The Last Bears in the Last Place You’d Expect
Human disturbance and overgrazing of the region’s marginal vegetation during the past half-century caused Gobi bear range to shrink and their numbers to decline. Perhaps no more than thirty survive today. All of them are in Mongolia’s Great Gobi Special Protected Area, roaming three ranges of the Gobi-Altai Mountains that hold a scattering of small oases. Every year since 2005, Alaskan bear biologist Dr. Harry Reynolds, Jr. has traveled there with Mongolian scientists and Protected Area rangers to carry out studies. Dr. Michael Proctor, a population ecologist whose research on grizzlies in southern Canada is one of several North American bear conservation efforts funded by LCAOF, often goes along to assist.
In 2011, Reynolds and Proctor invited me to join the team on a springtime expedition. As a wildlife biologist, I could help radio collar some bears and learn more about movements, food habits, reproduction, and causes of mortality. My other role – that of a journalist – was to publicize the plight of these scarcely known mammals while encouraging the Mongolian government to provide more supplemental food for them and increase ranger patrols to prevent illegal mining.
Harsh and unyielding though it may be, the Gobi Desert serves as a stronghold for a striking array of big wildlife: wild Bactrian camels, ibex, argali sheep, khulan (wild ass), blacktailed gazelles, Asiatic lynx, wolves, and even snow leopards. Captivated by one of Earth’s last great untamed frontiers, I returned the following spring -- and again in May of 2013. Although our traps yielded only a single bear to collar that year, two of the Project’s automatic camera stations made all the dust storms, freezing nights in tents, sun-baked days, and long parched journeys worthwhile. How? By capturing photos of two different pairs of new cubs. I’m eagerly laying out my Gobi gear once again, preparing for the surprises the next expedition is sure to bring.