Bears In The Desert? Mongolia’s Endangered Gobi Bears Struggle For Survival – With Some Human Help

I am probably not alone in associating brown and grizzly bears with forests, rivers, berries, honey and spawning salmon. Not with rock, sand and arid desert.

But animals are extremely adaptable. One of the amazing examples is the Gobi Bear. A close relative of America’s Grizzly and Alaska’s Brown Bear this bear has managed to eke out an existence in the incredibly harsh Gobi Desert.

Chilean rhubarb (Gunnera manicata)
Rhubard (Rheum rhabarbarum is an edible plant native to Asia. It has been introduced to South America. Chilean rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) by Evelyn Simak is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

But it is critically endangered, which has led people to mobilize to save it. Recently, we reported on efforts in China to save the wild Bactrian Camel.

Those efforts are matched by people trying to save the Gobi Bear.

A little geography here. The Gobi Desert is the fifth or sixth largest in the world, about 1,000 miles by 600 miles in dimension. Much of it is not sand, but bare rock. It is bordered by mountains and most of the water is underground. Rainfall is sparse and temperatures range from -40 to +113. It is largely uninhabited, with about one person per square kilometer. It is named from the Mongolian word for “waterless place.”

brown bear on a body of water
The Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is a close relative of the Gobi bear. At 800 pounds it is much bigger and has more food choices. Photo by Pixabay on

Somehow, The Gobi bear (Ursus arctos gobiensis) manages to live there. The Gobi Bear Project is seeking to help.

The bears are very rare, perhaps numbering 40 in Mongolia and some in the Chinese reserve mentioned earlier. Since 2016 China and Mongolia have agreed to cooperate on conservation measures. The project works with Mongolian nationals on conservation issues. According to the website, the project has been working since 2005 with the Mongolian government.

In addition to being the only desert dwelling bear the Gobi bear has some structural differences from other brown bears. It is smaller and leaner, has blunt claws and teeth and gives birth to one cub every two years.

Gerbils and jerboas are among the small rodents of the Mongolian desert. They sometimes wind up as a meal for Gobi bears. n94_w1150 by BioDivLibrary is licensed under CC-PDM 1.0

Wild rhubarb root is a primary food source but they will eat nuts and berries when they find them. They also eat some insects and small mammals such as rodents.

The Mongolian government and the project are placing tracking collars on bears, and setting up feeding stations to prepare them for winter. They have also increased patrols to thwart illegal mining, which disturbs the bears. One source says the bears may be slowly increasing in number. Some estimates place the number at over 50.

On the other end of the conservation spectrum American black bears (Ursus americanus) seem to be expanding their range. They are increasing in number in Massachusetts and may soon be in Boston.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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