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

Golden Moon Bear

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery ventures to Cambodia in search of a magnificent bear with a golden coat sighted in the mountains. She hopes to learn if this is a new species, a mutant, or just a variation of a more common bear.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A group of astronomers reported this month that for the first time, they have found direct evidence of a planet orbiting another star. The discovery is a remarkable moment in our exploration of the universe and the possibility of life on other worlds. But as we approach the new millennium, we're finding that there is an awful lot we still don't know about our own little planet. Scientists have been surprised, for instance, at the recent discoveries of large mammals never before known to western science in the isolated jungles of Southeast Asia. Sy Montgomery recently joined an expedition to Cambodia to document one such animal: a bear with a coat of gold.


MONTGOMERY: I'm doing something my mother told me never to do. I'm sticking my hands inside a cage with a bear in it. And I'm trying to pluck out some of its hair with eyebrow tweezers.

SUN HEAN: Uh uh.


SUN HEAN: Uh uh.

MONTGOMERY: I didn't get follicle.

SUN HEAN: Uh uh. He's angry now.

MONTGOMERY: Unfortunately bears don't always cooperate.

SUN HEAN: Wait, wait.


MONTGOMERY: Here comes another hand.

SUN HEAN: Be careful.

(The bear growls)

MONTGOMERY: Still, it's a small risk to take for what could be a huge payoff. The DNA in the hairs my partners and I are collecting may help document the existence of a creature that, until now, has remained hidden in the forested mountains of southeast Asia. A Golden Moon bear.

SUN HEAN: I saw that bear in 1997.

MONTGOMERY: That's Sun Hean , the energetic deputy director of wildlife protection for the nation of Cambodia. I met Sun Hean while he was in the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship, and he told me he had seen a bear unlike any other in Southeast Asia. It was on a palm plantation in southwestern Cambodia, he says. A shaggy bear, with prominent ears, dark eye rings, and an astonishing golden coat.

SUN HEAN: I had never seen the bear that has such kind of color. I also have a question mark in myself about, you know, is that a new species or what?

MONTGOMERY: Meanwhile, a biology professor I knew from Northwestern University had the same question about an extraordinary bear he'd seen years before in Yunnan, China. Gary Galbreath told me the only big bears thought to live in tropical China are jet black, with a white crescent moon on the chest. But the one he saw had a coat of gold.

GALBREATH: If it had only been the one bear in Yunnan , it could always just be written off as an abnormal bear.

MONTGOMERY: Gary Galbreath's green eyes lit up when I told him about Sun Hean's bear. He had to go to Cambodia to see for himself, and I was to go along.

GALBREATH: Oh, I was very excited. Now that we know that such bears can be found and over a very substantial area of land in Southeast Asia, this means that either we're looking at a color phase, or something of the sort, which is important to document, or we are looking at a new species of bear, which would be a major biological discovery.

MONTGOMERY: No fewer than five new mammals have been discovered in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. After three decades of war, scientists are only now beginning to explore Cambodia for new species. It's easy to see why. Not only do its jungles harbor malarial mosquitos, poisonous snakes, and dangerous tigers, but some eight million unexploded land mines dot the landscape. And bandits, we're told, can also make travel risky.

(Traffic; a car door opens, closes)

MONTGOMERY: Gary and I meet Sun Hean in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. We carefully map our routes, prepare our gear, and within days we're on the road.

SUN HEAN: Ready to go?

(Another door closes)

MONTGOMERY: We have tweezers, we have gloves, we have everything.


(Several voices speak at once)

MONTGOMERY: We're on the move.

(Cambodian music plays on a radio)

MONTGOMERY: With Sun Hean at the wheel, the crumbling streets and bustling traffic of Phnom Penh soon give way to lush rice fields, where water buffalo pull plows and bicycle-drawn carts carry pigs and chickens to market. We're heading to Kompong Som , a coastal town about 120 kilometers southwest of the capital, to see the bear Sun Hean has spotted at the palm plantation. A soldier caught this bear and, because of its unusual color, presented it to the plantation owner as a gift.

(A door shuts)

MONTGOMERY: We find it in a spacious fenced area full of shady plants just inside the compound.


MONTGOMERY: Is this the cage?

SUN HEAN: Yes. Right there.

MONTGOMERY: Oh my gosh!

GALBREATH: It appears, although there are some black hairs here and there, it appears to be basically blond, but with a black mane.

MONTGOMERY: We have a number of errands to accomplish here. We need to take photos and video of the Golden Moon bear, and we have to pull out some of its hair. The live cells at the base of the hair can be chemically tested to determine if this bear is genetically different from the common Black Moon bear species. But our bear, a young female, is sound asleep in the 95-degree heat. Luckily, I lugged from the States two surefire bear lures: a bag of marshmallows and a can of condensed milk.

(Makes smacking sounds)

MONTGOMERY: Here she comes, Gary.

GALBREATH: Yeah, I see.

MONTGOMERY: Here she comes. Hi, pretty.

(Lapping sounds)

MONTGOMERY: The bear likes the sweet milk so much that Sun Hean decides to enlarge the opening of the can so she can lick it faster. But the bear thinks the service is too slow. Her blond head lunges between the bars.

SUN HEAN: Oh! Come...

GALBREATH: Did you get cut?

MONTGOMERY: Are you bleeding?

SUN HEAN: I don't know. Nope.

MONTGOMERY: No. No cut, just a little anxious nip. Hey, Gar, if you come over here,I'm going to pull another hair out.

(Lapping sounds; a clanging on the bar)

MONTGOMERY: Got it. Excellent. Great. Hold it, you hold it. Hold it. Oh God, that's like the most gorgeous follicle in the world. Fantastic.
Our scientific haul for the day: dozens of photos, streams of video, copious notes, and eight precious bear hairs.

(A car engine starts up; beeps; music)

GALBREATH: That was very successful. A wonderful visit. I couldn't be more pleased.

MONTGOMERY: Still, it's just a start. Now we need to find a common Black Moon bear, collect some of its hairs, and compare the DNA with our Golden Moon bear.

GALBREATH: If we have here from a black-colored Moon Bear, from reasonably close geographically, so it can be assumed to be from the same population, then we can ask the question: Is the amount of difference we see in the mitochondrial DNA compatible with these two bears being from the same breeding population or not? If the answer is no, then we may well be looking at two species. If the answer is yes, then it's somewhat ambiguous, but at least it's easier to support the idea that they're from the same population.

MONTGOMERY: Black Moon bears are fairly common in this region. In fact, many are kept as pets at hotels to entertain tourists.

(Sun Hean speaks in Cambodian)

MONTGOMERY: At a local market we hear that a Black Moon bear was just caught by a hunter in the nearby Elephant Mountain range.

SUN HEAN: He said the bear was caught in there, and they got back.


SUN HEAN: Yes, just now. Yesterday.

MONTGOMERY: Yesterday!



SUN HEAN: So now he's going to see the trap, maybe get the bear.

MONTGOMERY: The only way to find out is to go see. The bear is being held at a campin the Elephant Mountains, one of the largest stretches of jungle remaining in Southeast Asia. We have hired a guide, as travel in this region is strongly discouraged without one, due to land mines and bandits. But for now, the monsoon rains are our main concern. The daily downpours have turned the dirt paths muddy and treacherous.

(Walking through water)

GALBREATH: There's a piece of log in the middle. Be sure you don't slip on it.

MONTGOMERY: These mountains are named for the elephants, which abound in its jungles. Tigers, Moon and Sun bears, barking deer, and a host of other exotic creatures also live here. As it turns out, though, our first wildlife encounter is with a creature a bit further down the food chain.


MONTGOMERY: Oh, man! Wait till you see this, Gary! (Laughs)


MONTGOMERY: Can you describe this specimen?

GALBREATH: It's a leech about the length of my index finger.

MONTGOMERY: Oh my God, it's a foot long. (Laughs) It's thicker than a man's thumb. It's green on the bottom. And it's brown on the top with a black stripe down the middle. But the thing that strikes you the most is the great vigor with which it moves toward Gary's foot.


GALBREATH: Boy, I can feel the suction. Very intriguing.

MONTGOMERY: We resume our hike into the Elephant ranges and leeches become the least of our worries.

(Guide speaks in Cambodian)

MONTGOMERY: Our guide shares with us something he failed to mention earlier. A month ago he was kidnapped near here, beaten, and held for ransom. Now, he tells us he's spotted three men he doesn't recognize, and that has him and his helper concerned about our safety.

SUN HEAN: They're worried about us.

MONTGOMERY: They're worried about us, because we are targets.


GALBREATH: I wish we had a gun. Well, anyway --

SUN HEAN: If you have gun, they also have gun.


SUN HEAN: Long gun. Strong gun.

GALBREATH: I still wish, anyway.

(Animal calls)

MONTGOMERY: Our guide loses sight of the strangers, and after some discussion we decide to push ahead, cautiously.


MONTGOMERY: After an hour's hike, we reach the camp where the Black Moon bear is supposed to be. But it's difficult to find it among the menagerie.

(Bird calls)

MONTGOMERY: So the bear is here, Sun.

SUN HEAN: I think two animals. The barking --

MONTGOMERY: Oh my gosh! It's a muntjac in there.


SUN HEAN: Oh yes. It is a black bear.

MONTGOMERY: Look, it is a black bear! Baby.

GALBREATH: It's a lovely bear.

(More animal calls)

GALBREATH: The only question is whether we can get a few hairs from this guy.

MONTGOMERY: We're pros at this now, and have no trouble from the shy little black bear cub in her tiny cage.

(To Galbreath) Do you want to hold onto this, and I'll tweeze. You've got it.

GALBREATH: Very nice.



MONTGOMERY: Our errand complete, we head deeper into the jungle. So far we've only seen Moon bears in cages. We long to explore the rainforest habitat, where these spectacular animals roam free.


MONTGOMERY: But it's raining now so hard that spotting the tracks of wild animals on these trails is near impossible.

(To Sun Hean) So, do you think we should turn back?

SUN HEAN: I think we should turn back, and we try our trip tomorrow to Koh Kong.

MONTGOMERY: Sun Hean plans an expedition into the rainforest of the Cardamom Mountains that lie to the north. A day's travel by ferry across the Gulf of Siam. We overnight at Koh Kong , and when we meet Sun Hean for breakfast the next morning, he tells us that our entourage now includes five soldiers armed with AK-47s, and an officer from the Forestry Department.


SUN HEAN: So we don't worry about kidnap, you know, or something like that.

MONTGOMERY: No kidnappers today.


MONTGOMERY: Okay, great. Fearless leader, are we off?

(An engine starts up)

MONTGOMERY: Our motorcycles roar off into the rain. Soon the smooth town road gives way to a red, rutted, slippery gash bulldozed into the mountain. This logging road is new, and Sun Hean tells me and Gary that we are the second group of foreigners ever to enter this rainforest. On either side of us, a seemingly impenetrable wall of bamboo, snaking vines, and ancient trees.

GALBREATH: Absolutely magnificent rainforest that we're driving through. The downside is that this road is cutting through the heart of Cambodia's last great wilderness. It's a logging concession road. It opens the forest to logging and hunting all along the way, right through the middle of this huge block of primeval forest. Of course, it's allowing us to travel, so perhaps I'm being a hypocrite.

MONTGOMERY: We spend the rest of the day exploring the forest, and soon discover we're far from alone in this once-remote land. Logging has brought people here, and while civilian guns are outlawed almost everyone we see has one. The guns, and the ubiquitous leg traps, make efficient hunting tools. At one camp we find a stack of seven dead barking deer, the pelt of a rare Asian wild dog, the skull of a turtle, and the drying gallbladders of wild pigs and possibly bears. As we're soon to find, hunters can make a small fortune at the burgeoning market for body parts of these wild animals in Cambodia's capital.

(Milling voices; traffic)

MONTGOMERY: We're back in Phnom Penh, on Rue 166, an ordinary looking market on an ordinary street. Sun Hean takes us to number 47. It's an open storefront where fluorescent light bounces off a tiled floor to illuminate the merchandise.
SUN HEAN: Two dyed tiger skin, and one elephant penis, six elephant tails, four sand deer skull, and two pair of tiger fang, and a lot of -- the fang, I don't know. May be bear or leopard or the cat species.

MONTGOMERY: Can you tell us a little bit about what these things are all for?

SUN HEAN: They go in to trade that to Vietnam, to Thailand, for much money.

MONTGOMERY: Is any of this legal?

SUN HEAN: All illegal.

MONTGOMERY: Cambodia's wildlife protection office is trying to introduce new laws to stop this activity. It's only part of the huge challenge Sun Hean and his colleagues face, as Cambodia emerges from decades of foreign invasion and civil war with the Khmer Rouge.

SUN HEAN: Before we had Khmer Rouge, we can say an expression that Khmer Rouge help us to safeguard the animal. Because when we had Khmer Rouge in the forest, then the local people, the hunter, cannot go to hunt the animal. The positive thing that we had war. But now, war is finished, so the people have a lot of freedom to come into the forest. And they can do anything like hunting, trapping, any job they can do in the forest they do.

MONTGOMERY: War, it appears, may have inadvertently preserved a hidden Eden of East Asia's wildlife, including species that Gary tells us are only now being discovered.

GALBREATH: The best example is this primitive ox, called a kiting vor. There's anecdotal evidence that it may exist in many parts of the rainforested hills of Cambodia. And yet with hunting pressures being what they are, it may be wiped out in many of those areas before it is viewed, before it is even found, before anyone can conserve it. As we are discovering new species, they are new species that are essentially heavily threatened or endangered at the moment they are found.

(Cambodian music plays)

MONTGOMERY: Our last night in Cambodia, Sun Hean takes Gary and me to a karaoke bar. We won't see Sun Hean again for months, and as a farewell he sings for us a traditional Cambodian love song.

(Sun Hean sings)

SUN HEAN: I had a great time with you both here, you know, for these few weeks' work. And I'm really happy, and I hope that in the future we can work more, basically on bear conservation programs here. So to you all the best, welcome.

(Singing continues)

MONTGOMERY: Gary and I leave for Thailand the next morning. Since we began planning our southeast Asian trip, we've heard that more light-colored bears have been seen there. If those reports are true, it could mean that Golden Moon bears can be found in a broad swath stretching thousands of miles from southwestern Cambodia into tropical China. We'll soon find out. But for now, it's time to relax, celebrate the success of our current expedition, and toast the promise the future may hold.

MONTGOMERY AND GALBREATH: (Singing) In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the Moon Bear sleeps tonight. In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the Moon Bear sleeps tonight.

MONTGOMERY: For Living on Earth, I'm Sy Montgomery in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

(Montgomery and Galbreath continue singing)

CURWOOD: Later this winter, we'll find out the results of the DNA testing. And whether Sy Montgomery and her colleagues have in fact identified a new species of bear.

MONTGOMERY AND GALBREATH: (Singing) Near the village, the quiet village, the moon bear sleeps tonight. Whee-oo-whee-oo, whee-um-um-a-way.



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