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Book Review: Tracking Gobi Grizzlies

By (December 21, 2016) No Comment

Tracking Gobi Grizzlies:

Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond

by Douglas Chadwick

Patagonia, 2016

Wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick makes clear in his eloquent, heartbreaking new book Tracking Gobi Grizzlies that he’s a fan of bears; like many researchers, his countless hours of observation have softened his heart toward these behemoths with the tempers of detoxing meth-addicts and seven-inch boat-hooks for nails. Conveyed by his delightful prose, these animals sound downright cuddly:

While science can’t quite bring itself to say that grizzlies like to goof, the experts acknowledge that, young or old, these bears do devote an intriguing amount of time to play behavior. Exuberance is part of what defines them. So is a strongly developed sense of curiosity. Grizzlies are given to thoroughly investigating objects of interest, manipulating them with their mouth as well as with those broad, flexible paws, trying in their own way to learn more about how the world works.

… although Chadwick is conscientious enough to add a note of balance to this picture of his beloved “grizz”: “It’s one of the main reasons I’ve always found it natural to relate to grizz,” he writes, “– to imagine myself in their place as they move through a landscape, poking around. I also try never to forget that the same animals can instantly turn volcanic when upset.”

The specific bears evoking such outbursts in this new book are perhaps the most forlorn ursine population anywhere in the world: a group of two dozen or so grizzlies who live in the Gobi Desert, in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. In that forbidding landscape of brittle chaparral, stinging alkali dust, and infrequent, grudging oases, a wasteland sparsely populated by hares, lynxes, wild asses, hardy bats, Bactrian camels … and a handful of dun-colored grizzly bears being photographed and studied before they vanish.

Chadwick writes with great skill and stubborn optimism about those bears, and he’s every bit as eloquent when he’s writing about the surreal, alien qualities of the Gobi itself, from the endless grit:

I expected that we might spend the night out here, and it would be long. The temperatures continued to drop. Even with the windows tightly shut, the wind was forcing enough fine dust through the tiniest seams of the van that I could taste it in my mouth and feel it caking the inside of my nose. Mineral air.

… to the strange, abandoned villages that dot the land:

In [Ulan Bator] I’d felt hemmed in by humanity-gone-viral. To have moved so quickly from the Anthropocene to the steppe of rolling grasslands with only an occasional distant ger, then on to an ancient desert stripped to stone, and ending up in this post-apocalyptic-looking village where the modern world had failed to take hold was disorienting, to say the least. It felt like traveling in a time machine with unreliable controls.

This is an author who’s spent enormous amounts of time out hiking in the wild coming to know the patterns and personalities of some of Earth’s most exotic wildlife, and coming to know the courageous men and women who study that wildlife and devote their lives to protecting it. Tracking Gobi Grizzlies is a beautiful testament to these people and to the bears they study, and Chadwick clearly intends that it not be a final testament, even though there is no practical way to save an apex-predator population that’s dwindled to such small numbers. And some of his book’s many illustrations show sows with cubs … so we can all cling a little longer to feeling hopeful about the bears of the Gobi.