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On a mega reserve in Laos, rescued moon bears find a new home

Moon bear at the sanctuary. Photo courtesy Peter Yuen/Free the Bears.

  • Animal charity Free the Bears has opened a mountain-top reserve in Laos for animals that have been saved from the illegal wildlife trade.
  • The charity had a record year of rescues and now has 77 bears in its care.
  • With the help of the Lao government it aims to close all bile farms in Laos by 2022.

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — The door rattles and I can sense that my diners are getting impatient. Clutching a silver tray that’s overflowing with pumpkin, turnip and sweet potatoes, I have less than 20 minutes to serve my guests. Rather than placing the crudité platter on an elegant dining table, I’ve been asked to hide the root vegetables in between trees, high on lofty wooden platforms, and under rocks dotted around this Laotian landscape.

That’s because my diners aren’t regular guests: they’re a group of nine, 100-kilogram (220-pound) Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus), also known as moon bears, that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. I had joined the Free the Bears charity as a ranger for the day at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre in Luang Prabang to find out more about their work.

After emptying the tray and sweeping the leaves in the enclosure into neat piles, one of the rangers invited me to join her at a viewing platform where I could see the moon bears make light work of my efforts. Thanks to their keen sense of smell, they quickly found the pumpkin I had hidden under a pile of rustic logs and the sweet potatoes that I had hidden as far away as possible, after getting breathless navigating moss-strewn paths and a river fed by the Kuang Si waterfall.

Bears playing in the older Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue sanctuary. Photo courtesy Peter Yuen/Free the Bears.

Watching them snuffle for food in the undergrowth and playfully wrestle each other in the leaves, it was hard to imagine that these contented-looking creatures were once victims of the illegal wildlife trade. Many were trafficked across borders and found living in small cages at bile farms. Some had been used to entertain tourists.

It has been a busy time for Free the Bears. They recently opened a new mega reserve in the hilltops of Laos. The launch was significant, as it marked the beginning of the end for bile farms in the country. With the help of the Lao government, the charity has set itself the aim of closing all the farms by 2022 and rehousing the bears in its new jungle hideaway.

Bile farms, which are found in Asian countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, produce bear bile that is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Fluid is harvested from the caged bears’ gallbladders using tubes and unsterilized needles. While China and several Southeast Asian countries have cracked down on the illegal wildlife trade in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — believed to have started at an animal market in Wuhan — the Chinese government is now reportedly recommending a coronarivus treatment that includes bear bile.

“They use the bile to break down gallstones, but there are more than 50 herbal and synthetic alternatives that will do the same job,” said Nikki Brown, technical adviser for Free the Bears Education.

While the bears have led tough lives, the team is secure in the knowledge that the mammals feel comfortable in their new home. The sanctuary has already seen its first birth: Two-year-old cub Pi Mai was born at Tat Kuang Si and now lives with four rescued cubs in the nursery. While he is twice the size of the other cubs in the nursery, he is in fact the youngest in the sleuth. The rescued bears are stunted due to poor nutrition, but Pi Mai is fortunate to be nursed by his mother.

Rescued moon bears at the new sanctuary in Laos. Photo courtesy Peter Yuen/Free the Bears.

The extra mouth to feed has made the new sanctuary even more important. The mega reserve is more than 25 times the size of the original sanctuary. It has been a four-year-long project, which they hope to complete by 2021.

Set in a quiet mountain valley, the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary includes a wildlife hospital, a nursery for cubs, bear houses, an education center, and accommodations for volunteers. Alongside the bear houses, they have also built sanctuaries for leopards, primates and birds of prey, to help other creatures that have been illegally trafficked. They have also built a Pangolarium, where they house endangered pangolins until they can be released into the wild. “More than 20 different species, many of which are on the IUCN Red List, have been provided with a second chance at life thanks to the creation of this much-needed sanctuary,” said Rod Mabin of Free the Bears.

The Free the Bears’ team is keen to continue their work, but the COVID-19 travel restrictions mean they are now limited in what they can do. A veterinary team that recently flew over to treat the animals had to be repatriated to Australia, and all the individual and group bookings for their visitor center have been cancelled.

“We’ve suffered a 100% loss in funding from these programs for the foreseeable future, which is quite devastating to us,” Mabin said. But as soon as the fundraising can begin again, they will move forward with their plans.  The Free the Bears team has launched the Bear Carer appeal to give the public the chance to support its work by sponsoring the animals and protecting them from bile farms.

Bear Houses 2 and 3 and Small Carnivore Centre at the new sanctuary in Laos. Photo courtesy Peter Yuen/Free the Bears.

The center will be complete when they build the final set of bear houses, slated for completion next year. As the wildlife sanctuary has been created in stages, they have already been able to move some of the rescued animals to the site. The moon bears now have an enclosure that covers several acres and a lake where they can swim and fish.

While the Free the Bears team has built an oasis for the animals, rescuing the bears has never been easy.

The bile farms are often located at the end of perilous mud tracks high in the mountains of northern Laos. It can take several days for the team to rescue one bear. Once they return to the sanctuary with the bear, they will try and coax it out of its leaf-lined transport cage with honey, and they will leave it alone until it feels confident enough to emerge. Many of the animals might not remember what it is like to be in the wild, but once the bears leave their transport cages behind, they appear to relish their new surroundings. It’s due to moments like this, and a sunlit reserve high in the Laos mountains, that the future for the moon bears is looking a lot brighter.

Banner image: A moon bear at the older Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue sanctuary. Photo courtesy Peter Yuen/Free the Bears.