Sunday, April 27, 2014

The World May Soon Lose its Rarest Bear

It’s not easy to be a bear these days. Just think of the endangered Giant Panda staring at us with those pleading eyes or a lone polar bear struggling on a shrinking iceberg. Both images are enough to make our hearts drop to our stomachs.

It’s definitely not easy to be a bear, but it’s even harder for the world’s rarest bear: the Gobi bear.

While Gobi bears look like supersized Corduroy bears, their home — the Gobi Desert — isn’t as inviting looking; if you saw it, then you might think that no living organism could survive there. It can be really hot, it can be really cold, there can be a little bit of rain, there can be no rain and it can get really windy.

While the Gobi bears used to call the entire desert home, they are now confined to a nature preserve, the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area (GGSPA). There are only between 22 and 31 Gobi bears left in the world.

The Race to Save Gobi Bears

National Geographic recently released an update on the world’s rarest bear, and it doesn’t look good. Mongolia’s government declared 2013 to be the glorious year to save the Gobi bear, but there hasn’t been much progress.

While the government might not effectively execute its plan to save the bears, similar to China’s failed execution to save the Hainan gibbons (considered ‘the world’s rarest primates), the vulnerable Gobi bears, locally known as mazaalai, hold on to their survival. While they have adapted and thrived in one of the world’s most extreme environments, there are factors that aren’t in the bears’ DNA or control. To date, there are no captive Gobi bears.

Douglas Chadwick from National Geographic details his intimate encounters with the last Gobi bears. He first spots a bear sipping water from an oasis. Yet, instead of becoming active with bear business, this particular bear just sits still.

This bear wasn’t contemplating its surroundings. Its inactivity, overall weakness and sickly walk revealed that this bear was dying. The bear’s dead body was found a week later.

What‘s Killing the Gobi Bears?

There’s no definitive reason. Hunting, encroaching human civilization and climate change have definitely contributed to the bears’ low population numbers. Also, the Gobi bears tend to have longer fertility cycles. Female Gobi bears only give birth to one cub every couple of years. It’s also not entirely clear if inbreeding plays a role.

But the Gobi bears’ alarmingly low numbers are seriously about to be tested. For some business people, the country has transformed from Mongolia to ‘Minegolia.’ While Mongolia has a strong presence, history and tradition of semi-nomadic herding, sadly, the herders tend to be the poorest in the country.

The booming mining industry could change this tide. As reported in National Geographic, “Vast deposits of minerals, precious metals, and fossil fuels are being uncovered in the country, especially in its desert.” If Minegolia turns out to be the latest gold mine, then one-third of the country’s income could depend on the Gobi’s copper and gold sources alone.

When Water is Life and Death

While businesses are after Mongolia’s mineral, metal and fossil fuel resources, water is the most precious resource, especially in the world’s fifth largest desert. The first bear that Douglas Chadwick spotted in his recount was drinking water from an oasis. Yet, scientific research shows how neurotoxic amino acids (e.g., BMAA and DAB) were found in the Gobi Desert’s springs. Consuming the bad bacteria could play a role in ‘neurodegenerative disease,’ and negatively impacts the health of anything living that depends on it.

It‘s Not Just Mongolia‘s Problem

Yes, the Gobi bear is Mongolia’s national treasure because they are only found in Mongolia. Mongolia does have a direct obligation to protect the bears, but their plight isn’t just Mongolia’s problem.

We all are stewards of the environment. Since the Gobi bears are confined to one space, a single natural disaster, disease outbreak or mining mishap could mark the end for the Gobi bears.

As Harry Reynolds, a Gobi bear expert, told National Geographic, saving bears, in general, is important because: “Bears are a kind of umbrella species. You save them, you save big chunks of habitat.”

Reynolds is right. Bears are massive, and they require space. Undoubtedly, other flora and fauna will benefit from keeping them around.

Gobi bears have proven that they know how to be resilient. All they need is a helping hand from us. You don’t have to witness the end of the Gobi bear. Sharing education is a sort of precious gem. You can also help the Gobi bear by not purchasing Minegolia’s copper and gold. If we lose the Gobi bear, then we’ll never be able to buy them back.

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