Blankets of white cloud caress the steep, forested hillside that plunges down to a tumbledown village. The verdant valley floor below is dotted with rice paddies, trees, a small lake and the occasional buffalo. It would be nothing more than a typical scene in northern Laos, except for one important exception: the presence of some hefty Asiatic black bears, shuffling and snuffling contentedly among the undergrowth of a sizeable enclosure.
“Dtok, dtok, dtok,” a strange call breaks through the quiet. The animals, better known as moon bears due to the distinctive cream-white crescents on their chests, lift their snouts, hunting for the source of the noise. Animal keeper Tanh Oudompont is trying, but failing, to corral the bears into a smaller pen for a health check, aided by a bucket of sweet potatoes.
This picturesque scene is unfolding at the new Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary (LPWS), a 30-minute drive via a breathtaking, if slightly treacherous, road from the historic town of Luang Prabang.
“They’re too fat and content,” laughs Matt Hunt, as he watches Tanh’s efforts. Hunt is the CEO of Free the Bears, the wildlife protection group behind this centre and its blissful moon bears. Founded in Australia 23 years ago, Free the Bears has been working with rescued moon and sun bears across Asia ever since.
The organisation already has other sanctuaries in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia but LPWS is something unique. “This is like a dream come true,” says the UKborn Hunt as he surveys the 25-hectare site. “We’ve often had to build sanctuaries around existing facilities. Having a pristine site gives us a clean slate to work from.”
The LPWS won’t officially open to the public until March next year and there is still plenty of construction work to finish but it welcomed its first 14 bears in September 2017. All have come from the Free the Bears’ original Laos sanctuary, Tat Kuang Si, which was set up in 2003, walking distance from the eponymous waterfall, a significant tourist attraction.
The need for such sanctuaries underlines the very real threats faced by wild bears in Laos. Moon bears can weigh upwards of 200kg and stand over six feet tall on their hind legs, yet they face a perilous future. Not only are they trafficked as exotic pets but many are imprisoned and abused in bear farms, where they are often kept in tiny cages, unable to move, while catheters are inserted into their gall bladders to extract their bile, believed to have a multitude of health benefits in
The appalling conditions are highlighted by one of the newest arrivals to the Tat Kuang Si site. Belle, better known as “Floppy Feet” due to her gait, is a three year- old cub who arrived in June, suffering from health issues likely caused by long-term malnutrition.
Under the care of the keepers, led by Fatong “Lar” Yang, Belle’s recovery has been impressive. Emaciated and struggling to walk due to her inflamed feet when she arrived, Belle is now putting on weight and is an excitable member of the cub nursery, happy to play-fight with the three other young bears housed there.
“Often, they can be in a bad way and very stressed,” explains Lar, a Hmong local who gave up a job as a tour guide to join Free the Bears four years ago. “Our first aim is to try and settle them down, show them that we are trying to help,” continues the quietly spoken 36-year-old. “When they get that, they calm down a lot.”
Lar and the other keepers clearly work hard at achieving a rapport with the animals and giving them the best life possible. The team takes time every day to implement a detailed enrichment programme to ensure the bears are kept stimulated and active. This can range from concealing food around the enclosures to building hammocks and climbing frames.
Creating these “toys” for the bears is an aspect of the job that all the keepers enjoy. “I love seeing them play with what we create,” says Tat Kuang Si’s head keeper Somthone Aonvichieng with a twinkle in his eye, as the other keepers busy themselves making mini bamboo receptacles that can be packed with treats of fruit, nuts, grass and honey for the bears to enjoy.
The avuncular 55-year-old has been here since the sanctuary first started and his comments reveal the deep bonds between bears and keepers: “I’ve raised them since they were babies; they are like my children.”
As well as overseeing the day-to-day running of the sanctuaries, Lar and country programme manager Sengaloun “Tak Vongsay have an equally important second string to their bows: working closely with the Laos government to coordinate bear and other wildlife rescues. These rescues can happen at any time and require the team to drop everything and head off around Laos in the charity’s battered Toyota pickup.
“[A rescue] can be quite stressful, but also very rewarding,” says Lar. “You’ve got to think about how you are going to handle the situation; what we are going to do with the animal,” he adds. Transportation, health checks and finding room for each new rescue all present considerable challenges.
Calls for help are starting to come more often, a direct outcome of tightening government controls on the wildlife trade in recent years. “The current government is definitely much more committed to enforcing wildlife laws,” says Hunt, who has been working with animals since he took a part-time job as a keeper at a zoo in southeast England at the age of 15. “We’re seeing a more global response, governments working together to bring down criminal syndicates.”
It’s a hugely positive development but it comes with its own headaches. Belle is one of 10 bears that have been rescued this year – that’s the same number as the whole of 2017. There were only six arrivals in 2016.
Moon bears can live for 40 years and their size means fitting them all in has been a real issue. When the Tat Kuang Si sanctuary was established, the 0.8-hectare site was designed to house 25 bears, a number it hit in August 2015. Since then, the population has risen to 42 bears, ranging from 18 months to 15 years.
“It’s hard, but you can’t just say no,” explains the relentlessly optimistic Hunt, who has just returned from the United States where he was awarded the “Conservation in Action” conservation medal by San Diego Zoo Global. “It’s still better to have them at a sanctuary in temporary cages than in a farm.” Still, the sense of overcrowding at the Tat Kuang Si sanctuary is evident, which explains why Free the Bears started looking for new land back in 2015.
These bears are like my children
After two years of searching, and a huge fundraising drive, they received the deeds to the new site at the end of 2016. While the focus of LPWS is always the bears, the larger space has let them widen the species they can accept.
Since they obtained the land, 11 monkeys, a leopard cat, a crested serpent eagle, a masked palm civet, three Impressed tortoises and even three red pandas – intercepted as they were being smuggled into Laos from China – are among the animals to have arrived at LPWS.
“The new sanctuary doesn’t just give us room for 150 bears; it also means we can rescue more animals and offer them a better life,” says Tak.
One thing the new sanctuary definitely has is space. When construction is complete, this secluded valley will hold 20 bear enclosures in total, averaging 4,000m2, with the biggest over 8,000m2. At Tat Kuang Si, the largest is 1,600m2.
Aside from the enclosures, there will also be a quarantine area and a wildlife hospital – a first for Laos – so the team can properly screen
new animals as they arrive. The next step will be to build accommodation for staff as well as for volunteers, who can come and spend a week or more working with and caring for the bears.
Advocacy to change people’s attitudes and ensure the local community are involved are central to this long-term programme. “Since we started, we realised it’s important,” says 35-year-old Tak. “All of our staff are from nearby villages; they help spread awareness of the situation, and [stress] the value of conservation.”
Most of the 20-strong team at the LPWS, which includes five keepers, were former farmers in the surrounding hills. Some, such as 58-year-old keeper SiThong Khamponsavanh, still remember seeing
moon bears in those forests.
“Not anymore,” he says sadly. “If a villager did see a bear, they would probably shoot it.” While it sounds harsh, it’s a matter of economics for most. A dead bear is worth way more than a local could ever make selling onions at the market in Luang Prabang.
At just 31, LPWS head keeper Somsack “Sack” Phatasin is too young to have ever seen a wild bear but he has embraced the arrival of the sanctuary to his valley. “I’ve never met a bear in the wild so it’s good to have the sanctuary here,” he says with an infectious grin. “It’s great that local children can come and see the bears and learn more about them.”
One of the most exciting long-term plans for LPWS is the potential to turn an overgrown forested area on the higher slopes into a 20,000m2 release centre. This would allow the team to think about releasing carefully selected bears, who have been raised with little or no human contact, into a wild but relatively safe environment.
It’s still a pipe dream but it’s something that gets this optimistic team truly excited. “Just the fact we’re starting to think about releasing bears back into the wild,” says Lar with a beaming smile. “It’s something that I never, ever thought was possible.”
About the organisation
Free the Bears was started after founder Mary Hutton happened to watch a documentary about bile farms on Australian TV. Horrified, the Perth native started petitioning to “free the bears”. Two years later, in 1995, the charity was born. Since then, they have founded sanctuaries in Cambodia (1997), Laos (2003) and Vietnam (2008), as well as worked with a partner in India to rescue sloth bears (2002).
In early 2019, volunteers can sign up to a 13-day trip (worldexpeditions.com) visiting the centres in Vietnam and Laos, ending at the official opening of the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary on 8 March 2019.
The bear facts
- A full-grown bear eats up to 10kg of fruit, vegetables, eggs and honey every day
- An Asiatic bear can live up to 40 years
- A moon bear’s sense of smell is over 2,100 times better than a human’s
- Moon bears an smell food from 20 miles away
- The ideal weight for a full-grown male moon bear is 180kg
- 284kg: Weight of the Morris Moonbeam, the heaviest moon bear ever rescued by the Laos Free the Bears team. Today he weighs a much safer 206kg
- 10,000: Estimated minimum number of bears living in farms across Southeast Asia and China
- Free the Bears has four sanctuaries caring for more than 200 sun and moon bears
- 120+: Number of bears still living in bear farms across Laos
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.