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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Search for the Golden Moon Bear, Part 2

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery completes her journey to Southeast Asia to find a "Golden Moon Bear," and she tells us whether or not she has found as new species of the animal.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Late last year we brought you the story of Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery's search for the Golden Moon Bear. Some biologists suspected this animal could be a new species of bear, but they needed evidence. So an expedition was formed to retrieve DNA samples, which would determine if the bear's genes were indeed unique. Well, Sy's search is over, and today we have an answer to the origins of the mysterious Golden Moon Bear.

(A vehicle drives and rattles)

MONTGOMERY: There are bears all around us. That is the sound of a bear chewing. That's a car.

GALBREATH: You've just got to be careful of these guys over here.

(An engine starts up)

MONTGOMERY: With biology professor Gary Galbreath of Northwestern University, I'm on a scientific quest through Southeast Asia to document a type of bear never before recorded: a bear with a golden coat. Our search for the Golden Moon Bear began in the unexplored jungles and small villages of Cambodia, where we photographed and collected hair samples from both black Moon Bears and the golden bears that have never before been described. Today we're in Thailand at a wildlife center south of Bangkok. We drive through a virtual sea of some 40 shaggy black Moon Bears, some of them 300 pounds, roaming free in a large outdoor enclosure. These bears were all rescued from the illegal trade in wild animals.

GALBREATH: I believe -- I haven't done an exact count -- but I think I've seen more Moon Bears in one day here than I've seen in my entire life, all the living Moon Bears I've seen elsewhere put together. So it's quite exciting for somebody who's interested in Moon Bears.

(A bear pants)

MONTGOMERY: But there are no blonde bears here. So we head to a site north of the city. We've heard of an adult Golden Moon Bear who lives here, the largest and blondest specimen of a creature who might represent the first new species of bear to be recorded in more than a century.

GALBRAITH: We're at Lop Buri Military Zoo in Lop Buri, Thailand, one of the oldest cities in this part of the world. And we're headed for the Moon Bear cage.

MONTGOMERY: This zoo is run by the Thai military. Officially it's called a special warfare center. But the soldiers here are keepers for an eclectic collection of animals, most of whom were rescued from the illegal trade in wild animals. Most were captured for pets or for ingredients in medicines and delicacies like bear paw soup.

(Bear sucking sounds)

GALBREATH: And here's a lovely -- a lovely creature: an almost completely blonde Moon Bear with a shaggy mane that has almost no black in it, and virtually none elsewhere. So this is the blondest Moon Bear to our knowledge anywhere, and there is another one that's about half black and half blond, snoozing or resting in the background here. She's a lovely bear. Basically this is a blonde bear, and this big, thick blonde mane, like a lion's but blonde, on the other side of the head. There's a Sun Bear here sucking its digits, as they are prone to do. And there are a bunch of other Moon Bears, mostly sitting or even sleeping in the background.

(Bear sucking sounds)

MONTGOMERY: This is the sound young bears make when they nurse. But these are adult bears, and yet they still make this sucking sound. We realize why. All seven bears were captured by poachers when young, their mothers probably killed. They still suck their paws for comfort, just like human babies suck their thumbs. One of the black Moon Bears here is called Stumpy. Poachers already cut off one of his feet for bear paw soup by the time he was rescued and brought to the zoo.

(Bear sucking sounds, barks)

MONTGOMERY: These bears spend much of their day in a spacious fenced area, with bathing pools and climbing platforms and plenty of shade. In the evening they return to their big indoor cage.

MAN: And you help me, when she walks inside, you just call this one.


(A gate shuts, is locked)


MAN: All right, now, we can do what you want.

MONTGOMERY: Their indoor enclosure has a squeeze cage, movable, lockable bars that allow you to immobilize an animal to give it shots or a veterinary exam. With the bear in the squeeze cage, I'm going to try to pull out some hair with my tweezers. When we get back to the States, we can have the follicles chemically tested to see how the DNA compares with that of our Cambodian bears, and help us determine whether the golden bears we're finding in Southeast Asia are a new species.

(Kissing sounds. A man calls, "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah...")

MONTGOMERY: All right?


MONTGOMERY: There are three. I'll get you some more.
One by one we take hair samples for each of the seven Moon Bears, blonde, light, and black.

(Scraping sounds)

MAN: Here you go!

MONTGOMERY: Okay, we've got another bear.
To make sense of the findings, though, it's essential to find out where the lighter-colored bears came from. We asked the zoo's director, Lieutenant Colonel Wirat Pupianji.

PUPIANJI: [speaks in Thai]

MONTGOMERY: Colonel Wirat tells us both the Golden Moon Bear and the pale-faced Moon Bear come from the same area, a mountainous region in the north near the border of Thailand and Laos. Plotted on a map, all our Golden Moon Bear sightings seem to occur along a line stretching 1,300 kilometers, from the Elephant Mountains in Cambodia through Laos and Thailand, up through Yunnan, China, where Gary first saw a Golden Bear 11 years ago. But what is the Golden Moon Bear? Whether we're on the track of a new species, a new subspecies, or a new color variation, we won't know till we get the hairs back to the States for the DNA tests.

(Voice on speaker: "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to United Airlines flight number 763...")

MONTGOMERY: Months later, Gary calls. He asks me to meet him and our Cambodian colleague Sun Hean in Chicago. Over dinner, he tells us what was found in the hair samples.

(Silverware clinks)

GALBREATH: Okay. They were sent to a laboratory at the University of Idaho, and I just -- well, just a few days ago, got information back that all the Cambodian samples were identical. Now, we looked at a particular strip of mitochondrial DNA...

MONTGOMERY: The bottom line: We do not have a new species. At first the news is a bit disappointing to Sun Hean and me. But, as Gary explains, what we have discovered is of considerable biological interest. It's what scientists call a new color phase. It's as if we found out that zebras come in red as well as black and white, or discovered a bunch of polar bears who are naturally brown instead of white. What's remarkable is none of these color variations have ever been described in the scientific literature before now.

HEAN: That is the point that we made for this thing.

MONTGOMERY: There's a lot more out there.

HEAN: A lot of them that we did not discover yet.

MONTGOMERY: This would be comparable to something like the white tigers in India. And there's others.

HEAN: I think one is the black leopard.


HEAN: And also, I heard some information from local people about white elephants.

MONTGOMERY: How could these Golden Moon Bears go unreported for so long? Cambodia's been a war zone for more than 20 years, and its borders heavily mined. Only recently have scientists begun to document its amazing wildlife. In the 1990s alone, researchers have reported no fewer than five new species of hoof mammals in and near Cambodia's borders. And this beautiful color variant to the Moon Bear managed to survive undocumented, until now.

HEAN: I think also that is the first scientific discovery that Cambodia's made after the 20 years of political and social situation.

MONTGOMERY: Our work begins a new partnership. There are more questions to be answered: Are the Golden Moon Bears found throughout Southeast Asia, or in just a couple of isolated populations? The DNA from the Cambodian bears was the same, but there were significant genetic differences among the Thai bears. Can we make evolutionary sense of that variation? And most importantly, can the bears and their habitat be protected? Gary Galbreath sees Cambodia as a land facing unique conservation challenges and unique opportunities.

GALBREATH: I think it is widely unrecognized the world over among conservationists just how much rainforest still exists in Cambodia, what amount of wildlife still exists there. I think the opportunities for preserving natural tropical ecosystems, rainforest ecosystems, over wide areas are maybe unparalleled in southern Asia. And the Golden Bear could color phase, even if it's not a species, a new color phase could very well become emblematic of conservation in Cambodia.

MONTGOMERY: It could be Cambodia's totem animal.

GALBREATH: Mm hm. Indeed. I would then like to propose a toast to the Golden Moon Bear expedition to Southeast Asia, and what was indeed the successful conclusion to it. We have answered the question we set out to ask, and we've come with new questions to ask, which is typical of good scientific research anywhere. So, to all of you.

MONTGOMERY: Here, here.

(Glasses clink)

GALBREATH: Yep. And to Sun Yin Hean.

HEAN: Okay.

For Living on Earth, I'm Sy Montgomery.



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