Is there a way to protect a Gobi bear?

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             The land of Mongolia is rich, with the Gobi Desert and beautiful mountainous regions.  The country is scorching hot in the summer and bittingly cold in the winter. In this harsh climate, the Gobi bear is still struggling to survive.

The Gobi bear, known in Mongolia as Mazaalai, inhabits the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. No Gobi bears are known to exist in captivity anywhere in the world. But it’s listed as critically endangered by the Mongolian Redbook of Endangered Species and by the Zoological Society of London. According to the lecturer of the National University of Mongolia, Department of Biology Prof. R.Samiya, there are less than 50 Gobi bears in existence. The Gobi bear reduced in number to 15 to 20 in the 1960s, more than 20 in the 1970s, 25 to 30 in the early 1980s, and 50 to 60 in the late 1980s. Until the now, many studies and measures have been taken to protect the bear and increase its population. But the current population size indicates that no significant results were made in protecting the Gobi bear.

Since 1953, more proactive measures have been taken to protect mazaalai. 

Mongolia banned Gobi bear hunting in 1953. Prof. R.Samiya said, “Member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, American scholar Harry Raynolds has been doing research in Mongolia since 2006. Our knowledge about mazaalai was shallow until just recently. But we started using cameras in 2013 and certain knowledge has been gained thanks to that. On June and July 2018, we installed 56 cameras in 13 points near water sources where Gobi bears come to drink and identified 36 different mazaalais. Thus, if we consider that not all the bears have been recorded, there are around 50 Gobi bears in Mongolia.”

The Gobi Bear Project team and Khongor Nutgiin Duudlaga Movement NGO was established in 2005 to protect the Gobi bear. In addition, Mongolia has declared 2013 as the "Year of Protecting the Gobi Bear". In this regard, the Ministry of Environment and Green Development of Mongolia formed a working group to explore ways of boosting the bears' population. Some 25 Gobi bears have been briefly captured and fitted with GPS radio collars, which has helped to map the animals' habitat use. The Gobi Bear Project has also used hair traps at feeder sites to collect samples, allowing DNA analysis, which has revealed that the bears have low genetic diversity but shows no evidence of inbreeding-based disorders. In 2014, the National Mazaalai Conservation Program was approved. In connection with the program, an environmental protection management plan has been developed.

When asked about their current activities, Head of Khongor Nutgiin Duudlaga Movement B.Batbold said, “The Gobi bear, which lives in the harsh conditions of the Gobi Desert, has been provided with supplementary feeding, and other biotechnical measures are being taken to make it permanent and to prevent food shortages. We are working by selecting special places and leaving food for them. Last October, we made a feed container for Gobi bears in the Khatuu Bulag oasis in Segs Tsagaan Bogd Mountain.”

Although many measures have been taken to protect the Gobi bear population without reducing its number for about 60 years, no results have been achieved so far. Scientists noted that the only reason for the lack of progress has been food shortage.

D.Batbold said, “Some researchers said that the Gobi bear's habitat is being mowed, burned, and malnourished by mowing and burning the bamboo. Although the Gobi bear is a carnivore, research has shown that 70 percent of its food comes from plants and 30 percent from other small species. In addition, Gobi bears often die of malnutrition during the rainy season or when water is scarce due to drought.

In addition, the Gobi bear hibernates in mid-November. During this time, the Gobi bear is in danger of starvation due to lack of food. The female Gobi bear also hibernates in the spring and feeds its cubs. When they come out of hibernation, they are also in danger of death due to lack of food. Therefore, if biotechnical activities are carried out and fodder is provided in the spring, the threats to the Gobi bear's population will decrease. An international conference on Gobi bear conservation and public participation was held in 2019, with involvement of international scholars and representatives of NGOs engaged in bear research and conservation. During the conference, we talked to make a food container for Gobi bears. It helps to increase the number of Gobi bears naturally.”

According to the Gobi Bear Project team, based on observation, the Gobi bears primarily eat the rhizomes of wild rhubarb, berries, including nitre bush, grass shoots, wild onion, Ephedra, and other plants supported by desert springs. Small amounts of animal matter, mostly rodents, and reported to be approximately one percent of total intake are also consumed. It is well known that brown bear subspecies undergo a period of high food intake during late summer and fall in order to build the fat reserves necessary for hibernation and production offspring while in winter dens. Rangers of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area reported that the area experienced a drought from 1993-2007, in which annual precipitation declined from approximately 100 mm to 50 mm. Because Gobi bears are heavily dependent upon vegetation that requires precipitation for growth and fruiting, the drought may have affected physical condition and reproductive success of the bears during this period.

There is a great history and example that contributed to the conservation of endangered species in the world. It is a history of the giant panda. As a result of the Chinese government's long-standing policy on animal protection, the threats to giant panda have been reduced. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says there are just 1,864 pandas left in the wild. There are an additional 400 pandas in captivity, according to Pandas International. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the giant panda as "vulnerable", which is the category between "near threatened" and "endangered". However, the population has started to increase slightly.

How did China save the giant panda?

China has been trying for years to increase the population of the giant panda. The bears, China's national icon, were once widespread throughout southern and eastern China but, due to expanding human populations and development, are now limited to areas that still contain bamboo forests. The success is due to Chinese efforts to recreate and repopulate bamboo forests.

“It's all about restoring the habitats. Just by restoring the panda's habitat, that's given them back their space and made food available to them," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN Red List. The Chinese have done a great job in investing in panda habitats, expanding and setting up new reserves.

The same results can be obtained if this method, applied to the panda, is used to protect the Gobi bear. It is important to create a favorable habitat, provide nutrition and breed it in captivity for the Gobi bear. Significant measures, sustainability policy on the bear and efforts of all Mongolians are needed to love the Gobi bears. It is an animal like a giant panda. It is time for people to dedicate their hearts to it before the Gobi bear perished. We can do it together.

Misheel Lkhasuren