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Mongolia’s Gobi Bear


For most the mere mention of the Gobi Desert conjures up nothing but images of a sweltering stonescape. A barren 500,000 square miles of asperous hard packed lifeless terrain, what could possibly survive there?


In possibly the harshest climate on earth, lives the tenacious critically endangered Gobi bear, also known as 'Mazaalai'. The morphology of this rare bear is markedly different from the Tibetan brown bear, and though it has more in common with the Himalayan brown bear some features are still quite distinct. The Gobi bears skull is much smaller, it’s body mass reduced, it’s snout and limbs elongated. The Gobi bears colouring also sets it apart, it’s positively flaxen, a natural blonde if ever there was one. The classification of this extraordinary bear has been a bone of contention. Originally classified by Baannikov (1954) as (Ursus pruinosus) based on their similarities with the Tibetan brown bear they were reclassified as (Ursus arctos isabellinus) by Sokolov and Orlov (1980). Later studies by Sokolov and Orlov (1992) now sees them classified as a separate species entirely (Ursus arctos gobiensis).


Holding near mythical status in the hearts and minds of nomadic Mongolians the Gobi bear is perilously close to extinction. This blonde bear cannot be found in captivity, and its numbers in the wild have dwindled to less than 30. The Gobi bear has adapted to its unforgiving environment, sourcing and conserving fat and water from the food it eats. A Gobi bear survives on berries, roots, desert rhubarb and other vegetation. Wingless grasshoppers, lizards, beetles, and the occasional gerbil are also a favourite snack.


Critically Endangered

Mongolia was forward thinking enough to put a stop to bear hunting as long ago as 1953, hoping the Gobi bear would increase in numbers. However, today the Gobi bear is still under threat from human activity. Once expansive grasslands have been degraded by Mongolia’s native nomads allowing their livestock to overgraze, but the real menace to the Gobi bear is industrial scale mining. The Gobi Desert is rich in minerals precious metals and rare-earths. Unfortunately, where these commodities are found the destruction of the Gobi bears natural habitat and food sources follow.


Conservation Efforts

The plight of the Gobi bear has conservationists scratching their heads. With number so low and the Gobi bear so understudied what can be done to save it? It will take money and manpower, but nature lovers, academics and environmentalists are doing what they can.

Established in 2005 the ‘Gobi Bear Project’ is doing great work. The Gobi Bear Project team have in the last 13 years fitted most Gobi bears with GPS devices. The GPS tags enable them to carry out much needed analysis of the Gobi bears genetics, reproductive performance, and survival rates. The Mongolian government are right behind them, financing supplemental pelletised feed stations near major springs in the GGSPA (Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area). Overworked and underpaid rangers patrol the GGSPA, a conservation area that is one of the last refuges for critically endangered animals. The rangers though too few, protect the Gobi bear and the Gobi Desert’s precious biome as best they can.


With such a tiny populace of Gobi bears surviving, and increasing threats from mining, it would be easy to give up hope of its recovery, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy. Bears and in particular the Gobi bear are iconic mammals with a complex evolutionary history. The Gobi bear is the oldest living lineage directly related to Asia’s ancestral brown bears. We must do all we can to save it while there’s still a chance.

“When they are all gone, when every life has been stolen, how will you remember them?

Claire Deaton


Did You know

  • A male Gobi bear can weigh as little as 96kg and a female only 51Kg. When compared to a Grizzly which can weigh in at a whopping 360Kg the Gobi bear is positively Lilliputian.

  • The Gobi bears unique colouring is down to the environmental conditions it lives in. Diet temperature, and the specific geographical area in which they live all play a part in their colouring.

  • The Gobi bear has developed a dense snowy coloured undercoat as they don't have enough body fat or soft ground to dig shelters in which to keep themselves warm.

  • The male Gobi bear is able to breed from the age of 5 and the female at the age of 4.

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