The Gobi Bear
The Gobi Bear is a rare, threatened creature, and very few exist today. Current population estimates conclude that fewer than 35 adult Gobi Bears remain on Earth. They evolved as a genetically distinct geographic variety – or ‘ecotype’ – of the brown bear family, and the individuals that do remain are located far enough from other closely genetically‐related populations that immigration and emigration is unlikely. These bears are smaller than most members of the brown bear family (female adults weigh only 51-78 kg and males only 96-138 kg). Their fur is light brown in color, though their head, belly, and legs are noticeably darker. They live in an extreme and isolated part of southwestern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
The Gobi Desert is a harsh environment, and the Gobi Bear has persisted there in part because of their superb adaptation to the desert’s extreme conditions: food is only minimally available due to extremely low annual rainfall (50-100 cm/year) and annual swings in temperature that range between a searing 46°C in summer and -34°C in winter. The bears’ relative success in this desert is due in large part to their occupation of three oasis complexes, each of which contains seven or more freshwater springs. These areas – Atas Bogd Mountain, Shar Khuls Oasis, and Tsagaan Bogd Mountain – are within the Greater Gobi Strictly Protected Area (GGSPA), which covers more than 45,000 km2, and each oasis is about 70-200 kilometers from an adjacent one.
The Gobi Bears’ estimated minimum population is 22-31 individuals. Eight of these bears are females, and 14 of them are males, though it is unclear whether this ratio reflects the true proportion of Gobi Bear sexes. Because of the small numbers of these bears in existence, the genetic diversity of the population is low, though none of the typical indicators of inbreeding problems (e.g. physical anomalies, reproductive problems, susceptibility to disease) have been identified. The Gobi Bear Project Team, a conservation group, determined these figures by collecting hair samples at feeding sites and analyzing them for genetic differences, and they are currently performing additional work to confirm recent population data.
Despite their small numbers, successful reproduction and rearing of offspring continues in the Gobi Bear population. Work by the Gobi Bear Project Team and GGSPA rangers has shown that a minimum of 10 offspring were born between 1999-2009. They came to this figure by aging the bears captured directly, through direct observation, and from trail cameras that documented family groups. The age at which female Gobi Bears first produce surviving offspring is unknown, though brown bears living in harsh environments like the Gobi Desert often do not produce cubs that survive until at least the age of seven or eight.
The Gobi Bear’s diet is different than that of other brown bear subspecies, which often kill or scavenge other animals. The Gobi Bear will occasionally eat rodents or insects, but much of their diet consists of wild rhubarb roots, nitre bush berries, and other vegetation such as grass shoots, wild onion, and Ephedra. Beginning in the early 1990s, pelletized feed composed of grains was provided for the Gobi Bear at some of the springs in the Greater Gobi Strictly Protected Area, primarily during the months March and April when the bears emerge from their winter dens. Between 2006-2008, these pellets were supplemented with commercial dog food, which has a higher protein and fat content, an increased caloric value, and higher levels of phosphorus, zinc, vitamin E, niacin, and pantothenic acid -- but which otherwise has a similar nutrient composition to the wild rhubarb that makes up much of the Gobi Bear’s traditional diet.
The official designations of the Gobi Bear are many, though they all point to the same conclusion – that the Gobi Bear is a species at high risk of extinction. These brown bears are listed as “Critically Endangered” in the Mongolian Redbook of Endangered Species and by the Zoological Society of London using IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) standards. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) includes the bear as an Appendix I species: “critically threatened with extinction.”
Looking to the future, Gobi Bear conservation faces many challenges. In order to increase the Bears’ population, work needs to be done to address factors currently limiting their small numbers. Further work needs to be done in the following areas:
- Population demography: size, structure and reproductive performance
- Genetic and physical well‐being, including stress factors
- Food resources needed to provide for growth, survival and reproduction
- Movement patterns and habitat use in the landscape
- Improved management and research capacity of the GGSPA staff and Mongolian specialists and students
Further scientific research will provide helpful information regarding many of the topics listed above. However, the long-term recovery and conservation of the Gobi Bear also relies on the ability of the Greater Gobi Strictly Protected Area to function in a manner beneficial to the bears. The provision of tools and logistic capabilities needed for monitoring the bears and patrolling the region are absolutely necessary to maintaining the ecosystem’s integrity and security. Additionally, the training and education of staff and the general public will help to provide proper support for the Gobi Bear on site, in Mongolia, and around the world.
The Gobi Bear Project
The Gobi Bear Project was formed in 2005 as a collaboration of Mongolian and international bear specialists to address the urgent need for a recovery and management plan for the Gobi Bear. In 2004 the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment convened a workshop to devise an effective conservation program for the Gobi bear, and The Gobi Bear Project was designed to address the recommendations identified during the workshop:
(1) Gobi Bear population assessment and monitoring
(2) genetic and demographic information needs
(3) human dimensions
A research team was soon formed, and it included specialists in bear ecology, safe capture and radio-collaring, population biology, genetics, GPS satellite collar data collection and analysis, and desert large mammal ecology. Additionally, a public outreach effort focused on the critical need for Gobi Bear conservation was planned for Mongolia.
One of the first major steps towards bringing Gobi Bears back from the brink of extinction was to determine accurately how many bears exist today and how they are distributed across oases complexes. The oases presented an excellent opportunity to collect photographs and DNA hair samples from Gobi Bears living in the area, and also to capture bears and fit them with GPS satellite radio collars.
The photographs and DNA samples allowed the Gobi Bear Project team to identify individuals and accurately estimate population numbers using mark-recapture estimation methods, and the GPS collars helped the team to identify bear movements between springs and oasis complexes. Beginning in 2005, 10 individual Gobi Bears were captured and fitted with GPS satellite radio collars, and the team later installed barbed-wire hair collecting sites in 2008-2009. From these samples, the team was able to estimate the Gobi Bear population, ascertain the sex ratio, document inter-oases movements of individual bears, and explore genetic variability of Gobi Bears.
From 950 bear hair samples collected in 2008-2009, the team estimated that only 22-31 individual bears exist, with a minimum number of individually identified bears standing at 22 (8 female, 14 male). The genetic variability of these individuals is very low compared to other bear populations around the world, which indicates that the population is isolated from other bear populations and is critically endangered. These results also show that the Gobi Bear is at high risk of inbreeding, and also that the population is easily threatened by chance demographic events such as disease or low productivity.
The information gained from GPS telemetry, capture and examination of bears, and assessing habitat requirements yielded helpful data about individual bears, diet, home range size, identification of important foraging areas, and sources of mortality. The GPS information was particularly helpful in providing information on the relative time spent by individual bears at supplemental feeding stations, their use of habitat around the springs, and the amount of time bears go between spring visits for water intake.
All of this work so far makes one thing clear: the Gobi Bears’ situation is dire. The small population and its isolation confirm that these bears require very serious conservation efforts, including informed and effective management. Additional efforts must be made to gain the support of the local, national, and international communities.
The Gobi Bear Project Team has been working to facilitate Gobi Bear outreach in Mongolia. They created an educational program that unites the ideas of culturally and environmentally aware decision-making with science-based conservation. The accompanying curriculum -- which consists of a student booklet, a teachers’ guide, and resource material -- involves local communities to show that Gobi Bear conservation is a shared responsibility. With these materials in hand, Mongolian communities and students will learn the basics about ecology, and will learn to identify the relationship between habitat changes and an animal’s population.
The educational program was set in motion in 2013, when members of the Gobi Bear Project Team made an outreach trip to six public schools, monastic schools, and a university class. They also held meetings with religious and political officials, and were hosted by the Gandan Monastery. Gaining the support of government and religious officials was an important step in facilitating the conservation of the Gobi Bear, and their support – along with that being built in schools and local communities – will help immensely in the Gobi Bear Project’s efforts at saving the Gobi Bear.