By Elise Honningdalsnes
Hidden from the world, in the earth’s fifth largest desert, is the rare Gobi bear fighting for its survival. These bears have found a way to live in one of the most extreme environments on the planet, but there are not many of them left.
The Gobi Desert sprawls across 1,300,000 square km, ranging from southern Mongolia to northern China. It gets as cold as minus 40°C in winter and in summer as hot as 50°C. Rain is a rare, but most welcome phenomena in the Gobi, and bears therefore travel long distances to find water.
Barry Jiggins, the founder of MongoliAid, has realized just how important it is to save the Gobi bear from extinction and this year his Australian organization donated money in order to help the Gobi bear survive. This is only one of the projects the organization is involved in.
“Imagine if people took a stand for [West African black] rhinos in Africa 40 years ago, then they wouldn’t have been extinct today,” he says.
Jiggins has been doing charity work in Mongolia over the past 13 years and he has become more and more interested in the Gobi bear during his time here.
“I kind of feel like it’s a privilege to at least be in the position where you can try to save them,” he emphasizes.
The Gobi bear belong to the species Ursus arctos, commonly known as the brown bear. The Gobi bears’ coats tend to be more bronze than brown, the bears are smaller and they live in way harder condition than their relatives.
Twice a year, in April and September, the Mongolian government has been delivering food to help the population survive and grow. As the government tend to be tight on money and unable to deliver food in time, NGOs need to help in order to protect the small bear population.
Tumenjargal Nambar, the head of the NGO MAMA, is one of the people who works hard to save the Gobi bear. It was by chance that Jiggins met Tumenjargal and decided to help him in his work.
It is crucial for the bears that the food is delivered in a tight three weeks’ window. The bears receive supplemental food in April, so that they can fatten up quickly, and in September to prepare them for hibernation. If the food delivery happens too late, the bears miss out on all the benefits from the feeding.
The Gobi bear is the only bear that’s not kept in captivation anywhere and it is commonly believed that there are only about 10 breeding females left. The population this year is set to be around 40-45 individuals. The population has consisted of 20-50 bears since the 1970s.
Jiggings came to Mongolia as a tourist 13 years ago looking for an adventure. During his trip, he decided to visit a local hospital as Jiggins is a hospital worker himself. There he saw patients sitting on mattresses without blankets, and this made a great impact on him.
“I went home [to Australia] and started begging in the media for blankets,” he says. Over the past decade he has established a well-known organization and he has sent 34,000 blankets over to Mongolia in 12 containers. The blankets have been distributed systematically to those who need them.
This year, MongoliAid decided to buy locally sourced blankets and distribute them locally in the area closest to the Gobi bear, instead of paying for shipping of containers. They provided 200 blankets to schools, hospitals and kindergartens in Shinejinst in Bayankhongor Province and 200 blankets to Bayantooroi in Gobi-Altai Province. The organization also donated 3,500 USD to help with food distribution and to pay a local team of scientists to do research on the Gobi bear.
“This is the darkest hour for the Gobi bear,” says Jiggins. The population has rebounded slightly, but it is still crucial for the population to be fed in order to grow. The long-term goal is that the Gobi bear population will be stable, and feeding no longer necessary.
In a small oasis near the border of the Gobi area live about 20 people who grow their own food. They sell some, but most of it is for the bears. The Gobi bear is 90 percent vegetarian, as there are not many animals to hunt down in their habitat. The food is made by love, but distribution is what cost. This is where Jiggins realized that he could help. The money donated from MongoliAid this year helped pay for trucks and petrol as the government was unable to provide the food at the right time.
There are two Gobi bear research centers in the area, at Ekhiin Gol in the east and in Bayantooroi in the west. There are three small mountain ranges that form the bears’ last refuge, a western, central and eastern range. All with several feeding stations. Each feeding station requires six bags of food.
“With more water projects and more blankets, all targeted near the bears, we can restore the bear population,” says Jiggins.
In 2010, MongoliAid also helped finance the construction of a well for the Scout Association of Mongolia at Batsumber. The project was later followed by two further and major water projects at Bayangovi in Bayankhongor Province and at Tsogt Tsetsii in Umnugovi Province. These projects are now providing clean and secure drinking water to over 16,000 Mongolians. MongoliAid spent 140,000 AUD on the project.
When asked how he managed to collect money for such an extensive project, Jiggins tells The UB Post that he spent his lifesavings on the project. “I don’t own a house and I felt like this was important enough to spend my savings on,” he says. “You only get one life to make the world a better place. Saving the Gobi bear and putting smiles onto young Gobi faces are my benchmarks for a successful life,” Jiggins says.
“I’ve left behind a lot of smiling faces, and that’s my goal,” he says, “leaving it a little better than when I came.”