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Bears clawing back to health

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Ploy, a six-month-old sun bear, is looked after by Chuon Vuthy, Cambodia project manager for the NGO Free the Bears, at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre outside Phnom Penh on Wednesday.

Coaxed out from the corner of her enclosure with the promise of honey, Ploy the sun bear squats on her hind legs, displaying on her chest the vivid crest of yellow fur distinctive to her species. 

Like all Malayan sun bears, Ploy is energetic and personable, greeting her handler with raised paws and an expectant nuzzle.  Six months old and weighing barely 25 kilogrammes, Ploy arrived at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre on Tuesday afternoon after being confiscated from a hotel in Stung Treng province where she was kept as a pet.

Despite being housed in a hotel room and fed exclusively on rice porridge and baby formula, Ploy may have fared better than other bears ensnared in Southeast Asia’s notorious wildlife trade, worth up to US$20 billion annually by some estimates.

Kept as pets to demonstrate wealth and status, sun bears held captive in Cambodia are often locked in cages no larger than two square metres, said Emma Gatehouse, volunteer coordinator and technical adviser for the NGO Free the Bears. The group works with Ploy and the other 111 bears currently housed at Phnom Tamao.

“We have bears here that are blind, some that are missing limbs from when they’ve been caught in snares, some that arrive with severe behaviour issues such as pacing, self-mutilating, and bar-biting,” Gatehouse said.  

Many of the bears, donated by or confiscated from private individuals and wildlife traders, arrive at the centre with patchy coats and permanently stunted growth, she added.  

Before being integrated with the rest of the bears at the centre, Ploy will need to undergo a month-long quarantine process to prevent the spread of disease.  After a month of isolation and strict hygiene protocol, Ploy will then be paired off with another bear in preparation for life among the general population.  

“It’s important that [the bears] get a friend before being introduced to the group,” Gatehouse explained.

The bear was collected Monday by the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, a programme run jointly by NGO Wildlife Alliance and the Forestry Administration that is tasked with cracking down on illegal wildlife traders and collecting donated animals across the country.

The owners of the bear, apparently ignorant of Cambodia’s law forbidding private possession of exotic wildlife, were cooperative once informed of the statute, Gatehouse said.  

Vutay Ravong, project manager for the Rescue Team, said that the owners had even accompanied the bear on its long overland journey to Phnom Tamao.  

“They wanted to make sure that the bear was well taken care of because they love the bear very much,” he said.  

Sun bears like Ploy make up roughly two thirds of the centre’s ursine population, the remainder being Asiatic black bears. While sun bears are traded primarily as pets, black bears are harvested for their bile, a traditional medicine that some believe is useful in fighting everything from inflammation to dandruff.

The bile can be collected by connecting a catheter directly to the bear’s gallbladder, Gatehouse said, or simply by knocking the bear out with ketamine and “poking around with a dirty syringe.”

Though no known bear farms exist in Cambodia, poachers often attempt to acquire bears in the Kingdom to supply bile farms in Vietnam and Laos.  Gatehouse described conditions on these farms are unsanitary and inhumane, calling it “a blessing in disguise” that most farmed bears only reach a third of their natural life expectancy.  

Added to tonics, soaps, and even toothpastes, bear bile is consumed locally or exported to meet voracious demand in China and South Korea.

Free the Bears has responded with a campaign to educate people across the region about the harms of the illegal wildlife trade.  Schools and orphanages are invited to the sanctuary at Phnom Tamao to “witness natural bear behaviour” and learn about their histories.  

Most of the bears at Phnom Tamao can expect to live out their days inside the fences of the sanctuary’s leafy enclosures, too tame or stunted to ever survive in the wild.  

Some, though, may receive a second chance.  On May 4, two sun bears were brought from Phnom Tamao to a large, fenced-in tract of forest in the Cardamom Mountains, where they will forage for food and adapt to life outside the sanctuary.  

“We’re hoping within the year to release them back into the wild,” Gatehouse said.  “They’ve still got those wild instincts.”  

Pending the project’s success, Free the Bears plans to expand its release programme.  With a little luck, Ploy may finally return to her natural habitat.

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