A burden to bear

Among the exotic wildlife that prowls Cambodia’s forests are large furry creatures that may be far more familiar to European and North American visitors than the ever-dwindling populations of large cats and beastly elephants. The Kingdom’s bears climb trees and devour honey just like their Western counterparts, but their existence is under threat from human encroachment.

“Unfortunately, a big amount of them are sold to restaurants for bear paw soup or for Chinese medicine,” said Vuthy Choun, country director for the Australia-based Free the Bears conservation NGO.

He estimates that fewer than 1,000 bears remain in Cambodia. While some of the bears are sold for their body parts, others fall victim to the illegal pet trade.

“Some people buy bear cubs when they are young, and they keep them as pets in their house or garden,” said Chuon, adding that wealthy people sometimes keep bears as status symbols. …

When bears are rescued from human detainment, either because they were confiscated from the owners or voluntarily surrendered when they became too much to handle, Free the Bears takes them in at their centre at Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre in Takeo province. Having operated in conjunction with the Forestry Administration since it opened in 1997, the refuge is now home to 130 bears. …

Bennett Murray