Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bear trade thrives despite efforts to end smuggling

Bear trade thrives despite efforts to end smuggling

Bear trade thrives despite efforts to end smuggling


Two new Sun Bear cubs have just arrived at Phnom Tamao zoo, rescued from wildlife traders. But they’re the lucky ones – many bears don’t escape

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Molly, a young sun bear who was rescued from wildlife traders, at her new home at Phnom Tamao zoo.

MILLIE, a 14-month-old sun bear, sits in the corner of her new enclosure, sucking her paw and letting out a constant, quiet whine. Her new playmate Mollie eagerly lunges at her but receives little reaction from the nervous cub who until recently was neglected, malnourished and chained by the neck to a tree.

The pair are two of the newest additions to the Free the Bears family, currently numbering 93 members, at Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Centre.

An average of 10 to 15 bears are confiscated per year from wildlife traders, restaurants and rich pet owners, according to Matt Hunt, Southeast Asia program manager for Free the Bears, an NGO that has been working in Cambodia since 1997 trying to eliminate the bear trade.

“Many more than this are taken from the wild each year,” Hunt said, “but unfortunately we cannot get to all of them”.

In the past, bears were hunted for traditional Khmer medicines. Bear paws, gall bladders containing bile, teeth and claws are still traded in Cambodia by hunters.

But according to Choun Vuthy, who has been working at Phnom Tamao for 11 years and is now their bear manager, the real market today is international.


I can’t understand why people would pay [$500 for bear paw soup]. they say it gives them power but what is power in cambodia?

Previously wild animal products, often referred to as “bush meat” were readily available and affordable for local people, he said. As wildlife numbers have declined in the region, these products have risen in value on the international market. Live Cambodian bears that are traded across the border are generally bound for bear bile farms in either Vietnam or China.

Bile is believed in many Asian cultures to cure a range of illnesses from high blood pressure to impotence.

Free the Bears estimates around 9,000 bears are living in bile farms throughout China, where they are kept alive for up to 10 years in tiny cages having bile removed twice daily via tubes or catheters inserted into their gall bladders.

Vuthy says that Cambodia’s Asiatic black bears are sought after by bear bile farmers. Sun bears are smaller and produce significantly less bile.

Instead, full-grown sun bears are generally killed, their teeth, claws, paws and gall bladder removed and sold, and their meat eaten locally.

Cubs are captured and either exported or sold within Cambodia as exotic pets.

A brutal trade

Capturing the bear cubs means killing the mother as well. “A mother bear will fight to protect her baby until she dies,” Choun Vuthy said.

Local wildlife experts say Cambodia is not known to have had a bile farm. However, bear paws remain highly sought after for a traditional soup that was once easy to find. Choun Vuthy told the Post that in the last few years a government crackdown has driven the trade underground and the delicacy can only be found in a handful of restaurants at a rumored price of around US$500 per bowl.

“I can’t understand why people would pay this price,” he said. “They say it gives them power, but what is power in Cambodia? Power is a big gun and a lot of money. You don’t find that at the bottom of a $500 bowl of bear paw soup.”

To capture Cambodia’s bears, snares are commonly used because they are cheap and easy to make.  A snare can be set up for around 2,000 riels using just a motorbike brake cable and a few branches.

Choun Vuthy said the poachers don’t care if they injure the bear. “Bile farms buy them in any condition as they generally have vets to keep injured bears alive,” he said.

Getting better

Things have improved dramatically for Cambodia’s wildlife since a government team was set up in 2001. The task force, known as the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT), has enforced new wildlife trading laws and has significantly decreased the availability of wildlife products locally and in cross-border trade.

Often offences are committed by poor local families hoping to catch meat for the family or wildlife products for trading.

In these cases, wildlife products are confiscated, but these local hunters are not the real target, Hunt said, it is the traders that travel to these poor villages sourcing wildlife that WRRT are after.

Article 93 of the Forestry Law imposes five- to ten-year prison sentence for trafficking black bears.

For sun bears, the penalty is between one and five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 100 million riels. But according to Annette Olsson

of wildlife NGO Conservation International (CI), the vast majority of cases do not result in conviction.

CI found that out of 268 sample cases between 2001 and 2005, only seven were convicted and one resulted in imprisonment.

Olsson says enforcement has not improved, despite recent upgrades to ranger training.

Traders keep their hands clean, she said. The real work is done by the trappers and transporters, so catching traders “red-handed” can take months to investigate and plan, she said.

When traders are caught, the corruption-ridden court system is ill-equipped to deliver convictions.

It is this international trade that is threatening Cambodia’s bears with extinction.

For Phnom Tamao residents like Millie and Mollie, their future will be in captivity, but Hunt says Free the Bears is looking to establish a release program for confiscated bears.


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