Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species

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9780743205849: Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species

Sy Montgomery "is a modern miracle," says Book magazine, "bawdy, brave, inventive, prophetic, hell-bent on loving this planet." Writing as she does about animals and people at a turning point in our history, Montgomery has shown us that we share our planet with the most outlandish creatures. She's documented great apes, man-eating tigers, and pink river dolphins, but her latest muse, the golden moon bear, is an animal whose name and appearance evoke another world altogether.

Only eight bear species are known to science: the American black bear; the grizzly; the polar bear; the South American spectacled bear; Asia's sun bear, moon bear, and sloth bear; and the Chinese panda. The moon bears' lineage (most similar to that of the American black bear) as black-coated mountain dwellers had never been challenged -- until, on the edge of the new millennium, Montgomery and her scientific colleagues turned up this new golden form.

Search for the Golden Moon Bear travels to Southeast Asia, home of these luminous bears, for a look through the broken mirror of the evolutionary record into the present day. Hobnobbing with scientists and locals, Montgomery pieces together a living portrait of her elusive subject. "When the bear is well," says one Cambodian zookeeper, "he is [a] nice animal, like a friend." But the bears are not always well. With bear paws coveted as culinary treats, and bear parts administered as medicine for everything from nervousness to heart problems, the bears' world is a perilous one -- just as it is for humans. In pursuit of a new species, these scientists and adventurers encounter danger and mayhem at every turn -- riding motorcycles across active minefields, evading armed militia for a glimpse of moon bears, pulling hairs from live bears for DNA tests.

Search for the Golden Moon Bear is a field report from the frontiers of science and the ends of the earth, seamlessly weaving together folklore, natural history, and contemporary research into a fantastic travelogue.

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About the Author:

Sy Montgomery is a commentator for National Public Radio's Living on Earth and is the author of six heralded books, including Journey of the Pink Dolphins, which was a Booklist Top 10 Sci-Tech book for 2000, as well as a finalist for England's Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She lives in New Hampshire.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: In the Market for Bears

As we pull over at the market at Kampong Som -- a street fragrant with French bread and roasting swallows, crammed with wedding dresses, live lobsters, chain saws, flyswatters, cooking pots -- our Toyota is thronged with children trying to sell us snails and clams. Our companion, Sun Hean, chats in Khmer with a pregnant woman in a blue pantsuit. Does she know where we might find a moon bear?

The name of the animal evokes the luminous night. Its original Latin moniker -- Selenarctos thibetanus -- honors Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, because of the white crescent mark on the animal's chest. Otherwise, the moon bear, big and shaggy, with prominent, round, upright ears, and often, a thick mane like a lion's, is black as the tropical night -- and as mysterious.

Rudyard Kipling called it "the most bizarre of the ursine species." It doesn't look like it belongs in the tropics. In fact, the first specimen described by science came from the foothills of the snowy Himalayas. Though moon bears are found from northeastern Russia and China to Afghanistan, they are little studied. Not until the 1960s did scientists realize these dark, heavy beasts, panting beneath their thick coats, padded through the heated, steamy stillness of Cambodia's jungles.

Yet in the same forests where grasses grow into trees one hundred feet high and banyons spill curtains of hair-fine aerial roots from treetops, the moon bears of the Himalayas scratch and snuffle. At dawn and dusk, they shift like shadows among gingers and bamboos. Their imprint is unmistakable. On the straight-boled, spotted trunks of bee trees, they carve their five-fingered signatures with black, recurved claws. In the crotches of tropical oaks, they break tree limbs to create springy resting platforms for their up to 325-pound bulk. In glossy monsoon soils, they leave their footprints. With five rounded toes and a long heel pad on the back foot, their footsteps look like those of giant humans.

But you could spend years exploring these tangled rain forests and never see a moon bear. Instead, you would find them, as we did, caged in back of tourist hotels, chained outside of city pharmacies -- and at markets like this one.

The pregnant woman doesn't ask what two young, well-dressed Cambodians, a sunburned blonde, and an American professor might want with a moon bear. She is an animal dealer. She knows that here in Cambodia, people buy bears for many reasons. They are treasured as household pets and kept as roadside attractions. They are sold for their meat and for their teeth. People eat their paws in soup and use their gall for medicine.

What we want from a moon bear, though, is stranger than the woman could possibly imagine. We want only to pluck out, with my eyebrow tweezers, a few of its hairs.

We already have a small zoo of hairs tucked in vials inside the professor's camera case. Each vial holds the genetic information of a bear captured from a different, known site. It is not the hair, per se, but its base, the living cells of the bulb, that contains the information we seek. After we return to the States, a laboratory in Idaho will extract from these specks of flesh the genetic information contained in each bear's DNA, and compare them.

In this way, we hope to document what could be the first new bear species to be reported in over a century.

But in order to do so, we need the hair of a black moon bear who has been captured in this province, a bear from the fragrant, misty forests of the Elephant Mountains.

The animal dealer says she had a moon bear for sale -- but just that morning she'd sent it to Phnom Penh. For what? I ask Sun Hean. "For pet. For restaurant. I don't know," he answers. But the dealer does confirm that the bear had come from the rain-forested slopes of the Elephant Mountains. And there will be more where it came from.

Two mountain systems comprise most of the wilderness left in mainland Southeast Asia: with the adjoining Elephant Mountains and Cambodia's highest peak, Phnom Oral, the Cardamom range, occupying much of western Cambodia, huddles in the shape of a Q beneath a cloak of monsoon clouds. The rainfall here is the highest in Cambodia, and the jungles the most dense. The spice-scented forests harbor creatures beautiful, deadly, and ancient: clouded leopards, with spotted coats soft and thick as mist; tiny primitive deer called muntjacks, their upper jaws curiously spiked with fangs. There are more tigers here than anywhere else in the country, and, possibly, more wild elephants than anywhere else in Indochina. In similar habitat in neighboring Vietnam, scientists discovered in 1989 fresh tracks of the Javan rhinoceros species thought extinct on the mainland for nearly half a century; some think it might yet survive here, too.

The other, wildest mountains are the Annamites. In a great igneous spine, they run for more than six hundred miles from the northeastern corner of Cambodia up along the border of Vietnam and Laos. A mosaic of rain forest, dry evergreen woods, cypress and old-growth pine, the Annamites preserve, in the words of the great American wildlife conservationist George Schaller, "a living lost world." Four hundred species of birds have been cataloged here, a count only cursory. Of the roughly dozen large mammal species discovered in the world since 1900, nearly half of them -- including a two hundred-pound antelope with spear-

like horns, a giant, barking deer, and a zebra-striped rabbit -- have been found, since 1992, in the Annamites.

Eventually our quest will lead us into both these mountain jungles. But before we would step into that wild and leafy realm, we would need to search its looking-glass opposites: private zoos, hotel menageries, and noisy, crowded streetside markets.

In Kampong Som, it appears that most of the wildlife is destined for the dinner plate. Along the street, where dentists advertise their services with large paintings of white, extracted teeth, a beautiful young woman, her hair tied up neatly beneath a conical hat, tends a charcoal fire over which skewered bats are roasting. In a pink plastic bowl beneath a dome of woven rattan, live frogs, tortoises, and cobras await the soup pot. In the palm oil of a neighboring vendor's wok, three-inch grasshoppers sizzle.

"Is there any animal that people don't eat here?" I asked Sun Hean.

He thought for a moment. "The vulture," he answered solemnly.

The scent of pigs' blood mingles with the fragrance of temple marigolds. To be looking for a new species here seems irreconcilably absurd.

But it is no more unlikely, really, than the way our expedition had begun.

* * *

The route that led to the market in Kampong Som was circuitous, winding from China to the Amazon, from Hancock, New Hampshire, to Bangkok, Thailand. I had come to Cambodia thanks to extraordinary coincidences and extraordinary people.

Dr. Gary J. Galbreath was one of them. A professor of evolutionary biology at Northwestern University and a research associate of the famous Field Museum, Gary had been president of the Chicago-based Rainforest Conservation Fund when it took on funding the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Community Reserve in Peru in 1991. We met there in 1997 when I was researching a book on the Amazon's pink river dolphins.

"Did you know," Gary asked me as our boat chugged up the tea-colored river, "this place used to be full of giant, carnivorous Terror Birds?"

No, I did not. This he quickly remedied.

"They were feathered dinosaurs, essentially, long after the dinosaurs went extinct," he began. "It's possible a human being even saw one. They were the dominant predators in South America during the Age of Mammals. The Terror Birds even made it to Florida -- to Daytona Beach! They found some fossils there. But only twenty months ago their arms were found -- and it turns out they weren't winged like we thought."

This modest, green-eyed, middle-aged professor had me mesmerized.

"They had evolved tearing arms, with two fingerlike projections to grab their prey," he continued. "The fingers are fused bones, like the panda's thumb. Terror Birds began to decline when dogs, cats, and bears came down from North America, three million years ago or so. And if that didn't do them in, then people came eleven to thirteen thousand years ago and killed off their prey, the giant ground sloths and zebras..."

I was next surprised to learn that zebras arose in North America; that horses are more closely related to dogs than pigs; that a friend of his had shot for dinner, and thus discovered, a new species of pig, the sweet-smelling Chacoan peccary, and that, as a graduate student, Gary had acquired a pair of armadillos who liked to sleep with him in his bed. But I was not surprised to learn -- much later and from another biologist -- that at Gary's last lecture of the year, his students gave him a standing ovation.

After each day's fieldwork, when the others' talk often turned to jobs or family, photography or politics, Gary and I would take a canoe out on the dark waters of the Tahuayo and talk about animals and evolution.

It was on one of those starry, timeless nights that he told me about the golden moon bear.

Gary had been a delegate of the American Society of Mammalogists for the group's first official meeting with its Chinese counterpart in Beijing, back in 1988. Afterward, he had traveled south, to explore the tropical rain forest of Yunnan Province with a small contingent of other biologists.

"We were in this little town in Yunnan called Simao. My friend, Penny, called me over. She said there was something I should see. And there, in this little cage -- it was sort of like a town mascot, and taking peanuts, very gently, from people's hands -- was this young male bear, maybe ninety kilos, with tall, round ears and a white V on the chest. But what was remarkable was, its coat was golden. I had never seen anything like it."

In fact, Gary was stunned. The biologist was facing a creature he could not identify.

Quickly, he sorted through his encyclopedic zoological memory. There were only eight known species of bear on Earth. Obviously this was not a polar bear, or a panda. Nor was it an American black bear -- although "black bears" can be brown, cinnamon, blond, or even white, the ears on this animal were too big for an American black bear. It couldn't be a spectacled bear, a native of South America's Andean highlands. It looked nothing like one, having a longer snout than this short-faced bear, and lacked the circular white markings around the eyes that make the spectacled bear look like it is wearing glasses.

Besides the panda, four other bear species are known in Asia. Sun bears -- named for the patch, often sunrise orange, on the chest -- barely range into tropical Yunnan. But this clearly wasn't one. Sun bears, the smallest and most tree-loving of bears, have inconspicuous ears, short, jet fur, long claws, and huge, stout canines. Nor was this a sloth bear, also known from Asia's tropics -- it has masses of fluffy, messy, black hair, unusually mobile lips, with which it sucks termites out of their hills like a vacuum hose, and nostrils it can slam shut to keep termites from crawling in. The only Asian bear with a coat that ever comes close to blond is the brown bear, the same species (although a different subspecies) as the American grizzly. But it is unknown from the tropics. The only Asian bear with big ears like this was a moon bear -- but Gary had never heard of one with a golden coat.

He took photos, and so did his friend and colleague, physician Penny Walker. "I was photographing it in case it wasn't known," he said. "But what were the chances of my discovering a new bear? For all I knew, someone in the literature long ago described a blond bear like this."

The next day, at the Kunming natural history museum, Gary looked through the collection of moon bear skins. All of them were black. But during China's Cultural Revolution, all the specimens' tags were destroyed, so he had no idea where they came from -- or even whether moon bears had ever before been recorded living in Yunnan.

"It was enough to excite interest," he said. "This was of potentially significant biological import." Variation in coat color is important to document, Gary explained; one of the biologist's principal tasks, after all, is to describe the natural world. An unreported color phase in an existing species is an exciting finding, akin to making the first reports of a black panther (which is a dark form of the normally black-and-gold spotted leopard) or a white tiger (a pale-coated form of the Royal Bengal tiger). But the golden bear could be a discovery far more spectacular. Gary knew from his postdoctoral work on New World owl monkeys that, in the absence of genetic analysis, coat color alone can serve as a way -- sometimes the only way -- to tell different species apart. If the golden bear represented a new species, it would be the scientific finding of a lifetime -- the first new bear reported since the panda more than a hundred years before. "This could be a major biological discovery," Gary realized. "But I was telling myself, I'm sure these things were known..."

When he returned from China, Gary made an exhaustive search of the scientific literature. He checked explorers' accounts of zoological expeditions throughout Asia. He laboriously translated manuscripts from French and German. He discovered only one account of a bear from Southeast Asia that wasn't black -- a 1906 report of a young male bear with brown hair tipped with gray. Secured from an animal dealer, it was said to have come from the Shan States of upper Burma and thought to be a kind of grizzly. It was tentatively given the subspecies name Ursus arctos shanorum. There was no mention of a blond bear. Anywhere.

Gary had always wanted to go back to Simao and find out more, he told me. But his demanding teaching load at Northwestern was compounded by his administrative duties as associate director of the undergraduate biology department. Besides, what were the chances that bear was still there? Several times, he had started to write up an account of the golden bear for scientific publication, then abandoned the idea. "This was just one specimen. It could have been a mutant individual -- not a new color phase, not a new species, not anything."

Still, the image of that bear stayed with him for nine years. Like a siren, it beckoned him, nagged him, teased. He could not forget it -- but he did not see how to pursue it, either: "There was only one," he said, "just one, weird bear."

Or so we thought -- until one year later, when I met Sun Hean.

At a birthday party in the small New Hampshire town where I live, a friend brought a guest whose power and importance went largely unappreciated by the others. Shy and unsure of his English, with a round, boyish face, Sun Hean looked like a foreign graduate student, which he was. But he was also, although still in his twenties, the deputy director for the Wildlife Protection Office of Cambodia -- the equivalent of the second in...

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