Mongolia is the size of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi combined but holds only 3.2 million people, almost three-quarters of whom now live in the nation’s cities. The rest of the population is thinly scattered across the sweeping grasslands, dwelling in traditional yurts and tending herds of goats, sheep and other livestock. Like many young Mongolians, Odbayar Tumendemberel—Odko, for short—moved from a rural area to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pursue her education. Yet after enrolling in college, she sometimes found herself farther in the outback than ever as part of a research team studying the world’s rarest bear—Ursus arctos gobiensis, the Gobi grizzly.
I worked with Odko on the Gobi Bear Project during springtime expeditions from 2011 through 2015, traveling deep into the world’s third-largest desert to the 18,000-square-mile Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area (GGSPA)—where the last few Gobi grizzlies on the planet made their home. In addition to being an interpreter, supply organizer and always the cheeriest person in camp—occasional blizzards and blinding dust storms notwithstanding—Odko played an increasingly important role as the project’s geneticist.
Although the bears could hardly have been scarcer or more elusive, most would sooner or later come to drink at one of the oases tucked into that parched jumble of peaks and canyons. For years, GGSPA rangers had been putting out grain pellets at the water sources to supplement the bears’ meager natural food supply during early spring before plant growth got underway. The hope was that the extra nutrition might boost birth rates. The project team also set out strands of barbed wire near the grain to snag fur from the visiting bears. Back in her laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, Odko extracted enough DNA from the hairs to identify individual animals and to start to build the first clear picture of the population. By 2016, she and the rangers had gathered enough hair samples to reveal that the bears totaled at least two dozen. Better yet, that number appeared to be stable and perhaps increasing—a heartening result for a small, critically endangered group at risk from periodic droughts and the potentially harmful effects of inbreeding.
Today, Odko is about to receive a doctoral degree in wildlife genetics and has two important papers scheduled for publication in scientific journals. The first, based on more fur samples from the reserve, confirms the earlier good news about the bears’ population. The second paper, comparing this group’s genes with those of other grizzly bears in Central Asia, shows that Gobi bears clearly stand out as what ecologists call an Evolutionary Significant Unit. In other words, they qualify as genetically unique. As a practical matter, that’s important because such one-of-a-kind groups are the most likely to attract support for protection, and these little-known desert-roaming bears need all the public awareness and aid they can get.
A story that photographer/videographer Joe Riis and I put together for National Geographic’s digital magazine drew international attention to the Gobi Bear Project and its conservation efforts. Then Joe and I collaborated on a book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond, which Patagonia published in 2017. It helped focus extra interest on the bears’ struggle to endure in the modern world after human activities overwhelmed much of their original range. For Erika Brunson, a businesswoman in the greater Los Angeles area, the book inspired a generous personal pledge of financial support for the Gobi Bear Project. A prominent figure in the Humane Society of the United States, Erika also arranged to send a bundle of letters from other society members to the Mongolian minister of the environment congratulating him on continuing to defend the bears’ last stronghold, especially in the face of constant attempts to open the reserve to gold mining.
Meanwhile, the popularity of Gobi bears—often the color of gold themselves—keeps spreading among the public in Mongolia, where these animals are known as mazaalai. If you travel to Mongolia, you can drink mazaalai-branded vodka and eat mazaalai-branded bread, and you can also buy a mobile phone from a national company that funds mazaalai research. Several small Mongolian nonprofits promote mazaalai conservation, and scientists from neighboring China recently joined with Mongolian counterparts to carry out further Gobi bear population surveys.
So, everything’s looking good? Hardly. Mongolia’s parliamentary system is subject to frequent calls for new elections. The government’s environmental priorities sometimes change dramatically overnight, and the price of gold is once again heading toward new highs. Meanwhile, global warming makes life in Earth’s deserts more and more challenging.
A couple summers ago, I visited (my third time) the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on the Alaska Peninsula. The setting grizzlies occupy there is the very opposite of the Gobi in most respects. Drenched by rains, snows and ocean mists, this terrain is covered with dense taiga and tundra, soggy with marshes and veined with streams and rivers. And while the land offers a smorgasbord of edible roots, sprouts and seasonal berries at every turn, the waterways churn with five different species of salmon during their spawning runs.
The Gobi’s grizzlies are lean and lanky, rarely weighing more than 300 pounds. McNeil’s grizzlies are giants. After feasting on salmon for months, many weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re round as barrels by late summer and jiggle like jelly; as much as half their body weight consists of fat stored to last through half a year of snoozing under the snow in snug earthen dens. By contrast, Gobi bears rely on an extra-thick, shaggy coat of fur for insulation, and they den in caves partly exposed to the air because they can’t burrow into the stony mountainsides.
Even so, there are some key similarities between these two distant populations of grizzlies. Both occupy remote mountain lands with little sign of humans, and both symbolize the presence of a rich, fully intact wildlife community. The tracks left by the desert’s golden bears sometimes intersect those of snow leopards and Eurasian lynx. That fact tells of healthy herds of large prey including Siberian ibex, black-tailed gazelles and wild asses, as well as the largest remaining population of wild double-humped, or Bactrian, camels in existence today. At McNeil, the bears roam amid moose, caribou, wolves, wolverines, foxes, throngs of bald eagles, harbor seals and nesting colonies of seabirds.
Besides a bounty of wild neighbors, both types of grizzlies also face the threat of development that could transform all the native animals’ futures. In the world of Gobi grizzlies, the main push for change continues to come from the mining industry’s campaign to build roads and to start excavating for gold and other minerals within the Strictly Protected Area. Bands of outlaw miners have already been slipping into the reserve to secretly gouge out gold on a small scale for years.
As for McNeil’s giants, they face an ongoing effort, eagerly promoted by the current administration, to open up the Pebble Mine, a massive copper-extraction operation in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. If approved, the scheme could generate devastating pollution problems for the bay’s salmon fishery, renowned as the most productive in North America. Although the McNeil Sanctuary lies on the opposite side of the Alaska Peninsula’s main mountain range, the ore from the mine would be hauled out via a road built right along the sanctuary’s northern border. From there, the material would be loaded onto waiting ships, and that part of the plan calls for the construction of a major transfer facility and the dredging of a deep-water port, all within sight of the McNeil River estuary, where the salmon gather before making their spawning run upstream.
The combination of experiences with these two grizzly groups half a world apart—both groups far beyond the reach of most human activities and now suddenly subject to the possible impacts of large-scale development—led me to reevaluate my work as a biologist and a conservation writer. I knew that we are running out of time to conserve the ever-mounting number of species in peril around the globe. But I had not dealt with the fact that as long as I kept writing about species or places one at a time, case by single case, I could not possibly help bring attention to much more than a tiny sampling of the natural realm being lost.
In reality, no plant or animal—or fungus, for that matter—exists as a separate species to begin with. We all constantly interact with other life-forms, both visible and unseen. We have multitudes of microbial partners around our bodies, among our tissues and inside virtually every cell. And all creatures are connected at another level by sharing many of the same genes, nature’s chemically coded instructions for survival. For instance, the big-bodied, big-brained grizzly bear has at least 80 percent of the same genes I do. The same figure holds true for the wild camels and snow leopards in GGSPA. While the salmon and I have at least 60 percent of our genes in common.
What does that mean? And what does it mean that more than 40 percent of our genes are also identical to those in many insects, 24 percent of human genes match those of a wine grape, and somewhere around 7 percent match the genes in invisible bacteria? How are you supposed to define a species of vegetation when the roots of around 90 percent of all the types of plants examined so far are physically tied to miles of underground fungi in a mutually beneficial relationship? And what about the fact that the process of photosynthesis, which produces food for every growing green plant, every plant-eater and every eater of plant-eaters, is actually carried out by microbes—the tiny bodies we call chloroplasts—living within the plant’s cells? Where exactly is the individual creature in all of this?
What is it about the history of human evolution that allows time spent in natural green spaces to automatically lower our heart rate and blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress, boost our immune system and improve our mental clarity? What makes strawberries so extravagantly fragrant and tasty? And why does research on our fellow mammals and a wide range of other kinds of creatures keep uncovering so many mental and emotional qualities previously considered unique to humans?
I could go on … and I do in a new book that Patagonia will publish this coming summer. I wrote it because I realized how vastly different the workings of nature are from what so many people assume to be true. The problem is that most of us still tend to view species as separate, independent organisms the way previous generations did and taught us to do. At the same time, we seem firmly stuck on thinking of ourselves as somehow different from the rest of the living world and superior to it—freed from our animal past.
I can’t imagine how we’re going to begin to save nature until we gain a clearer understanding of the deep, pervasive, absolutely vital and altogether astonishing interconnections among organisms that have been uncovered in recent years. No matter how we like to define nature, it defines us in countless ways. No matter what we prefer to believe, we are intimately bound to ecosystems around and inside us, to the natural realm that shaped our bodies and minds and continues to do so today. This fresh view of our relationship with other life doesn’t make humankind any less extraordinary and amazingly inventive. On the contrary, it positively expands the idea of what it means to be human.
In the tradition of Douglas Chadwick’s best-selling adventure memoir, The Wolverine Way, his most recent book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies, creates a portrait of the rarest of bears’ fight for survival in one of the toughest, most remote settings on Earth. Look for his new as-yet-untitled book coming next summer (2021) from Patagonia Books.