BOOKS: Search for the Golden Moon Bear

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:

Search for the Golden Moon Bear

by Sy Montgomery
Chelsea Green Publishing (85 N. Main St., Suite 120, White River
Jct., Vermont 05001), 2002, 2009.
336 pages, paperback. $19.95.
No bear like the golden moon bear is known to science, says
Sy Montgomery–but science, so far, says the golden moon bear is
just a rare color morph of the Asiatic black bear, also known as the
moon bear for a crescent-shaped patch of light-colored chest fur.
Hoping that the golden moon bear might be a new species or a
subspecies, Montgomery and Northwestern University professor of
evolutionary biology Gary J. Galbreath in 1999 trekked through much
of Southeast Asia seeking material evidence. They found none, yet
Montgomery’s 2002 book Search for the Golden Moon Bear became a
cryptozoological classic. Rarely mentioned during the 40 years that
the U.S. had troops and aircraft in Southeast Asia, the golden moon
bear has become one of the best-known undocumented animals that
anyone still seriously contends might once have existed.

Few bears of any species remain in the dwindling forests of
Cambodia. Galbreath and Montgomery found bears mostly imprisoned in
rusty cages as roadside attractions, enduring a life of being poked
with sticks by visitors. Eventually most would be butchered. Some
would have several paws amputated for use in pricy stews first.
Founding the Free the Bears Fund in 1993, Mary Hutton of
Australia established a sanctuary in Cambodia in 1997, which has now
rescued 139 bears. The Free the Bears Fund also operates in
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia, working with the Hong
Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation and Wildlife SOS, of India, to
help bears throughout the region.
But Hutton et al had barely begun in 1999, when Galbreath
and Montgomery hiked through dense forests and steamy jungles,
searching for the elusive golden moon bear while discovering mostly
horror stories.
Whenever they found a possible golden moon bear, they
plucked hair for DNA testing to determine the species of the animal.
They met an intrepid U.S.-educated Cambodian conservationist
named Sun Hean, who helped them in their quest.
Still recovering from five years under the Khmer Rhouge
guerilla faction, 1975-1979, who killed nearly a third of the
human population of the nation, Cambodia remains desperately poor.
Cambodian life expectancy when Galbreath and Montgomery visited was
57 years, the lowest of any nation outside of Africa among the 221
nations included in the CIA Factbook. Cambodian life expectancy is
now 62, ahead of Laos but below North Korea.
Thailand is relatively affluent, but affluence has
stimulated the illegal wildlife traffic for which Bangkok has long
been notorious. Illicit logging destroys wildlife habitat and makes
the remaining animals more vulnerable to poachers. But Galbreath and
Montgomery were pleasantly surprised to find that the Thai Buddhist
culture retains teachings of reverence toward animals. Historically
Buddhist temples doubled as sanctuaries for animals in need. Many
have abandoned that role, while others have perverted it into
exhibiting chained elephants or caged tigers, but still others
continue to treat and care for discarded animals.
Galbreath and Montgomery observed that while Thai street dogs
were often mangy and thin, they rarely were taunted or teased.
Hair specimens from bears at the Lop Buri Zoo completed the
collection that Galbreath sent for DNA testing, upon return to the
U.S. Unconvinced by DNA results showing that the golden moon bear is
not a new species, Galbreath and Montgomery next interviewed members
of a Hmong community in Skokie, Illinois. The Hmong are a mountain
people living in some of the most remote parts of Vietnam, Laos,
and Cambodia. Thousands of Hmong who fought as U.S. allies during
the Vietnam War were airlifted to the U.S when Saigon fell to the
Viet Cong in 1975. Others escaped from Vietnam later as “boat
people.” Many Hmong still practice animal sacrifice. Montgomery and
Galbreath heard stories from the Hmong about golden moon bears, but
found no hard evidence.
“It seemed to both Gary and me that if there remained a new
species of bear to be discovered, it lived in remote mountains,”
wrote Montgomery. George Schaller, who has discovered several new
species in Southeast Asia, advised Galbreath and Montgomery to go to
the Annamite Mountains in Laos.
Laos, with an adult illiteracy rate of 31% and a high rate
of opium addiction as well, during the Vietnam War became the most
heavily bombed nation on Earth. About two million of the 6.3 million
tons of bombs that the U.S. dropped on Indochina landed in Laos.
Some that failed to detonate then are exploding now.
Laotian street vendors sell roasted rats and bats. Almost
anything that can be killed is eaten. The habitat is not promising
for golden moon bears.
Montgomery contended in conclusion that the scientific
studies she and Galbreath began in Cambodia produced new information
validating the existence of the golden moon bear. Time has not
affirmed her hope. Instead, Galbreath has become known for studies
disproving the species status of two storied Southeast Asian hooved
animals. The kouprey, the cow-like extinct national animal of
Cambodia, was a feral hybrid of the banteng and domesticated zebu
cattle, according to DNA evidence. The khting vor, another
cow-like animal known only from horn specimens, was a fake. The
spectacularly twisted horns were produced from ordinary cow horns by
human artisans. –Debra J. White

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