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Saving the sun bears


He knows each of the bears at the rescue centre by name, and they know him by sight.

“If they see you one or two times they remember you, especially if you are bringing food,” explains Choun Vuthy, who seems to have been born smiling and never stopped since.

Vuthy has been caring for Sun and Asiatic Black bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre since 1997, when there were only six.

Now there are 118.

The two most recent arrivals – Tina and her brother Santiago – are also the youngest: about three-and-a-half-months old. They remain in a cub nursery, though a small outdoor enclosure was opened for them last Saturday to provide them with a new environment to explore.

Vuthy kept a distance from them, fearing they might catch the cold he had that day. His face, however, lit up as he watched them climb the post in the centre of their new playground, and rummage around the banana tree.

“Tina is more social. She’s more outgoing. Santiago is still a bit shy around people,” Vuthy says.

The two cubs had been found in the forest near a village in Rattanakiri province. The villagers who found them said they had been abandoned by their mother, Matt Hunt, CEO of Free the Bears Asia, says.

“What that usually means is the mother was killed, eaten and her paws sold in Vietnam to make bear-paw soup,” Hunt explains casually.

Like Vuthy, Hunt swiftly became engrossed in the enthusiastic cavorting Tina and Santiago got up to, noting their swift desire to explore and play as a positive sign of adjustment.

“We try to motivate them to be independent, to get them to move from one enclosure to the next,” Vuthy explains. Often this means changing feeding times and locations so that the bears don't get stuck in routine.

"It's important to make sure you train the bears and they don't train you," Vuthy says.

He and Hunt were also seeing the cubs for the last time before flying to Amsterdam to receive a global award.

On Thursday, Vuthy became the first Cambodian to win the Future for Nature Award, which includes a 50,000 euro prize.

He was selected from more than 60 applicants from more than 30 countries, says Hunt, who nominated Vuthy for his “dedication to protect Sun bears in Cambodia over the past 15 years”.

Vuthy, Cambodia program manager for Free the Bears Asia, was quite nervous about the PowerPoint presentation he would have to give before an audience of about 400 at the conference preceding the awards ceremony.

He said he felt as nervous as the rescued bears felt when they first arrived at the centre.

“I’ve never done one before a large group before,” he added, explaining that he had not been fond of high school and formal settings. He’d learned more from bears than he did from teachers.

He was not quite sure where the Netherlands was – “it’s somewhere in Europe” – and did not seem to really care. His mind was on the bears.

Save the Bears had lost a substantial amount of funding last month, just three days before learning Vuthy had won the award, and the euros would come in handy for three projects, including an educational component seen as key to ensuring the endangered bears do not become what Hunt describes as “genetically extinct” in the wild.

Some of the bears that arrive at the centre had been caught in traps; their paws so mangled amputation is required.

Others were pets that grew too hard to handle when they grew from cubs into adults and started to bite their owners.

When they first arrive they are put into quarantine to check for tuberculosis, parasites and other diseases often picked up from dogs.

They are also provided with food enriched with vitamins and minerals, as well as milk powder. As pets, they’re often fed rice and sugary foods, Vuthy explains.

He’s impressed with their cleverness, noting that within two days they usually learn how to pull on the lever that makes water flow from a tap, allowing them to drink whenever thirsty.

After quarantine they are gradually introduced to other bears.

This sometimes causes a bit of sparring because the bears have very individual personalities and have to establish a pecking order.

“Some are nasty, some are nice,” Vuthy explains.

“The situation they face in the enclosure is that they want to be dominant. They want to act tough to the others. There’s a bit of fighting, but once they select the dominant one the fighting decreases and the stress goes away,” he explains. “They’re just like people.”

Male and female bears of both species are kept in separate enclosures: generally, in groups of three to five, with female bears kept in larger groups.

One bear, Win, who was rescued from a military base in Preah Vihear in October by a rapid response team set up by Wildlife Alliance and Forestry Administration officials, is now in a nursery with two other Sun bears who are about his age: Oscar and Fortnum.

The bears are named by sponsors who donate US$3,000 per year to “the world’s biggest sanctuary for the world’s smallest bear species – the Sun bear”.

Vuthy says he noticed increasing awareness of the need to protect their habitat, and said his hopr was that “in the future Cambodians would increasingly treasure their environment, including forests and animals, with the full support of the government”.

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