Mazaalai – The Marvelous Bear of the Gobi Desert

Harry Reynolds (left) and Douglas Chadwick (right) are delighted with the increased public interest in the Gobi bears.
Harry Reynolds (left) and Douglas Chadwick (right) are delighted with the increased public interest in the Gobi bears.

Harry Reynolds and Douglas Chadwick know a thing or two about bears. Before coming to Mongolia as the President of the Gobi Bear Fund Project, Mr. Reynolds spent more than 33 years working with bears at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Douglas Chadwick is an American wildlife biologist, photographer and author. In April, he published an article on the Gobi bear in National Geographic Magazine.

Recently, D. Badamsambuu, of U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar’s Public Affairs Section, sat down with Mr. Chadwick and Mr. Reynolds to get the “bear” essentials on Mazaalai, a.k.a. the Gobi bear. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.

D. Badamsambuu:  Typically, Gobi bears are known as these symbolic animals in not only Gobi desert, but throughout Mongolia, but people don’t quite know much about them because there are so few of them, and not many even know how they look like. So what are some characteristics of the Gobi bears that make them so unique?

Harry Reynolds:  Well, unlike many other bears, they don’t eat very much meat which doesn’t make them very Mongolian, does it? (laughs)

Douglas Chadwick:  They have extra thick hair compared to a lot of other brown/grizzly bears. Why is that is because they can’t burrow into the earth because there’s no dirt in Gobi, there’s [only] rock. So they’re wintering exposed. In other words, they need insolation, and they’re lean. They don’t have much body fat. So for insolation, they have this very thick underfur and very thick guard hair. To me that was very striking because when I first saw a Gobi bear, it looked like what we call bed hair. It had just come out of a shower into a hurricane, and it had dried. It was really shaggy.

HR:  They go to hibernation in the 1st of November, and don’t come out until March. And so they have to rely on the fat that they build up from eating the vegetation during the summer to do that. So they sleep all that time, and they don’t urinate or defecate the whole time. Even the cubs are born during the time that they’re in the dense.

DC:  Another thing is, when I look at a grizzly bear in Montana, it has claws that are 3 inches, sometimes longer. If you look at the claws of Gobi bears, they’re [short] and they’re all splintered, cracked and they’re worn down to nothing because they live their life walking on rocks, and digging for the roots of wild rhubarb and other foods. It’s just quite different than most brown bears.

HR:  They eat berries often, blackcurrant like ones. They also eat insects, sometimes big wingless grasshoppers, but those are only available in certain years because they have cyclic populations. But that’s a big source of fats and proteins that they need.

They might not have babies until they are 8 and even as old as eleven. Their life expectancy is, for females, 20-24, and for males, 16-20. They don’t live as long as other brown bears because their teeth wear down as a result of all the digging through the rocks to find their food. The mothers teach their offspring the things that they need to survive.

DC:  The other thing that makes them unique is just that they’re living in one of the most extreme and harsh environments of the world where they may have to go 20 or 30 kilometers between one drink to another. And to get from one mount range to the next, they may have to go 40 to 60 kilometers, sometimes even 100. So they have to know a lot about how to live in an environment where resources are so scarce, so intelligence is a part of their survival. People sometimes think that bears are strong and tough, and that’s how they get by, but it’s [also] because they know a lot things.

DB to HR: You mentioned in an article that the Gobi bears are kind of an umbrella species; if you save them, you save big chunks of habitat that benefit the rest of the wild community. Could you please explain more about that?

DC: Ecologically, they’re an umbrella species because their range ensamples so many kinds of habitats of such a large area. And so, if you save the habitat for the Gobi bears, it means you’re also helping to save the ibex, lynx, wild camels, argali & wild ass etc. Culturally, they’re an umbrella species because they’re like us, they walk on two legs at times; we relate to them well; they manipulate things with their paws; they’re curious, and so they attract people to an area.

DB: Gobi desert certainly is one of the most isolated and toughest places for any animal to live in, but why do you think these endangered animals, including the Gobi bears, are living there?

HR: Well, they probably lived in much larger area at one time when the human population was smaller. And now, human populations have increased, and so that just pushes the bears to a smaller and smaller area, so that’s one reason why they’re here.

DC: The other reason there’s some left is that they didn’t get killed. It was too far, and there wasn’t good grazing for much of the year. And so it wasn’t that they were living there because it’s a great place to live. They’re living there because they’re smart enough to make a living. And now they are there because it’s protected. It’s just like when you ask “Why are there grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.?” That’s because we don’t kill them there. That’s the last place there in the glacier where the last strongholds of grizzly bears [were at] since 1975.

HR: I think you have to give the Mongolian people credit for their survival too because they didn’t kill the bears because they respected them, and thought that the Gobi bears were a treasure to the people. Gobi bears don’t prey on livestock. We heard one story of a Gobi bear coming in herder’s ger. And there were goats and sheep all around. Do you want to know what the bear ate – food for the goats and sheep. So that’s a good reason for Mongolians and Gobi bears to be friends. (laughs)

DC: Mongolia started feeding them in 1992, providing that little bit of extra boost that helped them to carry on. So at this point, they’re living in association with the Mongolian biologists and conservationists who have been providing them some supplemental and extra food. Mongolia was also the first place in the world to establish a protected area in Chinggis Khan’s time. There was a protected area where no hunting was allowed.

DB: There’s no doubt that the animal experts and researchers could help with the preservation of the Gobi bears, but what do you think ordinary people who are sitting behind their computers, reading this interview, could help with the process?

HR: I think it has to do with political support. People are not powerless. They can decide how to forge their future. And if the Mongolian people want a future that includes Gobi bears, then they have the responsibility to vote, be it the members of parliament or whoever.

The other thing that can be done on a corporate level is for corporations to have responsibility to the people, and help with the wildlife research and maintain the wildlife that we have.

DC: The other thing is that there is, if I’m a Mongolian, I’m thinking, there’s a big threat from mining. This is their (Gobi bears’) last home in the world. But mining can be done in a lot of other parts of the Gobi. Mongolia had been doing very well, leading the world in 2013. So it’s about can we leave the part of the Gobi that has this extraordinary, world-class group of animals. A lot of wealth coming out of Gobi [from mining], sure, but this is a great wealth of Mongolia too, culturally, it is extraordinary.

HR: Really, it’s not only that. What we can learn about how Gobi bears survive will help other bear populations around the world also survive, because climate change doesn’t happen only in Mongolia. It happens in [many] other places. And so it would be a gift to the world in many ways if the information gained from Gobi bears could be applied to brown bears.

DC: We may all have to adapt to a warmer drier environment, maybe it’ll take some lessons from Gobi animals. (laughs)