognized symbol of the harmful changes in habitats wrought by global warming; they are starving and even drowning as the ice caps they depend upon vanish. In my mind, an ancient line of grizzlies now facing greater heating and drying of their extreme desert environment makes an equally compelling case.
Genetic specialist Odbayar (Odko) Tumendemberel passes blood samples to Harry Reynolds while other members of the Project team collect and record measurements. Photo by Doug Chadwick.
Mongabay: Mining is an incredibly important and booming sector of the Mongolian economy, and mining projects typically have pretty severe impacts for ecosystems and wildlife. But is the government’s commitment to protecting the Gobi bear enough, in your opinion, to protect the species?
Chadwick: Livestock grazing is allowed within outer portions of GGSPA and too often strips away the sparse desert plant cover, leaving little for native wildlife. It’s a serious problem but a politically sensitive one because herding has been at the center of Mongolian culture for thousands of years. A newer threat comes from mining activities. Month after month, illegal gold-seekers slip far into the reserve, displacing the bears and other wildlife through mining activities and even more by occupying precious sites with water.
In addition, mineral companies continually lobby the Mongolian government to allow road-building and large-scale commercial gold mining inside GGSPA. So far, such proposals have been voted down in the country’s parliament, though sometimes by a slim margin. Mongolia remains a predominantly rural country with a growing but still relatively small economy. While the nation deserves credit for remaining committed to protecting its wildlife reserves, it is not always able to provide funding for adequate staff and equipment – or even enough fuel for rangers to properly patrol at times. Another reason to focus more attention on Gobi grizzlies is to increase international support for protecting critically important strongholds like GGSPA.
These are the front claws of a Gobi bear that move across that same rock terrain month after month and dig deep into the gravel for roots. Photo by Joe Riis.
Mongabay: Contrary to what most people might expect, the Gobi Desert is not an altogether barren wasteland. What are some of the other species the Gobi bear shares its terrain with? How important is the Gobi bear to the overall ecosystem?
Chadwick: The most rewarding of the Gobi’s many surprises for me was the array of other large mammals sharing the stark terrain with the bears. The mountains within GGSPA are high enough to catch just a little more moisture than the plains, the deeply etched canyons offer shade for plants, and enough water surfaces at some springs to nourish an oasis-like setting of poplar trees, tamarisk, willows, tall reeds, and fruiting nitrebush. As a result, the area supports an herbivore community that includes a majority of the world’s remaining wild Bactrian, or double-humped, camels (listed as an endangered species); a significant population of Mongolian khulan, or wild asses (dwindling elsewhere in Mongolia and northern China and recently listed as threatened); the wild sheep known as argali; Siberian ibex with great scimitar-length horns; and black-tailed gazelles. They in turn support a carnivore complex of snow leopards, Asiatic lynx, wolves, and two species of foxes.
On a long morning stroll before the day heats up, I might come across smaller fauna ranging from hares and hedgehogs to native gerbils and hamsters. It’s hard to say exactly how important mazaalai might be to this ecosystem, given how few remain and how much of their daily life and activities has yet to be observed. Interestingly, it is the wild asses that appear to play more of a keystone role, for they create some open drinking sources by sensing underground water and pawing down with their tough hoofs to expose it. Elsewhere, their pawing serves to widen and deepen existing seeps or small pools that a wild camel could otherwise drink dry in a few heartbeats. We now know that if you want to save the Gobi’s bears and camels, you’d better plan to take good care of the wild asses in the neighborhood at the same time.
A heavyset Gobi bear, probably a male, captured by an automatic camera anchored to the wall in the narrowest part of a canyon. Photo by Joe Riis.
Mongabay: Do you have any good stories from your field research about the bears that you can share with us?
Chadwick: Sorry. This question is too hard to answer. I’ve got memories from five years’ of springtime expeditions in the Gobi competing to get to the front of the line inside my head right now. Here comes the one about Canadian researcher Michael Proctor briefly riding a mazaalai. It had been immobilized and was lying on the ground when he straddled it to secure a radio collar around its neck. All at once, the drugs wore off, and the Gobi bear rodeo was underway, and….
Wait. That memory just got pushed aside by the night we ended up lost, choked, and blinded in a dust storm that seemed to send the whole desert airborne. And now I’ve got scorpions and camels spiders scuttling to cut in line. Yeah, and camel ticks, not-so-affectionately known by some of us as dick ticks for reasons nobody wants to hear in detail.
Now it’s the rangers coming to the fore, racing full speed across the desert to intercept illegal miners in the dead of night.
Here’s the ranger that got wounded by gunfire for his trouble, the sick old Gobi bear that died soon after I watched it trudge away from the far oasis called Barantooroi, the newborn ibex scrambling straight up a canyonside precipice behind their mothers as if immune to gravity, Geerlee Namkhai, the camp cook, pounding dried domestic camel jerky with a tire iron to soften it up for dinner as rations ran low….
But how about a round of vodka toasts later on inside that yurt, or ger, built underground for shelter from the Gobi sun and winds? Or just sitting outside on a still desert night beneath more stars than I had ever known could fit into the sky. And waking to a dawn the color of tamarisk blossoms and hiking off into boundless wildness, a place beyond the back of beyond, utterly silent, unpeopled, and yet marked by hoof and paw prints on a webwork of paths that last for decades and speak of life that endures even where rain so seldom falls.
The Desert-Dwelling Grizzly Bears of Mongolia
By Douglas Chadwick
Excerpted from Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond © 2017 by Douglas Chadwick. Used with permission of Patagonia.
Before I flew to northern India, I’d been doing fieldwork for the snow leopard story in the Altai Mountains of northwestern Mongolia. My wife, Karen Reeves, and I traveled there with Bayarjargal (Bayara) Agvaantseren and her assistant, Tserennadmid (Nadia) Mijiddorj, both with the Snow Leopard Trust. Through an arm of the Trust called Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), Bayara oversaw more than two dozen community-based programs built around the production and sale of handcrafted wool goods.
In traditional Mongolian culture, fur shorn from a household’s goats, yaks, camels, and other livestock is wetted and tightly compressed to form sheets of felt. Wrapped over a light wooden framework, felt made the roof and rounded walls of the house itself—the ger—before sturdy but lighter modern fabrics became available. Felt is also turned into blankets, sleeping mats, and articles of clothing for the families living inside. A soft-spoken former schoolteacher, Bayara trained the women to make smaller felt items—children’s booties and caps, placemats, trivets, and so on—incorporating more decorative designs than the practical nomadic herders ordinarily bothered with. The Trust then sold these handicrafts as well as skeins of yarn from camel hair or ne goat wool (cashmere) online and through select outlets in the West. Bayara would pay well for the specially made goods. In return, the families that benefited were expected to lead the way in convincing the rest of their community to cease killing snow leopards.
While Bayara continued on her rounds, Karen and I would take o into the high country for several days at a time, bringing Nadia with us as a translator. Not long out of high school, Nadia had been entering inventory data on a computer in an office when we met in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Soon, we were tracking snow leopards and their prey—ibex and wild boars—on the slopes of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park with Khazakstan on the west, Russia on the north, and massifs like 14,201-foot Kuiten Uul looming overhead. We followed more leopard and ibex signs farther east in the Siachen Mountains. I remember how easily Nadia slipped into the role of a field naturalist and practical campmate as we bivouacked in the snow, and I can recall the highlights of each trek we shared. Yet I have completely forgotten where it was that she told me something that would that open a new phase in my life.
I had asked Nadia for more information about Eurasian brown bears, Ursus arctos arctos. They were supposed to be present in the Altai region and other portions of far northern Mongolia. We hadn’t found evidence of them even within protected areas. Although hunting of bears was no longer legal anywhere in the country, it looked as though they were being shot by poachers and herders anyway. That was when Nadia mentioned that there was another kind of bear in Mongolia—one even more scarce. Where? Not in the north, she said, but in the Gobi-Altai, where the southern end of the Altai Range curves eastward and becomes a succession of smaller mountain chains rippling deep into the Great Gobi Desert.
“These bears are in the true Gobi—the really dry lands?” I asked.
“Brown bears like the brown bears here?”
“Yes. But different brown bears. They are called mazaalai. Gobi bears.”
I remember that part well enough, because it was first I had ever heard of the animals. Nadia’s English was good but uncertain at times, and I had maybe ten words of Mongolian in my entire vocabulary. I assumed there was a mistake in the translation or else this brown bear actually lived somewhere else but had become associated with the desert in folklore.
Ursus arctos is an adaptable omnivore able to live in a variety of habitats by exploiting a wide range of high-energy foods. That makes it a direct competitor of humans. Over the centuries, we eradicated this species from so many favorable environments in temperate regions that we’ve come to envision grizzlies as naturally most at home in cold northern forests, rugged mountains, and tundra—places we haven’t yet overrun. Who thinks of these bears swiping at salmon in streams of the British Isles as late as King Arthur’s time? They did. Who remembers that in the nineteenth century, grizz populations flourished alongside the bison of North America’s Great Plains? Others lingered in the US desert Southwest into the early decades of the twentieth century. I once went to check out rumors of holdouts in northern Mexico’s Sierra del Nido Range with its slopes of oak, manzanita, and agave, where grizzlies were reported as recently as the late 1960s. But the Gobi? From the photos and videos I’d viewed, it was all I could do to imagine lizards squeezing a living from that landscape. Yet Nadia was insistent about mazaalai being at home there.
I must have looked exactly like most of the people I’ve since told about Gobi grizzlies: Baffled. And politely trying not to give the impression that I didn’t believe what I was being told. I was making a mental note to look into the fauna of the Gobi at a future date, hoping to clear up our obvious miscommunication, when Nadia went on to say that her father had personally studied these bears for years. He was a wildlife scientist and the head of a special nature reserve within the Gobi.
The gears in my brain unfroze and began to spin. Some of the communities Bayara and Nadia worked with through the handicrafts program were in the Gobi-Altai. If snow leopards could make a living in those remote desert mountains, why not a population of some type of Ursus arctos? Gobi bears! What were they like? How did they differ from others? And then the all-important question:
“How many are there?”
“My father thinks maybe about thirty,” Nadia said. “They are the only ones left.”
“In all of Mongolia?”
“In the world.”
And I instantly yearned to see them. Visiting their haunts in the Gobi outback would surely open up my view of what a grizzly bear is and what it is capable of. Perhaps I’d find a way to help the survivors. I thought about this fairly often after returning to the United States. But when I took off again on natural history reporting assignments, they landed me in other corners of the globe. In between, I was busy with volunteer conservation activities in the Rockies. Many were aimed at recovering the United States’s own grizzly population, still listed as threatened south of Canada. Bit by bit, my intention to explore the Great Gobi Desert in search of improbable-sounding grizzlies, more mysterious than snow leopards and far more rare, was becoming like a New Year’s resolution—readily made but not quite as readily as excuses for putting it off.
Douglas Chadwick is the author of fourteen books, including Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond (Patagonia, 2017). A wildlife biologist who has studied mountain goats and grizzlies in the Rockies, elephants in Africa, and whales in the world’s oceans, he began writing about natural history and conservation for national magazines and has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic since 1977. Chadwick is a board member of Vital Ground (www.vitalground.org), a nonprofit land trust that has helped safeguard more than 600,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Alaska, Canada, and the western US. He is also a director of the Gobi Bear Fund (www.gobibearproject.org) which seeks to restore population of the most endangered of all the yellow bears. Chadwick lives in Whitefish, MT.