Leader of the Gobi Bear Project Harry Reynolds has been coming to Mongolia every spring and fall since 2005 to put on collars with space alarms on gobi bear, known as Mazaalai. He has been carrying out migration and habitat research by putting collars on 19 individuals. But due to COVID-19, Harry and other international researchers could not come to Mongolia, and the research work of the project was interrupted for three years after 2019. Harry talked about his research work in the following interview.
You conducted your research in Gobi for more than 20 days as part of the Gobi Bear Project this spring. How many bears did you catch this time?
In 2004, the government of Mongolia asked us to conduct a study, focusing on issues such as whether there were any remaining bears, whether there were genetic problems, or whether they had gone away from a special protection area. Since then, we have been working on mazaalai. Thinking that there are two or three oasis complexes in Great Gobi, the government was afraid that mazaalai would travel long distances to drink water. There were also concerns about inbreeding. Starting from 2005, based on one experience, we started catching them. Since then, we have come to Mongolia 37 times to study the bear. As far as I know, Mongolia is the first country to take national measures and efforts in bear research, involving its president and Parliament. In 2013, the country declared the whole year as the year of mazaalai protection. There is no country like this. It shows the country’s interest and commitment.
We spent about 24 days in the Gobi this spring to capture mazaalai for our research. We set traps to bring them. It is very difficult to catch them because there are only a few mazaalai in a huge area. We were lucky enough to catch a handsome male bear. He was big, weighing about 160 pounds. We managed to catch the bear we had caught before. They are herbivores just like sheep and goats. Other bears eat only meat, such as squirrels, deer or even moose. But Gobi bears don’t. Their favorite food is rhubarb and roots. They get their food by digging in the hard rocky soil, which is hard for them. Their teeth are worn out from childhood. Even some of them have teeth like those of 22 or 23 years old. This animal is the treasure of the country. In the desert, the climate change is happening. Because of this, their food supply is decreasing, which is the most worrisome problem.
You have a unique history. In 2004, you first came to Mongolia to study Mazaalai. When you stepped down as president of the Bear Conservation Fund in 2005, you said that you would spend the rest of your life studying this animal. What is your reason for studying this animal?
Gobi bears are tough and resilient. They are able to live in a very harsh environment. The Mongolian people, director and former director of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area informed us that the bear population decreased by almost 15 percent between 1970 and 1990. The population is clearly going downhill. They asked for some help from the international organizations and associations for bear research management. We wanted to help, so we found some people and experts. We just want to find out more about why and how the bear population could increase to its former distribution. If the area where they live decreases, its population will decrease at the same time.
There are several research questions that we will need to determine. One of the first principles we followed was that only Mongolian students would conduct research. If we have foreign students coming here to get expertise, they go back home. But we decided earlier that only research students and Mongolians will be working on Gobi bears because they stay here to help not only Gobi bears but also other species in Mongolia.
Recently, there have been positive reports that the population of Mazaalai has increased to about 50. However, the results of the genetic research of the National University of Mongolia and Dr. T.Odbayar differ. How many bears are there now?
Estimation of the Gobi bear population is based on hair. Because each individual bear has a genetic composition of hair just like humans. From hair, we can tell related people in our family, and we can do same thing with bears. So, we use hair to determine if the number is changing or going up or down. But there are a few other things we’re doing as well. In addition, we use hair genetic information to determine what the bears are eating and compare it to their environment. To find out what bears eat, we use their droppings. We are also studying the parasites and diseases they may have from their daily feed. That research is still ongoing. We don’t know yet if they have problems, parasites, or diseases. We studied the effects of climate change, or how nutritious food they are eating, and possible diseases. Mongolians are currently studying these at the doctorate level. We can use that information to improve the lives of Mazaalais and increase their numbers. We see that there may be competition for food with sheep and goats. All of them are in the Great Gobi Nature Reserve. We need a balance. If there is a balance, the Mazaalai can benefit and their numbers can improve. As Gobi bear is critically endangered animal, if its population declines, the threat of extinction may increase further.
The scientifically determined number is around 30. However, that number is based on hair and feeders. One thing we do know is that male bears visit the feeding spots more often. The female bear must give birth. In this way, the number can be preserved. Male bears scare female bears away from food sources. An adult female bear does not want to go to the feeder to avoid having her cubs killed by a male bear. If the female has cubs and the male kills the cubs, it means that the female will come and eat their food soon. We believe that this is why females avoid feeding stations because they want to protect their cubs from males.
Can it be understood that since the population is so low, there is a problem of inbreeding?
One of the issues that we deal with and want to make sure happen is connectivity. This population is not isolated by its lack of genetic diversity. We think there are several things Mongolians can do. There is a national park close to Mazaalai. The only problem is the road and rail between the bear and the national park. One way to connect bear genetic diversity to bears in national parks is to build overpasses for them. Because right now they are in danger trying to cross the railroad tracks. They have the problem of getting hit by a train. Another problem is the trucks carrying coal to China. There are lots of trucks. Therefore, Mongolians can build bridges for bears or other wild animals. If they build a 15-meter-wide bridge, the bears can mix with a more genetically diverse population on the other side. Some bears probably live on the border with China. The Chinese say there may be some Mazaalai there. But there is no real evidence that it exists. The habitat looks good there. But the Chinese built a fence there to keep out people and wild animals. This is another problem for Mazaalai. These things can be changed.
Another problem is that livestock eat the fodder in the Great Gobi Protected Area, which affects the population of Mazaalai. It should be considered that the amount of food eaten by the livestock should not affect the Mazaalai. So, regulation is needed. But most people don’t like regulation. In fact, people solve problems only through regulations and rules.
You first started putting a collar on mazaalais. How many bears have you caught and collared in 18 years?
Since 2005, we have captured over 19 individuals. We caught some of the individuals more than once. This time we caught an individual we captured in the past. We are not yet sure which one that is. But hair can tell who it is and where he has been before.
A way to help Mazaalai is to make herders better understand how to share vegetation. Since the livestock and the Mazaalai are both herbivores, the Mazaalai should be linked to other areas where bears may be present, such as the national park I mentioned earlier. We can make sure that they are able to travel between those areas. We need to share resources and vegetation, protect, and improve their food. So, they can have more offspring. It will allow their offspring to live. Those things can help them continue to live.
In our country, there are many NGOs working in the field of Mazaalai conservation, but they do not do any significant work other than providing feed. Even the government is unable to implement unified policies and measures. What do we need to do to protect this animal?
To save the Mazaalai, the government should reduce the numbers of livestock in the areas where the Mazaalai live. People don’t like that. But sometimes herders stay in those areas longer than they should or leave early to protect their pastures. But Mazaalai also need pasture. This issue is very important. But Mongolians’ genuine interest and support for the bear will make a difference. No foreigner has worked as long on the bear since 1958 as I have. I worked in Alaska for a long time. The same problem was there. But Alaska has 32,000 bears, which was easier to deal with. There are a lot of fish there but there are no fish in the Gobi. Therefore, food resources are very different. My work here was to recognize these differences and find a way around them. I think the people of Mongolia want to do this work.
You spend many days in the Gobi to explore Mazaalai. You mentioned in your previous research that you were tired of doing your work, right?
Sometimes I feel physically tired and sleepy. But I never get tired of trying to help Mazaalai and unite Mongolians, PhD researchers and other international experts to help in this work. I’m getting old, but I know there are places or people who can help in the future. The future is the Mongolians who are pursuing their doctorate degrees. It is very clear to me that you have the resources, and you can do it. The Mazaalai is in danger of extinction, but Mongolians have certain ways to change it.
I think that if you stop doing research, there will be a big space for Mazaalai studies and conservation work.
Mongolian people and researchers can know any small place where Mazaalai may live. In addition, other international researchers can give advice, but the long-term protection of Mazaalai concerns the people of Mongolia.
I personally know the people I bring here. I know what their commitment is to Mongolia. Some of them may be people who see a certain part of what needs to be done. But the people who protect Mazaalai and maintain their numbers are Mongolians and Mongolian students. I say this all the time.