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I Went to One of the World's Most Extreme Environments to Track Down the World's Rarest Bear

Only three to four dozen Gobi grizzlies survive—in one of Earth's harshest ecosystems. Can the world's rarest bear be saved?

Photo Credit: Lukasz Kurbiel/Shutterstock

Excerpted from Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond © 2017 by Douglas Chadwick. Used with permission of Patagonia.

Pre-dawn. The trap door at Shar Khuls was up, as usual. I left my vantage point on the high spine of a ridge and climbed back down to my tent. It was pitched near several others in a draw where the mountains give out onto an immense gravel plain. On one edge of the encampment was a ger, the Mongolian name for a yurt. Built of wood and concrete instead of fabric, this round hut stood buried in the side of a hill for extra shelter from the elements. There were ten of us living here, the only humans for thousands of square miles. The ger was the communal burrow where we gathered to dine.

Breakfast the day before had been noodle soup with dried camel meat that our cook pre-softened with a beating from a tire iron. This morning we were looking at a two-course affair: tinned sardines on fry bread, followed by a rice soup with chunks from the dwindling supply of overripe sheep parts that hung from the ger’s walls. It was April 29, 2014. The dust in the air outside had grown thicker overnight, and a cold wind was blowing gale force. Nevertheless, the crew—a group of wildlife scientists and protected area rangers—was determined to explore a water source far to the north that had been discovered only three weeks earlier. The plan was to head across the plain to a distant mountain range we failed to get over the day before. Since the southern slopes had proved too steep and unstable for our Russian-made, four-wheel-drive van, we were going to try circling the base of that range today to find a route up the north side.

First, one of the patrol rangers needed to inspect the Shar Khuls trap more closely and check three more traps we had set in the terrain farther east, each roughly fifteen to twenty-five miles from the next. Shar Khuls (“Yellow Reed”) was named for its beds of tall Phragmites grass growing beside copses of poplar trees and tamarisk bushes where an underground spring flows to the surface. The other three traps were also set near live springs. All four oases lay amid a maze of parched mountains and canyons deep in the Great Gobi Desert, beyond the back of beyond.

Gobi, in Mongolian, means “waterless place.” Half a million square miles in size, the Great Gobi is one of the Earth’s five largest deserts (outside the frozen polar expanses receiving so little fresh precipitation that they, too, technically qualify as deserts). The drylands stretch for a thousand miles east to west and as many as six hundred miles north to south, taking in the southern third of Mongolia and much of northern China. This is right at the center of the Asian land mass, so far from any ocean that clouds bearing moisture drop nearly all of it over other landscapes before they ever get here. Rainfall in the Gobi averages just four to six inches annually. Some years, parts of the countryside never see a drop. Temperatures can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and sink to minus 40 in winter. If you imagine the result to be a vast realm of shifting sands, well, you shouldn’t. The Gobi Desert is mostly stone.

Each of the traps was a sheet metal box about three feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. The one at Shar Khuls stood with a heavy door raised above an open end. Inside were grain pellets, raisins, dabs of jam and honey, and a raw egg: bait. A wire ran from the door’s release mechanism to a hinged plate slightly raised off the box’s floor. Pushing down on that treadle would trigger the door to fall shut. The tension was carefully adjusted so that it would take a heavy footstep to do that.

A couple times in the past, I’d trotted back to camp from the ridge, which I climbed most every morning, with news that the Shar Khuls trapdoor was down. I’d rushed to gather up gear, piled into a van alongside as many crew members as could fit in, raced around the ridge to the box, and discovered nothing but the food inside. Violent wind gusts sometimes caused the door to drop by shaking it until the stays gave way. Although the trap weighed hundreds of pounds, one Gobi windstorm rolled the whole thing over onto its side. We wrestled it back into place and toted boulders from a nearby talus field to pile on top. Since then, the box was at least staying right side up. Still, with springtime temperatures cycling between sweaty hot and freezing in the course of twenty-four hours, metal parts were constantly stretching or shrinking a bit. Maybe balances shifted. Maybe weak spots developed. For all we could tell, gazriin ezen—local rock and tree spirits—came and messed with the system too. Something had to explain the windless times when we found the door fallen, crept toward the trap, and peered in only to find a bewildered hare or pint-size hedgehog peering back.

What we wanted to find in these live traps were bears. Big, unruly, long-eared, bed-hair-shaggy, chocolate-colored, bronze, or golden Gobi grizzly bears. Ursus arctos, found across much of the Northern Hemisphere, is commonly called either the brown bear or grizzly. Gobi bears are a unique variety or subspecies, Ursus arctos gobiensis. Mongolians call them mazaalai. Scientists weren’t even able to confirm their existence until 1943, and not many details about their lives have been uncovered since. During the second half of the twentieth century, portions of the Gobi were hit by a combination of expanded livestock grazing and drought, both of which reduced the desert’s already sparse vegetation. The bears lost half to two-thirds of their range, and their numbers fell sharply. Today, no more than three to four dozen individuals remain. Gobi grizzlies have become the rarest bears in the world. There are none in captivity. All the known survivors inhabit outlying ranges of the Gobi-Altai Mountains in southwestern Mongolia, keeping almost entirely to three of the tallest, most rugged portions of a reserve established there in 1976. This is the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area–A. Called the GGSPA for short, and it covers roughly 18,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than Israel and Kuwait combined.

Since 2005, the Gobi Bear Project team of Mongolian biologists, GGSPA personnel, and lead scientist Harry Reynolds, an American bear expert who started this study in his mid-sixties, has been working together to catch and radio-collar mazaalai. They continue to do this for a month every spring between the time most bears emerge from hibernation and the start of searing temperatures that bring with them a risk of fatal heat stress for a captured animal.

Nearly all Mongolians have a nickname. Purevdorj Narangerel, aka Puji (or Puujee), is the ranger assigned to patrol the central third of the reserve. When trapping operations are based in his sector, he joins the team and is typically the one who makes the daily rounds to check the baited boxes. He does it the same way he keeps an eye on thousands of square miles of the reserve the rest of the year—alone astride a motorcycle. It is the fastest means of travel in this roadless desert terrain. Equally important, a dirt bike like his sipped lightly from the limited fuel supply the Project was able to haul in to a remote base camp.

Of medium height with close-cropped hair, Puji often wore a stern expression; not severe, just set in place. I could never tell how much of this reflected a personality trait and how much was a carryover from endless hours of riding through great empty landscapes, cutting the wind and sharp cold or baking heat with his face, concentrating hard on the path he was choosing, where any one of a million rocks could send him and his machine cartwheeling. Puji who looked to be in his mid-thirties, readily shared information when it was needed. Otherwise, he tended to keep his thoughts to himself, a serious man with the serious skills needed to crisscross a hard place month after month and return intact. This morning, he once again pulled a balaclava over his head, wrapped his greatcoat more tightly around himself and bound it in place with the sash at its waist, fit his motorcycle goggles over his eyes,  red up the bike, and raced o  to run the trapline without a backward glance.

On average, the team caught just two bears in a season. So far in 2014, we had been trying for two weeks without any luck. All eyes were on the moto-ranger as he returned in midmorning, cut the bike’s engine, and rolled to a stop beside his tent. Looking up, Puji shook his head. Zero for four again; no bear in the traps. The rest of the crew soon set off in the van, leaving Puji at camp along with Boldbayar (Boyoko) Mijiddorj, who grew up in a village close to the reserve and was now a Mongolian university student in biology. Geerlee Namkhai, the tireless older woman from the GGSPA headquarters who kept the ger in order and cooked for the team, would sometimes drop everything to join in a day’s exploration if it sounded promising. Not this morning, though. With this much dust and wind streaming by, she chose to stay behind too.

The plain to the north was shaped like a colossal dish. At its center, we rolled along over a series of flat alkali pans (takyr in Mongolian) where water from rare heavy rains had pooled and then evaporated. The sun baked the briny deposits of clay-rich silt into hard white speedways. But it seemed as though the Russian van manufacturers must not have intended their products to be driven south of Siberia, for we never raced far before we had to turn the machine’s nose into the hard wind and shut off the engine to keep it from burning up.

Harry and I had the same habit of using van cool-down breaks to go on short walkabouts, searching for animal signs and unusual stones. Both of us kept rock collections beside our tents at camp. Our favorites were pieces cut and polished by airborne grains of dust and sand. The term for such stones, I learned later, is ventifacted—literally, wind-wrought. Outcroppings of crumbling bedrock amid the takyrs offered a striking variety of examples, because the passing air picked up velocity traveling across these smooth pans. Intense solar radiation interacts with minerals both within the stone and in the fi ne clay particles that winds plaster onto its surface. This adds a shiny patina to the sculptures—a desert glaze. With their odd lumps and curvatures and almost liquid smoothness, many of the results seemed less like rock than like some as-yet uncategorized Gobi life-form.

When I knelt on the ground for a closer inspection, I could feel my face being ventifacted—getting a free dermabrasion treatment at the Gobi spa. The stronger gusts really hurt, though, and left nicks in my sunglasses. These stones didn’t speak of the eons at work. They told of a geologic rush job. The specimens under my nose would be a few microns smaller and altered in shape by the time the van engine was ready to haul us on the next leg of the journey.

“Yawi-awi.” My Mongolian language abilities are worse than rudimentary. I’m only repeating a phrase we all called out on journeys, and I’m probably spelling it wrong. I knew what it meant, though: “Let’s go!”

Eventually, our traverse of the plain was complete. Next we rounded the target mountain range, beginning a long, butt-banging, kidney-rearranging drive upslope. As the angle of the incline gradually increased, we found ourselves halting every twenty minutes for an engine cool-down of fifteen minutes. This was my fourth consecutive spring expedition with the Gobi Bear Project. Between bad weather, impassable ground, and vehicle break- downs, I’d taken part in many an all-day odyssey that never reached our destination. Having undergone one just the day before, I didn’t like feeling condemned to another, but the only thing I could do about it was shut my eyes and retreat into other thoughts.

I began to nod off. You know how strange dreams can be. If I had drifted into a truly bizarre one like, say, being packed into a Russki van with a small horde of Mongols careening around after grizzly bears nobody knows exist way the hell and gone in the middle of Thirstland watching people’s heads bounce off the ceiling ... nothing would have changed after I woke up. But I knew why I was here.

Ten thousand years ago, the planet’s human population was around 5 million. As of 1930, there were 400,000 times that many folks—about 2 billion. The total hit 3.5 billion by 1970. Between then and 2012, it doubled to 7 billion. During that forty-two-year interval, Earth’s total population of vertebrate wildlife—fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals—fell by more than half, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicts that one of every four species of mammals will vanish in the near future. A third of all species presently known, and possibly more, may be gone by the end of the century.

This was the context in which our attempts to learn more about Gobi bears played out. For me, it kept our daily dramas with malfunctioning equipment, accidents, dwindling supplies, or big-jawed camel spiders that can race thirty feet in two seconds in perspective. When a series of minor setbacks began to feed a real sense of frustration anyway, I’d focus instead on how heartening it would be to actually carry off a rescue of these most critically endangered bears. The existence of grizzlies in the Gobi Desert defies long odds to begin with. If the Project proved able to help them rebound, that wouldn’t change the world. But it would keep Gobi bears in it—and perhaps raise hopes for other implausible-seeming efforts to provide fellow Earthlings with a future. I pictured the team climbing a nearby peak to stand on the summit with middle fingers raised, flipping off the forces denaturing the only living planet we know.

Watch the book trailer for Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond, by Douglas Chadwick:

 

 

Douglas Chadwick is a wildlife biologist who has studied mountain goats and grizzlies in the Rockies, elephants in Africa, and whales in the world’s oceans. He began writing about natural history and conservation for national magazines and has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic since 1977. Chadwick is a board member of Vital Ground, a nonprofit land trust that has helped safeguard more than 600,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Alaska, Canada, and the western U.S. He is also a director of the Gobi Bear Fund which seeks to restore population of the most endangered of all the yellow bears. He lives in Whitefish, MT.

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