REVIEW: ''Search for the Golden Moon Bear'' by Sy Montgomery

  • Updated: January 4, 2003 - 10:00 PM


Search for the Golden Moon Bear

By: Sy Montgomery. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26. Review: This haunting account of travels through the forests of southeast Asia captures the spirit of place -- and the difficulties facing those who would preserve the region's wildlife.

Reviewed by Stephen Bodio

Special to the Star Tribune

In this haunting book, author Sy Montgomery and a scientist friend search southeast Asia for what might be a new species of bear in the richest forests of the world. She finds human tragedy and disappearing animals.

Illegal wildlife trade is the second-largest illicit traffic after drugs Yet, with heart and humor, Montgomery evokes the delights as well as the devastation in countries like Cambodia and Laos. In "Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species" she faces down fevers, stinging ants and the threat of kidnapping to find that, despite the Chinese "medicine" business, unsustainable logging, and the ravages of war, magical creatures still exist.

They go first to Cambodia, where her companion, Dr. Gary Galbreath, had glimpsed a peculiar moon bear, golden instead of the usual black. Cambodia is still recovering from the genocide of the 1970s. While it has a group of dedicated native conservationists, it is still a desperately poor place. When they ask Sun Hean, the deputy director of the Cambodian Wildlife Protection office, if there is anything his people would not eat, he answers "vultures."

Traveling through Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, they find bears kept as pets, bears in zoos and bears in "rescue" sanctuaries. More ominously, they hear again and again of bears kept in restaurants and gall-bladder farms. In restaurants, one paw at a time is amputated from a live bear, to keep the meat fresh. In the farms, a tube is inserted into the bear to drain the gall, and left there. Bear gall and parts are so valuable that "40 live sun and moon bears were smuggled out of Thailand into South Korea, where their meat, blood, and gall bladders were used to fortify the Korean 1988 Olympic team." Her verdict is grim: "For its innocent residents, this Eden has become a hell."

Hunting, for food and income by poor people, is more understandable. Although she is a vegetarian, Montgomery calls the Cambodian law against all hunting, even for food, "absurd." Sun Hean and his staff "have wisely harnessed the hunters as a resource: because hunters trust and like them . . hunters' honest answers to interviews have provided conservationists with an important preliminary picture of the ubiquity, methods and importance of hunting."

Montgomery does not shy from the horrors, but she paints a sensuous picture of the beauties of the region and its animals, especially its magnificent bears. She also enjoys its absurdities: the activist who has to sign a document saying he has no right to sign documents; dishwashers bought by well-meaning conservationists for a sanctuary with no electricity or running water; a dish called "Tasteless Boiling Soup."

Montgomery and Galbreath make two trips to Asia, taking hair samples of the bears for DNA testing, trying to see whether the glorious golden individuals are a new species or a variation. In the end, results are ambiguous, as is the destiny of bears and other wildlife in southeast Asia.

-- Stephen Bodio's nonfiction books include "Querencia" and "On the Edge of the Wild." He lives in New Mexico.

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