Why Cambodia leads the way in rescuing captive bears

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Story highlights

Rescuers from Free the Bears rescue caged bears across Cambodia

Many bears will end up in bear bile farms, and subjected to cruel “milking” methods

Cambodia is leading the way in bear rescues in Asia

Demand for bear bile in Chinese traditional medicine feeds trade


For Nev Broadis, it’s important to act fast when a call comes to rescue a bear cub from the other side of Cambodia.

“There’s a vulnerable animal in distress up to nine or 10 hours away, so there’s a sense of urgency to get there as soon as possible,” says Broadis, the regional director of Australian non-profit Free the Bears. “You put emotions on hold and start mobilizing – readying equipment, cages, everything we might need.”

Free the Bears has been in Cambodia 17 years and in that time has rescued 182 bears, an average of nearly one a month. Some come from private residences, others from wildlife traffickers or even garment factories. The condition in which they find them “is extremely variable.”

“We had cubs come in [in August] that were just one week old, and they are now doing very well, considering,” he says, referring to twin sun bear cubs nicknamed “Jammy” and “Donut.”

Sun bear cub 'Jammy'' is weighed at the Bear Quarantine Center at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.

“Then recently we had one bear arrive in such bad condition that it died as soon as we moved it from the crate and onto the operating table – even though we had five emergency vets there.”

Rescuing Number 182

The bear they raced off to rescue from the Samlaut district near the Thai border in western Cambodia was a five-month-old endangered moon bear.

Known by his processing tag as Rescue Number 182, the male cub was in reasonable shape despite being somewhat malnourished and carrying an injury thought to have been inflicted by a snare.

“When the hunters came along to check the snare, the mum would have left and the hunters would have taken the bear cub,” says Broadis, as he works to pacify the stressed animal with clucking sounds to imitate its absent mother. “But there’s no sign of any wound or any blood now. It’s healed over very nicely actually.”

Nev Broadis tries to calm the moon bear cub, known as Rescue Number 182.

Broadis says most animals arriving at Free the Bears’ sanctuary outside the capital Phnom Penh are cubs, some of which were intercepted while being trafficked to so-called “bear farms” in neighboring Vietnam and Laos, where they are caged and their bile extracted in a painful process.

Bear bile is a source of Ursodeoxycholic acid, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat everything from gallstones to muscle aches. Excess stock is used in toothpaste and shampoo. It’s estimated that 13,000 bears are currently held captive in bear bile farms across Asia.

Broadis reckons that would likely have been this young bear’s fate.

Joint Effort

Although on this occasion Free the Bears fetched the cub, that work more often falls on the shoulders of the country’s Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT), a counter-trafficking program whose operations are supported by U.S. non-profit Wildlife Alliance.

The WRRT, which is comprised of government officials, military police and Wildlife Alliance staff, operates a hotline for members of the public to report the illegal trade in wildlife. It also inspects markets, restaurants and border crossings and runs a network of informants.

In the most recent quarter, the WRRT carried out more than 60 operations confiscating hundreds of trafficked animals, among them two moon bears and dozens of macaques. The bears were taken to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, a 2,300-hectare government-owned facility south of Phnom Penh, where they joined more than 130 bears currently under Free the Bears’ care.

WRRT’s proactive approach was lauded recently by wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC in a report that assessed more than a decade of Asia’s trade of live bears and of bear parts such as paws, meat and bile.

Cambodia leads Asian bear seizures

TRAFFIC says Cambodia led 16 other Asian nations in the number of seizures: 190 in total, of which 156 were live bears. By comparison, Russia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and India managed just 189 seizures between them.

TRAFFIC’s data shows more than 2,800 bears were trafficked in Asia between 2000 and 2011, but says the true number was far higher. And it warns that three of the four bears unique to Asia in the Ursidae family – sun bears, moon bears and sloth bears – face “illegal and unsustainable hunting for trade.”

Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s regional director for South-East Asia, says the trade “is huge [and] it’s threatening the native bear species.” The problem is compounded by widespread government inaction.

“Enforcement in a number of places, especially in a number of major trade centers, is really lacking, if it exists at all,” says Shepherd, adding that the solution lies in large part in better enforcement, education efforts and raising public awareness – something that non-profits such as Animals Asia and Free the Bears also undertake.

“When it comes to bears [Cambodia is] definitely doing more than most – I mean it’s not perfect but it definitely is a model that’s getting results,” he says.

A new home

It was early evening when Broadis and his team arrived back at Phnom Tamao, handing over Rescue Number 182 to Free the Bears’ quarantine center manager Kem Sun Heng.

Broadis says that on the way out of Samlaut, a place of subsistence farming and red earth roads in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains, he was struck by the fact that villagers were not surprised to see a bear on the back of a pick-up. That implies trafficking remains common, he says, “and that’s sad.”

Getting Rescue Number 182 back safely after 850 kilometers of appalling roads, on the other hand, was a relief, partly because the team knows “it’s one less bear going to its death” at a bear bile facility.

“There aren’t many moon bears left in the wild; they’ve been heavily trafficked to neighboring countries and their population has been decimated,” he says. “So when we talk about losing an individual, that’s important for that particular species too, whether it’s a moon bear or a sun bear.”

As Number 182 was coaxed into his den, the center’s two smallest arrivals were snoozing in a nearby room after a meal of milk. Twin sun bear cubs “Jammy” and “Donut” were just days old when villagers’ dogs scared off their mother from her nest in Cambodia’s remote north-east.

Cambodian keeper Kem Sun Heng feeds sun bear cubs

Taking care of the endangered bears is a huge challenge not least because while young they remain vulnerable to infections. But under Heng’s expert care, and three-hourly feeding sessions, the sisters are getting heavier: they are now eight weeks old and weigh more than four pounds apiece.

“They are good,” says Heng during one feeding session. “They are growing well, they are healthy, they are eating well and they are very playful.”

For his part, Number 182 will spend the coming weeks alone in his den undergoing a battery of health checks to ensure he doesn’t introduce diseases to the rest of the bear population. Eventually he will be released into a large enclosure with other rescued moon bears.

“We’ve put some branches in there and he’s got a hammock and he’s got two guys who are going to look after him, so he’ll be fine,” says Broadis. “The future’s looking bright for this little cub.”

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