Bears are sought after for use in traditional medicines, for consumption and live as pets. Indonesia, a well-known hub of illegal wildlife trade (IWT), has a thriving trade in bears yet very little is known of the current status of this trade. This lack of information is an obstacle to conservation actions and hinders efforts to end this illegal trade and ultimately protect bears in the wild.
Understanding the drivers behind the trade, the sources of the bears and other relevant dynamics is key to developing a strategy to counter this crime. Investigating legal deterrents, such as seizures and penalties is also essential in order to better support enforcement efforts and to inform policy decisions. While some work has been done to collect and compile this information, major components of data are missing or outdated, hampering conservation efforts.
With financial support from Bears in Mind, the team from Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) intends to fill these knowledge gaps and use the resulting information to support effective enforcement efforts, strengthen national policies and to catalyse conservation efforts in Indonesia to better protect bears from the illegal wildlife trade.
Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are not only threatened by habitat loss and illegal hunting for body parts, but also captured to supply bear bile extraction facilities. The efforts by Bears in Mind partner Free the Bears (FTB) in Southeast Asia allowed the rescue of almost 400 bears, although options for rescued bears remain mostly limited to lifelong care in sanctuaries. Most rescued bears arriving in FTB’s sanctuaries in the region are under 3 years of age, and as such the ongoing costs of caring for rescued bears throughout their lifespan (often 30+ years) are significant. Although the establishment of a programme for rehabilitation and release may require a substantial initial investment, the outcomes of a successful programme (in addition to potential welfare and conservation benefits of developing successful protocols for the release of Asian bear species) are necessary steps towards bear conservation and can contribute to our understanding of key ecological factors of these species.
Within this project, the development of a bear release programme in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, starts with the construction of isolation and rewilding facilities and the development of essential activities to ensure a successful implementation. To date, very few releases of rescued bears have been attempted in the SE Asian region, and those that have taken place previously have had limited results due to restrictions in terms of numbers of individuals, site location and methodology applied. Significantly, this project is part of a regional effort with activities occurring concurrently in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Bear bile has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, with the market in China predominantly involving bile from Asiatic black bears. Despite the introduction of bear farming across Asia in the 1970s to supply the trade in bile, little is known about the effects of farming on demand for wild bile, or the current impact that the trade in bear bile has on wild bears. At the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress in S.Korea, concern about bear farming led to the adoption of Recommendation 139, which called for a “scientifically independent, peer-reviewed situation analysis” to evaluate the contribution of bear farming to the status of wild bear populations.
This project will directly address this Recommendation, taking a consumer and market-based approached using methods designed to understand how the market for farmed bear bile has affected the market for wild bear bile by investigating the complex interactions of these two markets (both in terms of demand and product availability). After the initial funding of meetings between experts from various IUCN Spcialist Groups and the Chinese Government in 2013-2014, Bears in Mind funded a Key Informant Survey conducted in December 2015, which was most helpful in designing the follow-up in-depth investigation. In 2015 interviews were conducted by a China-IUCN team to collect important information about the trade and management of Asiatic black bears in China. Trade in this sense, included the legal and illegal trade. It also included trade in live animals as well as their parts (bear-bile and bear paws). Interviews were conducted in a qualitative format, intended to guide further research and analysis.
2017 – 2019 This follow-up began end of 2017, when Bears in Mind funded a continuation of the large-scale study led by the University of Oxford in the UK in close cooperation with the Sun Yat Sen University in China, the SFA and the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group. The focus was on the consumption, prescription and sale of bear bile, which resulted in some of the first datasets on the prevalence and motivations for bear bile consumption across four provinces in China.
Online consumer survey The team had a final sample of 1,845 respondents. Most (88%, n = 1621) had used some form of bear bile in their lifetime, with more than 2/3 of these consumers (70.1%, n = 1145) buying bile within the last year. Most people (79.3%, n = 1462) knew at least one bile-user, with parents and grandparents being the most frequently reported users. Most consumers (85.6% (n = 1388) stated that they had used bile for medicinal purposes, with 64.1% (n = 1036) reporting that they had used it as a health tonic, and 19% (n = 308) as a gift. The most common place people reported buying bile was at the pharmacy (n = 1142) followed by a hospital (n = 1045), with the least common being from a personal contact (n = 140). The most frequently reported form of bile used was eyedrops (n = 749), with tea the least reported (n = 42). Although 390 people reported using a bear gallbladder, mismatches between reported source and form suggest many do not know the source of bile they use.
Online trade Data collection on online sales for bear bile products on the domestic markets. Information was mostly obtained from e-commerce platforms like Baidu and Bing.cn, as well as select discussion forums like WeChat and social mediaplatforms, to provide insights in the online trading environment from both formal and informal interactions, and consumer interest for specific bear bile product types, particularly of farmed and synthetic origin.
2021 – present In January-April 2021 Sun Yat-sen University (China) and the University of Oxford (UK) worked with multi-stakeholders of bear bile consumption, including consumers, pharmacy workers and TCM doctors to co-design post-COVID19 strategies for reducing illegal bear bile consumption. Specifically, the organized workshops highlighted that consumers and/or potential consumers would respond best to health-related and legality-focussed messaging, whereas the general public should respond best to legality-focussed messaging and incentives to report illegal consumption when they saw it. In this project, the team will test interventions designed in these workshops with key target groups, to evaluate their effectiveness for reducing illegal bear bile use and sale, and make recommendations for future larger-scale interventions. In addition to testing the interventions, the team will also use their findings for larger public outreach, by holding a ‘bear event day’ in the popular Guangzhou Zoo, as there will be a series of events or activities about biodiversity conservation. After the events, the team will also provide the education centre of the zoo with some educational materials from our project.
More information soon…
Bear populations have declined dramatically throughout Vietnam since the mid-1990’s. At this time the use of heavy wire snares became widespread and the bear bile farming industry expanded rapidly, creating high demand for wild-caught bears. Several large-scale camera trapping projects in recent years have confirmed the continued survival of Asiatic black bears in Central and Northern Vietnam. However, the last known camera trap image of a sun bear in Vietnam was captured almost 20 years ago, in Cat Tien National Park in Southern Vietnam.
Fresh bear sign, recorded by forest rangers in the national park in February 2020, gives hope for the on-going survival of wild sun bears at this site. This project, carried out by Free the Bears, will use baited camera traps in the vicinity of the fresh bear sign to confirm the presence of sun bears, Asiatic black bears, or potentially both at this site. A confirmed record of a sun bear has the potential to garner much needed support for the conservation of this species; which is almost certainly on the brink of extinction in Vietnam.
Ongoing development and uncontrolled human expansion in the target landscape, which used to be one of the richest lowland forest areas of Eastern Borneo, is breaking up vital connectivity for wildlife and affecting ecosystem functioning. The Pro Natura team is trying to find ways to increase [government and land use stakeholder] commitment towards [sun bear landscape] conservation and coordinated landscape planning, bringing different stakeholders together and matching spatial planning between districts and provincial government levels.
Camera trapping is planned in various forest/tree covered areas between Sungai Wain and the Bukit Suharto Forest, covering much of the INHUTANI Forest Estate, which has a mixture of protected forest, rubber, acacia, palm oil and other landuses. This camera trapping will be augmented with sign survey work to further verify sun bear movement in this landscape. It will also be necessary to collect, collate and analyze all spatial plans relevant to this landscape including provincial and district spatial plans, forest function allocations, FMU management plans, and concessionaire management plans. It will also be necessary to analyze most recently available remote sensing imagery, both from satellites and UAVs.
Free the Bears (FTB) has constructed a brand new, 60-acre wildlife sanctuary intended to provide vital support to the government of Laos’ efforts at ending bear bile farming and the illegal trade in threatened species. The Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary will also incorporate a dedicated Cub Nursery and Intensive Care Unit for orphaned bear cubs. Bears in Mind will finacially assist FTB with the construction of these important units. Bear houses, outdoor enclosures covering 15,000m2 have already been constructed, along with Quarantine facilities and a fully equipped wildlife hospital.
In order to increase capacity for the housing and rearing of rescued bear cubs, FTB will develop a new Cub Nursery and Intensive Care Unit within the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary. This facility will be modeled on the existing Cub Nursery located at FTB Cambodian Bear Sanctuary which has been in operation since 2013. The new facility will offer them the opportunity to receive and raise orphaned bear cubs in a safe and secure location, away from visitors and within the site that will most probably be the bears lifetime home.
Currently no specific facilities exist for the rearing of rescued bear cubs within Laos, meaning that cubs often have to be kept in temporary enclosures or even private homes if they require around-the-clock care. As they grow older, they have to be kept in temporary enclosures within the sanctuary, often in close proximity to adult bears which may harm them should they come into contact with one another. The planned facility will incorporate overnight accommodation for staff, making night-time feeds much easier, a clean and sterile environment for food preparation and daily husbandry of cubs such as weighing or toileting. A humidicrib used for human babies will be incorporated for the tiniest of cubs – essential in Laos where overnight temperatures can drop rapidly. Finally, as cubs grow older and become more independent, tailor-made play pens will allow them to develop their locomotion skills without the risk of harming themselves.
The ICU and cub rehabilitation center was finished in 2021!
In India, habitat fragmentation and destruction is one of the main threats to bears, others being poaching for bile extraction (this has started in India according to a recent report), poaching for meat (rampant in some states) and human/animal conflict within or near the forest.
India is very progressive when it comes to bear education. Bears in Mind has supported the educational work of the local NGO Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO). Their education project reaches schools, zoos and museums. Back in the day, the problems with dancing bears in India are considerable. Several thousands of cubs, usually sloth bears, were been taken from their mothers and trained to be dancing bears. ZOO managed to make people aware of the suffering that is caused by this ancient, yet cruel tradition. Between 2002-2012 teaching packages were made with financial support of Bears in Mind. These packages consisted of all sorts of educational games, t-shirts, stickers and posters. More importantly, information about the way brown bears, sloth bears, Asiatic black bears and Sun bears in India were threatened, was included. India is the only country with four different bear species and it is therefore very important to protect them all.
ZOO Outreach Organization has been working with Bears in Mind for 10 years to improve the welfare of bears in India as well as their conservation in the wild. This has been done entirely with education, starting with a conservation education programme aimed at two groups; the visiting public (or organisations which educate them) and the zoo directors of zoos that have bears in their collection. 6,000 bear packets have been printed and ordered by 59 organisation and 8,000 posters have been printed and ordered by 56 different organizations.
In East Kalimantan (Indonesia), Sun bear habitat is rapidly shrinking due to forest conversion and fires for palm oil monoculture development. As a result of this Sun bears are now commonly held as pets and conflict with humans occurs when bears enter communities or feed on crops. Despite this, the Balikpapan municipality decided in 2001 to make the Sun bear its mascot. This has led to a better protection of the last bit of primal forest where bears live (the Sungai Wain forest), and a heightened awareness among the locals. The sanctuary is surrounded by an elevated bridge. From this bridge visitors can see the bears play, climb, and dig. Local guides are trained to give visitors information.
Bears in Mind has funded the construction of the center, development and printing of a number of awareness materials like design and production of a new sun bear activity booklet, re-printing of Sun Bear booklet for distribution among visitors, production of variety of Sun bear promotional materials and improved visitor education through guide training.
Currently, 2022-2023, Bears in Mind has committed itself to the much needed repairs / maintenance to visitor boardwalk, the Sun bear holding area and the Sun bear enclosure.
Threats to the sun bear Visitors at the KWPLH Education Centre can access information through painted panels, paintings, bear statues, information panels and interactive displays. All the education material is being made by local artists. Local goverment has been very positive since the start of the project, and they contribute in the daily management costs. The Sun bear or Malayan bear is a protected species in Indonesia, but law enforcement is not very strict. Because large parts of the forest are still turned into plantations or cut down for agriculture, many bears loose their habitat. In search for food they sometimes come too close to human settements. Cubs are taken from the wild and are often kept as a pet, until they grow too large (and dangerous) to maintain and end their life in misery in a small cage or are sold for meat or other parts.
Bears in Mind continues to help sanctuaries for the rehoming of abused and mistreated bears and supports education programs on the subject. For the rescue and rehabilitation (and permanent rehoming) of the bears in SE Asia, Bears in Mind supports Animals Asia. In Vietnam a rescue centre was established (Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary) where Bears in Mind funded an education project for visitors of the centre to experience. In the China Bear Rescue Centre various so-called ‘bear dens’ were co-financed.
The latest contribution to Animals Asia was done in 2022, when Bears in Mind funded the salary for a year of two local staff members at the new-to-be-build sanctuary in Vietnam. This new sanctuary in Bach Ma National Park will become the home for the last 300+ bears from Vietnamese bear farms.
The primary goal of the educational project funded by Bears in Mind (2011-2012) was to increase awareness among school children and students about the situation in which captive bears in Thailand live. Staff members of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) gave presentations at schools and universities on the abuse and mistreatment of bears. These presentations were supplemented with educational material in the form of a booklet (both in English and in Thai) describing the threat to and the ways to protect bears in Southeast Asia. The booklet provided examples of bears, which have been saved by the WFFT. It also further explains the welfare problems of bears living in captivity and provided general information about wild bears in Thailand.
The sanctuary Although mostly elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, snakes and orang-utans are used for human entertainment in Thailand, bears are often kept locked up in small cages in so-called zoos. Moreover, they are also kept illegally as pets. Small bear cubs look very cute when they are still young, however as they grow bigger they become aggressive, unmanageable and thus dangerous to people. Most bear owners end up dropping their ‘pets’ off at a temple or an animal sanctuary. Since its initiation, WFFT has rescued more than 1,500 animals, primarily monkeys (macaques, gibbons and langurs), tigers and bears (Asiatic black bears and Sun bears).