THE chance rescue of a 6 week-old sun bear cub by Global Witness (GW) investigators
in Mondulkiri province, close to the Vietnamese border, has turned a spotlight on
the rampant trade in wildlife in Cambodia - and the difficulties the country faces
in protecting its endangered species.
En route to the Dac Dam border checkpoint to investigate illegal logging, GW members
Charmian Gooch and Simon Taylor stopped at a roadside dwelling where they were shown
the young cub imprisoned in a box.
"The woman there said she had been breast-feeding the bear. We were told that
a small boy had found the bear in the forest, but we felt dubious," recalled
The proximity of the bear to the border and the presence of a Chinese wildlife trader
in the area - who, as the GW later discovered, was also on the hunt for 24 baby elephants
- convinced Gooch and Taylor that the bear was bound for the soup pot.
"We felt the outcome for this bear was to become cooked in various ways,"
Taylor said wryly.
The Malaysian Sun Bear (helarctos malayanus) - protected from hunting and export
by a 1992 Ministry of Agriculture order and included on the Convention on the International
Trade in Endangered Species, which Cambodia is also set to join - is considered a
delicacy by Chinese consumers in particular, for its paws and gall bladder.
Extraction of these parts from the bear often involves great cruelty, according to
Taylor, who explained that the gall bladder and the bile are viewed as a "highly
esteemed Chinese medicine". Bear bile reportedly sells at about $100 per gram
"Often a steel tube is inserted into the gall bladder and the bear is literally
tapped for bile," said Taylor, who has also seen documentary footage of bears
whose paws were amputated while the animal was still alive.
Nevertheless, rescuing the bear cub posed a dilemma for the GW team, who said they
"agonized" over the decision. "We were very aware that you should
never buy a bear," said Taylor, noting that purchasing endangered wildlife,
even with good intentions, reinforces the illegal trade.
Despite their misgivings, Taylor and Gooch went ahead with their decision - at the
cost of $190 and a small bribe to get the bear cub by plane to Phnom Penh - in the
hope that their action would help expose the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia's
The head of Conservation at the government's Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), Sun
Hean, said he believes the trade, which includes bears, tigers and elephants, is
rampant. But he laments that a lack of funds has prevented the authorities from evaluating
the extent of the trade and the populations of endangered species.
"We have no idea how much is going on ... I'm very sad about that."
Hean cited weak legislation, corruption, and little education on the importance of
conservation as factors which allow the trade to flourish.
Stronger legislation - a 100-article Wildlife Management Law has been drafted by
Hean's office - and better enforcement would stop the trade at its source, but until
that comes about Hean urges confiscation of illegally traded wildlife by the authorities,
rather than purchasing the animals on the market.
Confiscated animals are taken to Ta Mao Zoo, 44 km south of Phnom Penh in Takeo province,
which currently holds more than 200 animals, from 60 species, including five adult
According to Hean, there are currently three private initiatives run by expatriates
involved in rescuing bears and other endangered wildlife.
One of these operations, run by Randy Steed, an American casino consultant, and partly
funded by the Australian organization Free the Bears Fund, has so far rescued five
sun bears, all which were purchased from Phnom Penh shops and restaurants at market
rates of $400 to $800.
Steed's menagerie, on the banks of the Mekong an hour and half by boat north of the
capital, currently holds two gibbons and a 15-month old sun bear.
With the permission of Cambodian authorities, Steed shipped three bears to Australia
in January, where they have helped kickstart a captive breeding program at Sydney's
Taronga Park Zoo. In return, the zoo is currently training three Khmers in wildlife
"You can only be so green," said Steed, adding that the argument against
purchasing bears "makes perfect sense in 95 percent of the world".
"If we didn't purchase them, they would have been eaten or died of stress and
abuse. We know it perpetuates the trade but there is no stopping the trade in Cambodia."
The efforts of Steed and the Free the Bears Fund have also touched a raw nerve in
Australian hearts - so far, A$40,000 has been raised through poster sales, much of
which has been channeled to support the WPO's Ta Mao Zoo.
While private initiatives have raised international awareness and much needed funds
for Cambodia's own efforts to protect its endangered wildlife, Hean maintained that
such efforts, in addition to reinforcing the illegal wildlife market, detract from
government moves to curb the trade.
"If they really want to help Cambodia and they really want to work with wildlife
conservation, they should come to my zoo where we have many confiscated animals,"
said Hean, adding that the draft legislation covers current loopholes which have
allowed endangered animals to be kept as pets in houses and in private menageries.
David Marks, a veterinary consultant with World Society for the Protection of Animals
(WSPA) which is providing technical assistance to the WPO, agrees that rescuing bears
by buying them at restaurants or market is a double-edged sword, but concludes that
there is a general agreement in animal conservation circles against the strategy.
"The consensus of opinion is (that) there is never any excuse or sound reason
to buy a bear from an illegal market," wrote Marks in a faxed message to the
Post from Thailand, where WSPA has built a sanctuary for the Asiatic Black Bear.
"If a bear is in a restaurant/market, a market for that bear exists - by buying
the bear without removing the market, the trader/restaurant requires another bear
to satisfy the original market."
"If an individual buys a bear, it is usually at a high price which further escalates
and encourages the trade," explained Marks.
For every bear bought from a restaurant or illegal market, an estimated 5-10 bears
are killed or removed from the wild, he estimated.
The WSPA veterinarian acknowledged that bear "rescue", and their shipment
to zoos outside Cambodia, remain "highly contentious" issues - last ditch
efforts to "save the species" in a country which is still a long way from
effective protection of its endangered species in the wild.
"Captive bears can play an important role as a focus for education and awareness,"
wrote Marks, but warned that a sun bear in a zoo makes a "limited" contribution
to conservation of the species.
"Until Cambodia can protect its natural resources in a broader sense, bears
will continue to be hunted."
As for the bear saved by GW, it is proving something of a headache for its foster
mother, expatriate Bree Fitzgerald, who volunteered to look after it in the meantime.
"My entire house has been turned into an obstacle course," said Fitzgerald,
describing the banana trees, straw mats and the wading pool set up to entertain her
Fitzgerald and the GW team are "collecting options" for the bear, which
include the more leafy surrounds of Steed's Mekong enclosure, the Ta Mao Zoo or bear
sanctuaries in Thailand. The director of Melbourne Zoo also expressed interest in
the bear on a recent visit to the capital.
"Keeping the bear in Cambodia would be ideal, but the situation in Cambodia
is not yet ideal for housing bears," Fitzgerald said.