Gobi Bear Project

Defying the Odds: Saving the World’s Rarest Bear, the Gobi 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

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On Assignment with National Geographic Photographer Catherine Karnow

“I have been in a love affair with photography from day one, back in high school. Everything I know about photography has been from my own personal experience. I live and breathe photography. It is a beautiful way to see the world and connect with people. Discovering how much I love to teach is an extension of that joy. It is my job as a teacher to help my students express what is inside them, to help them express the beauty they see and feel.” – Catherine Karnow, professional photographer

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in the shoes of a National Geographic photographer on assignment? If you are someone who is passionate about photography and seeing the world, there is no doubt that being an acclaimed photojournalist tops high on your list of dream jobs. Like most children of the early 80s, I grew up reading National Geographic and was mesmerized by the photos of cultures and places so incredibly different from my own. Some of these images have remained forever engrained within my heart such as Steve McCurry’s iconic photograph of the beautiful haunting green-eyed Afghan girl who graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and has captivated the world ever since.


Catherine Karnow, Chinatown, San Francisco. ©Gary Draluck

The power of photography is life-changing and transformative. Photographs have a way of touching us in surprisingly emotional ways. Perhaps this is why so many people love photography. It is an art like no other that involves both technical and creative skills, as well as an eye for seeing something magical. An element of photography that is often overlooked is the actual experience of it. A conversation with professional photographer, Catherine Karnow, whose impressive career has spanned over 40 years and whose work has appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian and other major international publications, enlightened me on the reasons why the experience of photography is so very special.

Catherine had an enchanting childhood. She was born and raised in Hong Kong by exceptional parents. Her father was the renowned journalist Stanley Karnow; and her mother Annette was a gifted artist who infused creativity into every aspect of her life. Annette’s eye for beauty and her passion for art was a strong influence on Catherine. From her father she learned a strong work ethic and the skill to be a story-teller. Her parents allowed her a great measure of independence and freedom, and as a young child she wandered around alone among the back streets of the Chinese fishing village where she grew up.

Catherine took her first photo class in high school and under the tutelage of an excellent teacher, she fell in love with photography. She graduated with honors from Brown University with degrees in Comparative Literature and Semiotics. After a brief career as a filmmaker, Catherine’s passion for photography drew her to Paris where she landed her first assignment 1986 and has been shooting professionally ever since.

One of the highlights of Catherine’s forty-year career is her special focus on Vietnam. Catherine’s fascination with Vietnam began in 1990, when her father interviewed General Giap for the New York Times. Although Catherine was not the photographer on that assignment, she found an opportunity to go to Vietnam on her own a few months later and had excellent access to not only General Giap, but also to many of Vietnam’s living heroes at that time. Catherine’s friendship with General Giap and his family opened the doors to twenty-six years of photography in Vietnam, a country that Catherine calls her spiritual home.

Stephanie Sinclair

Too Young to Wed: Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair’s fight to end child marriage

“Stephanie Sinclair has spent the last decade documenting some of the world’s most controversial subjects, from Yemen’s child brides to Texas’s polygamists. But her goal is simple: to record what is in front of her and pass as little judgement as possible”. Her beautiful photographs take us in and make us want to help change the tragic realities we are seeing. Her work also inspires hope that change is possible. 

In October, I had the honor of attending the ONE Women and Girls inaugural AYA Summit in Washington DC. The summit was an inspiring two days filled with some of the world’s leading speakers and do-gooders who advocate the rights of women and girls in the developing world.

On the first morning of the summit, I had the fortuitous opportunity to met a woman who has inspired me for years, award-wining photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair. Sinclair’s famous photo of Nujood Ali, who stunned the world in 2008 by obtaining a divorce in Yemen at age 10, graces the cover of National Geographic’s “Women of Vision” which I have sitting next to me in my office as inspiration.

Stephanie Sinclair

Ten-year-old Nujood Ali, two years after her divorce. Nujoud’s story caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.  Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair

I had the pleasure of seeing Sinclair’s work on display at the National Geographic’s “Women of Vision” exhibit at their headquarters last fall and left mesmerized by her beautiful, thought-provoking photography. Little did I know that a year later, I would find myself sitting right next to Sinclair at the AYA Summit. Talk about fate.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD

Cause an Uproar: National Geographic’s Big Cat Week

A couple of weeks ago as part of my role as a National Geographic Insider, I had the honor of participating in a conference call with Wildlife Biologist Luke Dollar to learn all about National Geographic’s two exciting campaigns: Big Cat Week and Build a Boma. I have always been a true lover of wildlife and nature and had the honor of seeing big cats in the wild on safari in South Africa in 2005. Little did I know that big cats are in huge danger and face the threat of extinction if we do not act soon to protect them.

Luke Dollar is professor at Duke University and Pfeiffer University in North Carolina and is one of big cats biggest advocates with over 20 years of conservation work. Luke is a wildlife biologist focusing on conservation, research and development and has logged more than eight of the past 18 calendar years in the field. His scientific research began in Madagascar focusing on Madagascar’s top predators, specifically the fosa (Cryptoprocta ferox). His work there brought him to National Geographic as an Emerging Explorer in 2007 and today Luke is the program director of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.

A lion and her cub. Photo credit: © Daniel Stone and Spencer Millsap/National Geographic

A lion and her cub. Photo credit: © Daniel Stone and Spencer Millsap/National Geographic

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“Women of Vision: National Geographic’s Photographers on Assignment”

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Virginia was a visit to the National Geographic headquarters and museum in Washington DC. I have adored National Geographic since I was a child and used to page through the yellow-bordered issues with ravish and delight, dreaming about faraway places, cultures, people and animals. National Geographic was my lifeline into the magic of the world and continues to be so even today.

As a National Geographic Kids Insider (a brand Ambassador who promotes everything amazing National Geographic has to offer), I wanted to get an intimate look behind the scenes of this 125-year-old multi-dimensional non-profit organization that is one part global publisher, another part leader in exploration, conservation and education, and last part a travel company, all packaged within the yellow National Geographic border.

The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888. It is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Its interests include geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.


I honestly had no idea that National Geographic did so incredibly much until I got to see for myself during my tour of their three-building headquarters in the heart of Washington DC.

By far, the most inspiring part of my tour was a visit to the National Geographic Museum where I saw two exhibits, one celebrating National Geographic’s 125 years called “A New Age of Exploration” and the other called “Women of Vision: National Geographic’s Photographers on Assignment”, an exhibit dedicated to honoring women photojournalists. Both were impressive however the “Women of Vision” exhibit was phenomenal and made a powerful impact on me.


Photography Tips from National Geographic’s Kelley Miller

Yesterday as part of my new role as a National Geographic Kids Insider, I participated in a fabulous one-hour video call with National Geographic Kid’s photographer Kelley Miller.

Photo of National Geographic Photographer Kelley Miller

National Geographic Photographer Kelley Miller

Kelley has one of my dream jobs: Traveling around the world and getting paid to take pictures! As someone who absolutely loves to take photos yet has never had any formal training whatsoever, I learned a ton from Kelley’s basic photography tips on how to capture nature, specifically animals in the wild. Normally, I prefer to take photos of landscapes or objects and haven’t really attempted to photograph animals in the wild. It looks like now I will have my chance!

Starting today through September 29th, National Geographic is hosting “The Great Nature Project” which is a worldwide photography project to share plants and animals from your world while celebrating the immense diversity of our planet. It is National Geographic’s goal to set a Guinness Book of World Records title for the largest online photo album in the world of animals.


So now you’re all ready to go right? Well, not without sharing the dozen tips I received from Kelley. In a nutshell, here are Kelley’s 10 top tips for photographing nature:

  1. Be observant. Look around and really, truly look. There are dozens of amazing things in nature that are just awaiting to be captured on film. All it takes is a willingness to truly seek the photo opportunities out.
  2. Make eye contact with the animals and smile. Seriously this sounds rather silly but it is not. Capturing an animal on film looking back at you into the camera is bound to give you a fabulous picture. Yet it takes patience and persistence!
  3. Don’t always frame your subject in the center of the picture. Instead, make the photos more interesting by positioning the subject off to a side.
  4. Show animals in their natural environment  as often as possible. The landscape and sense of space can truly give the picture a sense of scale and dimension for the animal. Also pay attention to graphic details.


    Photo credit: Kelley Miller/National Geographic

  5. Go for motion. If an animal is running, be ready and catch it on film in all its glory. Get as close as you can to the action.  Timing is everything!
  6. Pursue the personality of the animal. For example, we all love hippos basking in the mud or animals being playful.
  7. Look for details and capture it. If the animal is a peacock, do a close up on its wings. Zoom in on a specific body part such as the eyes, ears, nose or mouth. You’ll be amazed how much detail can change the entire feeling of a photo.Slide06
  8. Try for different angles of a shot. For example, why not capture a bug on a leaf looking down on it?
  9. Experiment with changing from color to black and white. Sometimes the details of the photo will be more striking without color.
  10. Make the animal stand out. Use a simple background or a shallow depth of field. The subject will literally pop off the page!


    Photo credit: Kelley Miller/National Geographic

If only I could take such incredible photos! There is so much to learn. But if you are like me you are willing to keep at it and keep trying. Well, here is your chance! You can participate in The Great Nature Project and be a contributor of the world’s largest ever online photo collection of nature and animals.

Screen Shot of the Great Nature Project

All information below is used with permission from National Geographic’s website: The Great Nature Project (www.greatnatureproject.org). To see more details, click here. 

The Great Nature Project

The Great Nature Project is a worldwide celebration of the planet and its wonders. People of all ages are invited to appreciate nature by taking pictures of plants and animals in their worlds, and then sharing those pictures with the whole world. Together we’ll create a global snapshot of the Earth’s incredible biodiversity—and try for a Guinness World Records® title for the largest-ever online album of animal photos!

The Great Nature Project is one of the largest initiatives National Geographic has ever created, but we need your help to pull it off. So get outside, explore, and connect, and join us for a project as big as the world itself.

How to Participate
With the Great Nature Project, you can share the plants and animals in your world with the whole world. From the national park to the parking lot, you can grab your camera and document the wildlife you see. By participating, you’ll help National Geographic celebrate the amazing and diverse life on our planet. You can also help us win a Guinness World Records® title for the largest online animal photo album.

To join in, snap a picture of a plant or animal in your neighborhood, and upload it to a photo sharing site like Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, or National Geographic Your Shot, making sure to tag it #GreatNature. To participate in the record, add #animal to any animal photo.