Rare bears going through a dark phase

Politics and culture may destroy these animals before scientists can determine what they are

In "Search for the Golden Moon Bear," nature writer Sy Montgomery once again demonstrates her dogged perseverance in tracking her subject, in this case, the elusive golden moon bear, which if found, could become a new species of bear.

Like a war journalist who races from Croatia to Somalia to Afghanistan to report crisis and human tragedy, Montgomery exposes the battles of man against animals in the jungles and cities of Cambodia, Thailand, and other areas in Indochina.

As in her earlier books on the great apes, man-eating tigers, and pink river dolphins, she takes us on an expedition starting with geography and biology, and ending with our own conscience.

Her search for the golden or blond moon bear is enchanting and gruesome, as she relates the folklore and the history of local cultures that serve to both protect and destroy the animal populations around them. While reverence used to protect some Asian animals, like the tiger, now poachers are going after these big cats and bears because they fetch high prices from people who want to use various parts of the animals for so-called elixirs.

And in a bizarre twist of fate, the brutal Khmer Rouge, who tortured and killed several million Cambodians in the 1970s, actually helped safeguard animals. The reason: When the Khmer Rouge were in the forest, the local villagers were afraid to go out and hunt. But all that has changed now, and villagers and poachers alike are killing mother moon bears in the forest, and selling their cubs crammed into tiny cages in city markets.

Despite laws against keeping bears as pets, there are hundreds of bears in households in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. It's the same story elsewhere in Asia. Bears in China serve as watchdogs, and even are trained to help with household chores.

Montgomery began her expeditions with nature experts in search of the golden moon bears. Among her research companions was Dr. Gary Galbreath, an evolutionary biology professor at Northwestern University near Chicago, and Sun Hean, head of the Cambodian Wildlife Conservation Department. Together, they navigated through the tough city markets and streets of Cambodia, as well as the country's lush, dense forests that camouflage poisonous snakes, land mines, poachers, and bandits.

The object of their desire, the golden moon bear, is found from northeastern Russia and China to Afghanistan, but has been little studied. The bear's original Latin name, Selenarctos thibetanus, honors Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon. That's because the bear has a white crescent mark on its chest. The moon bear is big and shaggy, with round, upright ears, and often a thick mane like a lion's.

Adult moon bears are black, leading researchers to wonder whether the golden moon cubs were just a phase of growth of the moon bear that would darken with age, or an entirely new species. Montgomery and her companions took on the mission of getting hair samples from a black moon bear and a golden moon cub from the same region, a task made difficult because most cubs are separated from their mothers by poachers or hunters.

If the genetic samples from the golden and black moon bears were significantly different, indicating the color was not just a growth phase, the golden moon bear could potentially be the first new bear species to be reported in more than a century. Today, there are only eight known species of bear on Earth. Tracking the habitats of the golden moon bear might reveal the travel patterns of their ancestors and lead to restoration of the species.

Like her previous books, Montgomery's new work delves into the culture, politics, customs, and superstitions of the local peoples and how they affect the surrounding environment. And like many nature writers who witness cruelty, she often felt helpless and distraught at what she saw and heard about underfed bears in tiny cages being prodded by children, and bears tied up behind restaurants as their feet were cut off one by one to feed customers.

"We could certainly buy her – like many of the captive bears we've seen. But then what?" she writes of one of the bears she saw.

The good news is that Montgomery and Galbreath came away from their adventure with a wealth of new scientific information that eventually may help save some of the bears. This includes the discovery that the golden moon bears represent a color phase not previously reported in scientific literature. They also discovered moon bears in Southeast Asia that go through a brown-color phase, previously only seen far to the west.

Galbreath is still analyzing the collected genetic samples. He hopes the findings may result in the release of captive moon bears back into the wild for their preservation.

• Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.

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