What it's Like Rescuing Sun Bears in South-East Asia

free the bears

Anne Fullerton hangs out with some of South-East Asia’s most at-risk inhabitants on a holiday that not only feels good, it also gives back.

Phnom Tamao may look peaceful with its gently rippling plunge pools, lush surroundings and quiet country back roads but scratch the surface and you’ll find a tangle of rivalry and intrigue. There’s Rose, an alpha female intent on terrorising the other ladies in the complex; Big John, a grumpy hermit who can’t play nice with his neighbours; and the ironically named Angel, whose bombshell pregnancy was all the more shocking because she lives in a same-sex facility (staff suspect conjugal visits took place through a fence). No, it’s not the premise for a South-East Asian Melrose Place; it’s Cambodia’s largest and most famous wildlife sanctuary, home to more than 120 of the region’s vulnerable sun and moon bears.

I’m visiting this park on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as part of a journey with World Expeditions, a travel company that works with Free the Bears to give travellers the chance to get close to local wildlife. Perth native Mary Hutton founded Free the Bears in 1995 to help thousands of animals trapped in bile farms across Asia (after being cruelly extracted from the animals, bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine). The organisation now rescues sun and moon bears from a range of horrific circumstances. Visitors like me spend part of the 13- to 15-day itinerary assisting with the running of sanctuaries in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos and a percentage of the trip’s cost is funnelled back to the not-for-profit. The journeys run twice a year (the next departure is slated for February 2019) and routinely sell out – testament to the growing demand for responsible holidays that enrich rather than exploit destinations.

SEE ALSO: 10 Things to Do in Laos’ Luang Prabang

“It’s a very different experience from sitting on a beach in Spain, drinking cocktails,” says Hutton. “But you should see the volunteers’ faces when they watch the bears enjoy food that they’ve made or climb equipment they’ve helped to build. We get such tremendous, positive feedback.” I’m about to find out why.

I’ve been walking the perimeter of one of the enclosures for just a few minutes when a sun bear lumbers up to the fence to greet me. She isn’t much bigger than a large dog and has a disarmingly dopey expression that belies her immense, sickle-shaped claws. When she stands on her back legs to get a better view, it takes unprecedented self-control not to reach through the fence and pat her on the head. She looks, as one humorist aptly described, less like a bear than “a human in a bear costume who’s doing a very bad job acting natural”.

bear in hammock

Free the Bears’ regional director Nev Broadis says the animals’ natural curiosity is one of the reasons volunteers spend so much time hiding food for them to forage and preparing “enrichment”, snacks that require a degree of problem-solving (peanut butter and honey inside a strip of bamboo is always a hit). Lately, however, it seems that some residents have been getting a little too enriched.

“These girls are… not chubby,” says Broadis, as a sun bear delicately lowers her round backside into a pool, “but we’d like to see more muscle.” Not even the animal kingdom is exempt from the pervasive pressure to attain a svelte beach body. “Before, we were feeding them a diet higher in fruit and it was inadvertently making them more aggressive, a bit like a child who’s had a can of Coca-Cola. When we switched to mostly vegetables, they calmed down a lot and they’re a lot slimmer.”

Next, we visit the moon bears. At up to twice the size of sun bears, they cut an imposing figure, with a mane-like ruff around the neck and white V-shaped marking across the chest. Brandy,  a rare golden moon bear that resembles a lion-bear hybrid, is particularly fetching, though not even her peculiar brand of other-worldly charisma can compete with “Cambodia Rescue 204”.

mr heng plays with bear

The yet-to-be-named sun bear cub spots us and scales the bars of her den, poking all four paws through the fence. She’s so compellingly cute, I instantly delete all the photos of family and friends from my camera to free up storage. Only six months old, she’s being hand-reared by resident bear whisperer Sunheng Kem (known as Mr Heng), who arguably has the best job at Phnom Tamao. She follows him around like a puppy and, when he crouches down to wrestle, bares her teeth in the world’s least intimidating display of mock belligerence. I let out an involuntary squeak.

mekong river luang prabang

Though you could easily spend a week at Phnom Tamao, World Expeditions typically takes visitors to two sanctuaries per trip, splitting guests’ time between four-star hotels and basic jungle-lodge accommodation at each stop. (Likewise, dining options range from casual local restaurants to upmarket fare.) I’m delighted to find that my next destination is Luang Prabang in northern Laos, where Free the Bears’ newest sanctuary is preparing to open in February 2019. Dotted with golden temples and colonial-era architecture, Luang Prabang provides a relaxing counterbalance to the frenzy of construction and traffic that is Phnom Penh. From the orange-robed monks who line the streets at dawn, collecting rice from villagers, to the men smoking cigarettes in longboats on the Mekong River, a languid nonchalance permeates the town. Even the lawns of the grandest buildings aren’t immune from the town’s voracious free-roaming goats.

While there isn’t a big domestic market for bear bile in Laos, the country has become a source for wildlife traders cashing in on demand from China, South Korea and parts of Vietnam. Certainly, Free the Bears CEO Matt Hunt has his hands full – it hasn’t officially opened and the Luang Prabang site is already home to 14 bears, as well as civets, leopard cats, endangered red pandas and five species of primate.

In the afternoon, I help Hunt conceal food around one of the moon bear enclosures and watch the animals feverishly scramble up their climbing equipment to avoid sharing the spoils. Kobe, a bear who lost his front paw to a hunter’s snare, walks around on his hind legs, hamming it up for the camera. By now, it’s clear why almost every group of volunteers contains at least one repeat visitor – and why, for many, this is the start of an ongoing relationship with the organisation. Hutton was right. It’s not cocktails on a beach in Spain. It’s so much better.

Voluntourism can be a rewarding way to give back on holiday but it’s important to ensure that your trip will do more good than harm. For wildlife trips, check whether the sanctuaries you visit are approved by World Animal Protection.

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view over the mekong

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Photo credits: Simon Toffanello

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