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The Gobi Bear

by | Articles, Mongolia

The Gobi is a desolate landscape that is huge, rough, and quiet. With colossal sand dunes, ice-filled valleys, little rainfall, severe winds, and temperatures ranging from 46°C in summer to 40°C in winter, survival in this 1.295 million km2 region is surprising. Despite these harsh circumstances, many species have thrived here. Camel, gazelles, polecats, wild ass, ibex, musk oxen, snow leopards, wolves, and, of course, a small number of Gobi bears live in the Gobi.

The Gobi bear is a brown bear subspecies. Brown bears live in North America, Central Asia, and Europe. But Gobi bear differs from other brown bear subspecies in many ways:

  • Gobi bears are tiny and slender, yet they have long legs. Fur — its golden-brown, shaggy coat.
  • Gobi bear claws and teeth are tiny and blunt because they are worn down by wandering and digging for food in their harsh, rocky environment.
  • Gobi bears mostly graze on the roots of wild rhubarb. They also consume wild onions, berries, grass shoots, flowers, and a few insects and rodents. 
  • Hibernation – this bear must occasionally spend the chilly winter curled up in draughty bushes rather than a lovely, warm lair.
  • The Gobi bear typically has one cub every two years. The cub is born in the winter lair of the bear.

Human activity in the Gobi has undoubtedly impacted animal population numbers and how they utilize the environment, with cattle regularly traversing specific regions. Overgrazing has damaged Mongolia’s once-vast grasslands, placing further strain on already stressed native species. However, the region’s most significant dangers are now posed by large-scale mining activities for coal, copper, and gold. Mineral resources continue to attract multinational mining companies, placing the local population under even more significant strain.

 

True Desert Survivor!

Gobi bears continue to exist as a distinct ecotype in the Gobi Desert of south-western Mongolia. The Gobi bears, also known as ‘Mazaalai’ and considered a national treasure by Mongolians, live in three major regions, or oasis complexes, inside the ‘Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area (GGSPA) – Zone A’ and nowhere else. This protected area, which covers approximately 46,369 km2, was created in 1976 to enhance safeguards for the indigenous flora and wildlife. It is one of the most extensive reserves in the world.

Gobi bears are primarily found in the GGPSA, surrounded by three oases: Atas Bogd Mountain, Shar Khuls Oasis, and Tsagaan Bogd Mountain. Each oasis complex consists of seven or more springs separated by about 70,100 km of pure baked pancake flat gravel from the next complex. Watering holes vary in size and volume, from a dry ditch that receives water just once a year to a water reserve the size of a typical garden pond and may contain a scattering of trees or nearby tall grasses. Like most other bear species, Male Gobi bears travel much longer distances and have more extensive home ranges (2,400 km2), often going great distances between oases to mate with many female bears.

Due to the abundance of minerals in the region, the GGSPA is often targeted under cover of night by illicit hunters and miners hoping to make undiscovered discoveries. Due to large areas of unusable terrain, these humans are usually limited to hunting around the same oases that the bears utilize, increasing the risk of confrontation. Local rangers try hard to monitor the GGSPA and prevent this, but this is not always successful with limited resources spread over such a large region.

 

How do the bears manage to survive?

Gobi bears are well suited to the Gobi Desert’s limited food supply and harsh habitat. Gobi bears mainly consume the rhizomes of wild rhubarb (Rheum nanum), berries, especially nitre bush (Nitraria spp.), grass shoots (e.g., Phragmites), wild onion (Allium spp.), Ephedra, and other desert spring-supported plants. Small quantities of animal matter (mainly rodents, accounting for around 1% of total consumption) are also eaten. It is widely known that brown bear subspecies go through a phase of increased food intake (hyperphagia) in late summer and autumn to develop fat reserves for hibernation and progeny production when in winter dens.

According to GGSPA rangers, the region suffered a 14-year drought from 1993 to 2007, during which yearly precipitation decreased from roughly 100 mm to 50 mm. Because Gobi bears rely significantly on flora that needs rainfall for development and fruiting, the drought may have harmed the bears’ physical condition and reproductive performance during this period.

 

The current status

The Mongolian Redbook of Endangered Species, the Zoological Society of London, and the IUCN Bear Specialist Group classify Gobi bears as Critically Endangered. This evaluation was based on estimations that the population included fewer than 50 adult animals and was isolated from other closely genetically related populations by a sufficient distance that immigration/emigration could not reasonably be anticipated to occur. It is classified as a critically endangered species in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Mongolia is a member. There are no Gobi bears in captivity anywhere in the world.

Before the 1970s, Gobi bear distribution in southern Mongolia expanded beyond its current boundaries and covered regions to the north and east of the GGSPA. This region included Edriin Ridge, the Eej Khayrkhan Nature Reserve west of Bayantoorai, and parts of the Gurvan Saykhan National Park east of it. It is unknown why these places are no longer inhabited.

According to the Gobi Bear Project, there are now fewer than 40 individuals remaining in the wild. While the population seems to be steady or slightly growing, considerable effort has to be made to ensure these bears have more chance of survival.

 

The Gobi Bear’s future

Building the GGSPA’s capabilities will be essential to the Gobi bear’s long-term survival, especially as the area faces growing pressure from mining projects in the coming years. Increased involvement with the local people, adding the proper application of what we have learned from our scientific study will be critical to ensuring that this magnificent species does not go extinct. This involves training, education, and providing the instruments and logistical skills required for monitoring and patrol programs, which are critical to the integrity and security of the environment on which the bears rely.

The Gobi bear population can be saved and recovered, but only with more significant funding, improved public awareness, and ongoing study. You may assist by informing as many people as possible about these incredible bears and our efforts to preserve them or make a significant contribution to the cause. All donations, in any form, are much welcomed.

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