Fewer than three dozen Gobi bears survive in one of the harshest places on Earth.
Published April 17, 2014
The Gobi is Earth’s fifth largest desert, sprawling across half a million square miles of southern Mongolia and northern China. It sees temperatures of minus 40°F in winter and 120 in summer, and gets just two to eight inches of annual rainfall. Some years parts of the region receive no rain at all. Windstorms sweep through day and night, with gusts strong enough to send a tent sailing away over the horizon. When winds are calm, the Gobi’s immense silence can feel as overwhelming as the heat.
Signs of life come as a surprise in this sun-blasted, wind-scoured landscape. Peering through binoculars, I at first see just barren rock rising in ranks of mountains. The only things that move are dust devils and the shimmering heat.
Slowly, as I discover where to look, animal forms emerge: A lizard rests in the thin shade of a saxaul shrub. A saker falcon lifts off from a distant cliffside. Gerbils poke their heads from burrows.
But many days pass before I finally lay eyes on the animal I crossed half a world to see: a Gobi bear, among the rarest and least known large mammals on Earth. There are perhaps no more than two or three dozen left in the wild, and none live in captivity anywhere.
This male stops at an oasis to sip water, then rests nearby. Elated by our good luck and mesmerized by the sight, my companions and I watch the bear for two hours, from late afternoon to nightfall. Most bears become active toward day’s end, but this one remains oddly still. When he finally attempts to walk, his gait seems pained and slow. He must have traveled a great distance to reach water, I tell myself, and the journey might have left him exhausted and temporarily lame.
In reality, the bear is dying. A week later a ranger finds his body near the same oasis. The old male had likely emerged from hibernation in poor condition at a time when food plants were just starting to grow.
For those working to bolster the Gobi bear’s alarmingly low numbers, the death of even one individual underscores the urgency of their task. So too do the clear signs that boom times are at hand in Mongolia. Vast deposits of minerals, precious metals, and fossil fuels are being uncovered in the country, especially in its desert. Nearly a third of the nation’s income may soon come from a massive new copper and gold mine in the Gobi. What may one day rank as the world’s largest coal mine is under development in the desert as well. The suspected mineral wealth here is so great that industry players have taken to calling this land “Minegolia.”
While storm clouds darken the Gobi bear’s horizon, there are flickers of hope. The Mongolian government declared 2013 the “Year of Protecting the Gobi Bear,” with a promise of more money for conserving the species. The Mongolian public has embraced the beleaguered bear as a national treasure, all the more precious for its rarity. Not long ago a gold-mining company sought access to protected land crucial to the bear’s survival. The government turned down the request, at least for now.
The people of southwestern Mongolia have long known of the mysterious animal they called mazaalai, but credible reports were mixed with tall tales of a shaggy, humanlike creature roaming the wildest reaches of the desert. Not until 1943 did a Russian scientist-explorer confirm for the outside world that Gobi bears actually exist. Although they belong to the species Ursus arctos, commonly known as the brown bear or grizzly, their coats are often more bronze than brown and show blazes of white on the forequarters and neck. They also tend to be smaller than most North American grizzlies, whose living conditions are plush by comparison.
La suite sur National Géographique :