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Defying the Odds: Saving the World’s Rarest Bear

When you imagine bears in wild, images of majestic grizzly bears roaming the high mountain peaks of the Rockies often come to mind. Thriving with lush vegetation in the summer, fattening their bodies up in the fall, laying fast asleep during the long, cold winters, and coming out of hibernation at the first sign of spring, a bear’s life seems perfect for this postcard-worthy landscape. Yet, miraculously the grizzly bear also lives in one of the most surprising places on earth: The Gobi Desert.

During an inspiring interview with Doug Chadwick, wildlife biologist, journalist and author of the new book, “Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond”, I learned about the Gobi Bear Project in Mongolia and the amazing opportunity we have to save the world’s rarest bear from extinction. Here is the story.

Gobi Bear Project

The Gobi Bear, a rare grizzly bear that lives in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Photo credit: Joe Riis

The situation:

Thousands of miles away, in one of last remaining wild places on earth lies a remote section of the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. The Gobi Desert is the world’s fifth largest desert spanning from the southern third of Mongolia on into northern and northwestern China.  In one of the most unusual habitats in the world lives a miracle: The world’s rarest bear, the Gobi Bear.

Fewer than three dozen Gobi bears remain in the world, living in one of the harshest places on earth. The extreme temperatures range from 120 degrees in the summer to a bone-chilling -40 F in the winter. There is less than 2-8 inches of rainfall a year. The landscape is almost like being on the moon with large, windswept valleys, high mountain peaks and scatterings of low vegetation. Yet somehow, there are Gobi Bears. The fact that these large, rare creatures actually exist is a shock in itself. In fact, no one actually knew that Gobi Bears existed until 1943. Today, little is still known about the world’s rarest bear whose very existence is on the edge of extinction.

Gobi Bear Project

Big Bawa among the Phragmites grasses at the oasis where he was radio-collared. Photo: Joe Riis

A little history on Mongolia

Mongolia’s history is as long and vast as its rugged, expansive land, dating all the way back to the 3rd century BC. This landlocked country known as “The Land of Blue Skies”, lies between China and Russia, and its immense, dramatic landscape has the lowest human population density on the planet with a magnitude of uninhabited land. Mongolia’s 3 million inhabitants are mostly nomadic and hold a deep connection to the environment and nature. Mongolia remains one of the few places in the world where nomadic culture is still the main way of life for its people.

For centuries, Mongolians have lived nomadically and their main income has been based on agriculture and livestock. Yet Mongolia also lies on a jackpot of mineral wealth: There are vast amounts of copper, coal, gold, and other valuable minerals laying beneath the massive, barren landscapes of Mongolia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to devastating economic cutbacks in Mongolia pushing the country into a deep recession. The Mongolian economy slowly picked up from an increase mining exports however the mining boom has dwindled again due to a sharp decline in the price of commodities over the past couple of years. Despite this fact the pressure to open up new wild lands to mining remains and with mining comes a price:  Roads and new mines must be built which could endanger animal habitats and the environment.

Thankfully, the Mongolian Government has protected key Gobi Bear habitat by creating the “Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area” which sits adjacent to three large Mongolian National Parks. However, the economic temptation of increasing mining is a huge threat. Existing gold, copper and coal mines are not far from either Protected Areas. The question becomes what will the Mongolian Government do.

National Geographic Gobi Desert

Map credit: Maggie Smith – National Geographic Staff. Sources: T. McCARTHY, ET AL, URSUS; TURQUOISE HILL RESOURCES

Meet Chad

Wildlife Biologist and Journalist, Doug Chadwick (“Chad”) has been studying wildlife and wildlife conservation for decades. From grizzly bears and mountain goats to the elusive snow leopards of the high mountains of Mongolia, Chad has traveled around the world in search for answers on what conservation programs work best and which ones fail.

Gobi Bear Project

Author, Doug Chadwick. A wildlife biologist who studied mountain goats and grizzlies in the Rockies, elephants in Africa, and whales in the world’s oceans, Doug Chadwick also writes about natural history, conservation, and wildlife around the world, from right whales in the sub-Antarctic to snow leopards in the Himalayas, producing close to fifty articles for National Geographic magazine. In addition, he has written thirteen books about wildlife and conservation, including Yellowstone to Yukon, and the lead chapter in Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies, a photographic celebration of the region’s wildlife and scenic majesty.

It was during a trip to Mongolia tracking snow leopards where he first heard about the existence of grizzly bears in the Gobi Desert. Having worked with bears for many years, Chad is well versed in bear habitats and was surprised there were bears in the parched and stony Gobi area. He asked the locals and one woman informed him that there were indeed grizzly bears known as the “Gobi bears” that lived in the Gobi desert. Chad was so stunned that at first he didn’t believe her until she told him that her father worked at the reserve dedicated to protecting and conserving the last remaining Gobi Bears. The Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area in southern Mongolia.

In the Spring of 2011, Chad made his first visit to the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area on assignment with National Geographic. He met up with Harry Reynolds, a bear biologist, of the Gobi Bear Project to learn about the Gobi Bears and the conservation work they were doing in the field. Given how rare the bears are, there was very little knowledge on their behavior and how they were doing.

Chad was so incredibly taken by the bears, that he returned on his own as a volunteer with the Gobi Bear Project in the spring seasons of 2012-2015.

Gobi Bear Project

An adult female angles up a canyonside above an oasis in the last evening light. Photo: Joe Riis

Gobi Bear Project

A heavyset Gobi bear, probably a male, captured by an automatic camera anchored to the wall in the narrowest part of a canyon. Photo: Joe Riis

Gobi Bear Project

Evening and a temporary camp somewhere in the mountain maze. Photo: Joe Riis

The Gobi Bear Project

The Gobi Bear Project began in 2005 and was founded by Harry Reynolds, a leading biologist on bears, and the Mongolian government. The mission of the project includes:

  • A modest level of funding for patrols to prevent poaching and also to stop locals from entering the protected area to illegally mine for minerals.
  • Provision of supplementary food for the bears to ensure they survive and reproduce.
  • Placement of radio collars on the bears so the can monitor them and learn more about their behavior (for example, where do they roam, what do they eat, who do they mate with, etc).
  • Fur sampling (for DNA) to figure out how they are breeding.
Gobi Bear Project

Gobi Bear Project leader Harry Reynolds (left) and Michael Proctor check the mouth of a captured male immobilized by drugs. Tooth pattern and sharpness are good indicators of a grizzly’s age, but in the Gobi, estimates have to be adjusted to account for wear and tear from gravel and sand when foraging for roots, insects, and burrowing rodents. Photo: Joe Riis

Gobi Bear Project

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: Joe Riis

The Goal

The number one goal of the Gobi Bear Project is to ensure the Gobi Bear’s survival, and that can only be done by ensuring they are healthy enough to reproduce. It is critical that they save what little land they have and protect their unique habitat.  The Gobi Desert has an amazingly rich ecosystem and by protecting the bears, they will also protect all the other rare animals that live there such as the wild asses, Bactrian camels, wolves, and snow leopards and ibex who live higher up in the mountains. Each animal plays an essential part in keeping their habitat intact. For example, the wild asses play a critical role in pawing holes in the rough, arid ground to find water and create drinking pools for all the animals to enjoy.  The camels in the Great Gobi Reserve are also exceptional as they account for perhaps three-fourths of the world’s camel population.

Chad sees an enormous opportunity for the Mongolians to develop sustainable tourism around the outskirts of this remote, utterly beautiful protected area (the Gobi Strictly Projected Area) and within the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park next door. In Chad’s view, it doesn’t have to be an “Either – Or” situation (meaning either develop the mining and lose the bears or protect the bears and restrict the mining). Instead, with a little bit of smart planning and development the Gobi Desert could become one of the newest adventure tourist destinations on the planet. There is enormous potential. Three of Mongolia’s largest jewels – The Great Gobi National Park, the Gurvan Saikhan National Park and the Tost Nature Reserve – lie adjacent to the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area.

International tourists could come to visit the parks, ride a camel and see a fair amount of unique wildlife in a truly magical place awash in deep canyons, vast drylands, mountains (some even have surprising ice fields hidden within deep canyons), stretches of wind-sculpted sand dunes, and stony stretches of deserts (some of which hold remarkable collections of dinosaur fossils). If the Gobi Bears are able to recover, they could roam through a complex of protected parks and it would be a win-win situation for all. “It would be an ecologist’s dream” beams Chad. “And people would be able to experience one of the last remaining wild places on the planet”.

There are already a handful of responsible tourism outfitters bringing tourists into the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park and to other parts of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. With luck, a tourist may even spot one of the world’s rarest bears there, for there are occasional reports of Gobi Bears making forays outside of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area next door.

As Chad says, “Mongolia is a pretty amazing place. There is nothing quite like it on earth”. And the fact that the giant Gobi Bears can live there makes it even more magical.

Now isn’t that something worth fighting for?

Want to learn more?

Read Doug Chadwick’s “Gobi Bear Update.” The Vital Ground Foundation has been a financial supporter of the Gobi Bear Project since 2012.

Support the Gobi Bear Project  – new website launching soon! www.gobibearproject.org

Read Doug Chadwick’s National Geographic piece, “Can The World’s Rarest Bears Be Saved?

Doug Chadwick’s new book, “Tracking Gobi Grizzles: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond” has just been released and is available at Amazon or in stores now. It is published by Patagonia and is one out of eight books the apparel company published annually.

“Tracking Gobi Grizzlies by Doug Chadwick Book Trailer”

An adventure memoir and an environmental parable by best-selling National Geographic reporter emerge from within this portrait of a mysterious but critical species living in a seemingly desolate but actually widely diverse and threatened ecosystem.

Watch this fabulous short YouTube clip featuring Doug Chadwick and extraordinary photography on location in the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area.

About Doug Chadwick:

Bio from National Geographic Expeditions:

With a master’s degree in wildlife biology, Doug Chadwick studied mountain goats among the peaks of the Rockies for seven years. He also carried out surveys of grizzly bears and of the harlequin ducks that breed along the Rockies’ fast-moving rivers and streams. In his other role as a journalist, Doug has reported on wildlife around the world, from right whales in the subantarctic to snow leopards in the Himalayas, producing close to 50 articles for National Geographic magazine. Over the past nine years, much of his free time has been spent as a volunteer helping carry out groundbreaking wolverine research in Glacier National Park, Montana. Doug often explores Canada’s mountain parklands. In addition to hundreds of magazine articles, he has written thirteen books about wildlife and conservation, including several focused on the Rocky Mountains. One is Yellowstone to Yukon, which prominently features the Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks region. He also contributed the lead chapter in a 2014 book entitled Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies, a photographic celebration of the region’s wildlife and scenic majesty.

21 comments

    • Thanks so much for reading it Alison! This was by far one of my favorite posts I’ve done in a long time. Such a fascinating story and I loved chatting with Chad and learning about his impressive work.

  1. As you might expect, I found this really interesting after spending some time in the Gobi this past summer. I had absolutely no idea there were bears there! Of course we saw camels, but no bears. One of the areas we hiked in, the Yolyn Am canyon (that’s the one with the ice fields) did seem like it would be more likely to house bears than the wide-open, scrubby flat areas that dominated the landscape. I’ll have to read more about this!

    • I loved working on this post Lexi. It was so fascinating. When you went, what tour operator did you use? It would be interesting to put together a list of responsible tour operators to Mongolia. Did you go anywhere near the southern part of the Gobi? Now I am really wanting to go to Mongolia. It sounds like such an amazing place!

      • I used a very small company called Blue Sky Travel, owned and run (and guided) by a smart young guy who did his Peace Corps volunteer years in Mongolia and his wife, a highly-educated Mongolian woman he met and fell in love with while there! They live half in the US and half in Ulaanbaatar (during the tour season). They were excellent!

        I was in the Gurvan Saikhan area of the Gobi – so south, but not right near the Chinese border; I think the bears are in one of the other protected areas farther south and west.

      • Thanks Lexi for sharing. I bet this company was amazing. How did you find them? I hope you write more about your time in Mongolia. I’ve loved reading about your trip.

      • I found them online, but after much research I realized I had stumbled upon a gem. I think I wrote 6-7 posts on Mongolia – not sure I can mine that trip for much more – haha!

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