TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP
Four-month-old Sun bear Tasma licks Mary Hutton, founder of Free the Bears Fund, at Phnom Tamao zoo in Takeo province, March 19.
Phnom Tamao – Wildlife conservationists in Cambodia on March 19 opened Asia’s first centre to preserve local bear populations, under severe threat from poachers and exotic pet traders.
The Bear Discovery Centre hopes to promote awareness of the plight of Asia’s bears, said Mary Hutton, chairwoman and founder of the Australia-based Free the Bears Fund Inc (FTB).
“It is so important because not so many bears are left in the wild,” Hutton told AFP, saying their population was declining, although it is impossible to know how many bears remain.
The Asiatic black bear and Sun bear, both found throughout the region, are considered vulnerable, according to the World Conservation Union’s Red List of threatened species.
“There are not as many as there should be, and the Sun bears are on their way to becoming an endangered species,” Hutton said, adding that there are currently 88 bears at the Phnom Tamao Zoo, where the centre is based.
According to the FTB, which says it has rescued more than 100 bears from the wildlife trade in Cambodia, the animals are hunted in large numbers throughout Southeast Asia to feed growing demand for their parts to be used in restaurants.
More than 14,000 bears are also thought to be kept on farms in China and Vietnam where their bile is extracted and used for traditional medicine.
“This is a cruel and unnecessary practice, which should be replaced by modern medicine,” FTB said.
In other cases, adult bears are killed so that poachers can capture their cubs to sell to the exotic pet market, Hutton said.
A similar centre is expected to open in Vietnam later this year in a bid to expand conservation efforts, she added.
Bears are only one among many species of animals that have been decimated by Asia’s wildlife trafficking, which is fueled in large part by China’s massive appetite for exotic meats and other animal parts. (AFP)