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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.

The initial plan within this project was to start with the development of a bear release programme in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, constructing an isolation and rewilding facility and the development of essential activities to ensure a successful implementation. Unfortunately, due to a change in legislation in Vietnam, building in the national park (even if it benefits vulnerable species like bears) is prohibited at this time. Since this project is part of a regional effort with activities occurring concurrently in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the focus has been diverted to Cambodia for now.

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. We hope to be able to contribute to the efforts and success by FTB in this region!

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.

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!

The bear sanctuary ‘Tat Kuang Si’, managed by Free the Bears (FTB) provides shelter to many Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears. Most of these bears were confiscated and rescued at an early age from poachers by the government of Lao with help from FTB. More than 200,000 people from Lao PDR and abroad visit the sanctuary annually. Through an education program, visitors can learn more about both bears and the illegal trade in wildlife in Lao PDR.

Aside from the education program, research into human-bear conflict (HWC) was carried out in the field. These conflicts lead to people developing a negative attitude towards bears. Bears regularly seek food in the corn fields surrounding the national parks and can thus destroy a complete crop. Earlier research in 2010 showed that most villages were invaded regularly by bears looking for corn. Park rangers are trained to address these human-bear conflicts immediately and effectively. Bear sightings are reported through a special ‘hotline’.

The HWC study between 2011 and 2013 was funded by Bears in Mind.

FTB has been working actively in Southeast Asia for many years and has successfully tackled the problems in Lao PDR from the source. In 2011, FTB started a campaign in their bear sanctuary ‘Tat Kuang Si’ to raise awareness among the local population and the government concerning the issues wild bears are facing. FTB also reinforces legislation and offers hunters an alternative source of income.

With financial support from Bears in Mind, a mobile education and emergency bear rescue vehicle was purchased. It was also used for transportation of small groups from Luang Prabang to ‘Tat Kuang Si’ in order to join on-site education activities, used for the transportation of educators and equipment to remote areas or other provincial capitals for outreach work, and of course for bear rescue interventions.