The two moon bear cubs anxiously look at us with their small round blue eyes. They are around 3 months old and need to be fed every couple of hours with the baby bottle. As soon as their cage opens, they crawl towards the baby bottles and quickly drink the warm milk.
These bears should be with their mother, but they were taken from the forest when they were only a couple of weeks old. Villagers had allegedly found the two abandoned by their mother. It is more likely though, that the mother was captured or killed to use her for the bear bile industry and sell the cubs to the illegal pet trade. After the two cubs were found, officials kept them at a police station for a month, a place very unsuitable for raising them. Fortunately, officers from the national forest department eventually heard about the two cubs and brought them to the only bear sanctuary in Laos, located in Luang Prabang and run by Free the Bears.
Free the Bears was founded to save moon and sun bears from the bear bile industry, a multi-million dollar industry. In order to “harvest” the bear bile, bears are kept in small cages unable to move with a catheter implanted into their gall bladder. Both moon and sun bears are used for this practice, animals which are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN red list of endangered species. When Free the Bears was initially founded, the organization built a sanctuary in Cambodia and rescued bears from this gruesome industry. This was more than 20 years ago, and they are now active in several Asian countries, building sanctuaries, educating communities and visitors, strengthening law enforcement and protecting bears in the wild.
In Luang Prabang the bear sanctuary is located at the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, a major tourist attraction in the area. 200'000 people visit the waterfalls and the sanctuary each year, half of those being Lao. The educational outreach is enormous, but also the number of rescued bears is steadily increasing. Initially the site was built for 25 bears. At the moment 35 bears are kept on the premises and just last week 3 new bears were confiscated and brought here.
Furthermore, the remaining official bear bile farms in Laos are on the verge of being shut down, so a strickingly 150 bears will need a new home. Fortunately, a second sanctuary is well under construction and the first bears will be resettled there within the next few weeks. Looking at these numbers, we wondered what happened to the animals before Free the Bears got active. Often times the confiscated animals were simply killed, as there was no place for them. A fate which still awates many other confiscated and rescued species, as there are no other sanctuaries in the country. So the new rescue center will also open its doors (or cages rather) to other species as well. Work that would be the governments responsibility, but as so often is the case, is mainly carried out by Free the Bears and hence donor financed.
Free the Bears merchandise as a form to raise money
The two cute little cubs will spend the rest of their lives at the rescue center. Of course it would be best for them and their species to be released into the wild again, but the path towards a successful re-introduction program is long and complicated. Besides teaching the bears to survive on their own and being shy of humans, release sites need to be found where communities understand the value of keeping the bears alive in the forest, poaching is drastically reduced and ranger teams installed. Seeing the engagement of the Free the Bears employees and the success's they have had, we are optimistic about the future of bears in the wild in Laos.
When Sera and I were in Luang Prabang, we were warmly welcomed by Matt Hunt from Free the Bears. He showed us around the sanctuary, introduced us to the two small bear cubs and patiently answered all of our numerous questions. Thank you!
You can find more information about the Free the Bears and their work on the web: www.freethebears.org
They also offer volunteering possibilities and frequently welcome university students.