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Postcard from The Bear Rescue Project

Even if you are not an “animal person” it is difficult to imagine why anyone would want to eat “bear paw soup” or why someone would keep a living creature confined to a tiny cage, slowly draining the bile from its gall bladder. Such practices are outlawed in most countries but they still go on, often with authorities turning a blind eye, taking the odd back-hander in return for their silence. In certain parts of South East Asian society keeping a bear cub as a house pet, or a novelty attraction in a restaurant or hotel is de rigueure.

But just like puppies, bear cubs also become adults, whose owners can no longer care for the fully grown animal and most end up sold on the black market or abandoned – injured, stunted, and starved. But many of the bears that are slaughtered, butchered or forced to endure such torturous existences are globally endangered species.

In Cambodia, two native species are on the globally endangered list – the Malayan sun bear (above) and the Asiatic black bear. Sadly that doesn’t mean that these cruel practices no longer occur in Cambodia, but the bear project that Globalteer works with near Phnom Penh is working with authorities to rescue these beautiful beasts, rehabilitate them, and stamp out illegal practices for good.

I recently travelled to Phnom Penh with Globalteer’s Volunteer Coordinator and paid a visit to the project to see the rescued bears first hand and find out what a Globalteer volunteer can expect to get up to at the project.

Who’s been eating my porridge?

Our first stop was one of the Asiatic black bear enclosures, where we found three youngsters happily playing in their water pool, swinging in their custom-built hammocks and climbing up trees and over climbing frames. One of them had a front paw missing, lost when he was caught in a bear trap. But despite his injury, he and all of the others were clearly very happy and healthy bears. We were there for morning feeding, and the big kid in me was delighted to discover that just as in “Goldilocks and the three bears”, the real things like to eat porridge too.

As the day unfolded we saw many bears with missing paws, but thankfully they were all thriving at the centre, and as the keeper explained, although many of them will no longer be able to survive in the wild, the conditions at the centre mean that many of them will live even longer than their normal expected life span.

Blondes can have more fun!

Adult females and adult males are kept separately at the centre to avoid unwanted breeding activity. One of the female enclosures is home to Brandy, a rare and extremely beautiful blonde Asiatic black bear with the thick golden fur of a lion, and a slow sauntering gait that makes her look like a giant cuddly toy. Brandy was donated to the project when her owner realised he could no longer keep her as a pet. She had originally been found struggling to survive in a palm grove, where the forest - the bears’ natural habitat - had been cleared to make way for lucrative oil-producing palms.

Many of the bears can never be returned to the wild not only because they have become too “humanised” to survive, by being kept as pets, but also because so much of Cambodia’s forests are being sold off and cut down to make way for big business.

We joined Fiona Procter, an Australian volunteer originally from Yorkshire who was volunteering at the centre for four weeks. She spoke enthusiastically about her time there, was full of praise for the project staff and the volunteer accommodation, and positively glowed when she talked about working with the bears: “These guys just make you smile, every day. You can’t walk past a bear without smiling. They just fill your heart.”

We helped Fiona and one of the bear keepers to make “enrichments” for the bears, a kind of snack-cum-toy that delivers the bears some of their daily nourishment as well as encouraging them to work for their food. We set up a four-man production line and proceeded to stuff bananas and dog biscuits into hollow bamboo “pipes”, mash them up with a stick, then added long green beans before smearing the inside with pineapple jam and sealing the whole thing with a generous sprig of water spinach, or morning glory as it is locally known.

We couldn’t wait to see what the bears made of these toys with their uncanny resemblance to giant Roman candles, leaves spraying from the top in place of brightly coloured sparks. We threw the bamboo over the fences and into the enclosures and watched with a smile as the bears ripped out the water spinach, stuck their unfeasibly long tongues inside to lick out the jam and cracked open the bamboo with claws and teeth, gorging themselves on the goodies inside. Most of them rolled onto their backs, all four paws in the air and emptied the contents onto their tummies before devouring it all in a flash. It was truly a spectacle every animal lover should see.

Two unexpected treats

As our time drew to a close there was a shout from a staff member who was pointing up into the tall trees that help keep the park shady and relatively cool under the relentless Cambodian sun. High up in the branches was a rare female palm civet – like a small native wild cat – and her newly born kittens. It was a privileged moment and a special treat that we certainly hadn’t counted on.

Just before we left we were taken to one of the smaller enclosures off the main track. Slowly and carefully two keepers emerged carrying two bundles of fur that they delicately deposited into an outside play pen. Two of the cutest Malayan sun bear cubs you have ever seen.

They burrowed and frolicked and dived in and out of their pool, and eventually climbed on top of the log wall surrounding their pen, ambling around its perimeter, keepers in hot pursuit. A third cub stayed inside. We learnt that two were brother and sister – Santiago and Tina – and had been given to the project after being found in the forests of Ratanakiri by local hill people. The third had mercifully been rescued from a poacher in Kampot province in the Southwest of Cambodia. It is thought that she was bound for Vietnam, and to a fate that simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

Neither of us would ever have really described ourselves as “animal people” but as we headed away from the project and back towards the big city, we both realised how easily we could become converts. If you are interested in volunteering to help support this amazing project and the work it does in safeguarding the long term future of Cambodia’s bears, please visit our our Cambodia Bear Rescue Project page. You might also enjoy our new Cambodia Bear Rescue video...

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