It has been just shy of a year since I’ve updated my blog and I admit I have thought about sitting down and writing for months. I want to share my experiences here but life moves so fast I don’t know where or how to begin. Having just ticked over my first year living abroad and in that year not having the time to return home for a visit even once, it’s safe to say that I’ve been a little busy.
I moved to Cambodia to take the position as the Coordinator for the Volunteer program in with Free the Bears which is an Australian NGO that has been operating here for just over 22 years. Free the Bears is a non-for profit (and boy do I mean that!) dedicated to the protection, rescue and preservation of the endemic species of bears in Asia, namely the Asiatic Black Bear Ursus Tibetanus commonly known as Moon Bear and the Malaysian Sun Bear Helarctos Malayanus. The threats facing both species in a nutshell are that they are subject to exploitation in the animal entertainment industry, illegal pet trade, restaurant trade (bear paw soup), illegally trafficked between countries to be sold off, the industry of bear bile (traditional medicine) and the trade in body parts such as gall bladder, paws & hide. We have a rescue centre outside Phnom Penh city within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre where we operate independently from the rest of the park with our own facilities and keeping staff looking after over 120 rescued bears every day. We do not receive funding from the Cambodian Government however have been working in partnership with the Cambodian Forestry Administration since 1997. We are an organisation built from the generosity and donations from supporters around the world and without them Free the Bears certainly wouldn’t be what it is today! With three established bear rescue centres in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam and two more currently being built in Laos & Vietnam to cope with the expectation of more arrivals as the end of the horrendous bile trade slowly comes to fruition in Laos & Vietnam.
What started out as a small, simple role at Free the Bears has managed to expand into something I never expected and now that I have a moment to reflect on it I’m pleased to say that I am extremely proud of what I have accomplished and where things are headed. Before I moved to Cambodia I worked in the hospitality industry for eight years in hotels. I worked my little ass off for nearly a decade moving through different roles from Receptionist, Supervisor, Night Auditor, Reservations manager and Duty Manager. I never could have imagined that all of those years of experience would be as useful as it is now in my current role. Instead of dealing with ungrateful, begrudged, nasty customers who caused me nothing but take-home anxiety, stress and insomnia over many years leading me to generally dislike the human race. Now I LOVE the people and volunteers that I work with day to day! Having a likeminded mentality with the people I see daily has brought me back to the happiest of existences. Working towards the common goal of providing a healthy, stimulating, peaceful life for bears that through no fault of their own do not have the opportunity to live in the wilds of Asia where they belong.
So how are these rescued bears free if they cannot live in the wild? Our rescued bears are indeed FREE..free from PAIN, free from HUNGER & THIRST, free from DISCOMFORT & MENTAL ANGUISH, free from PAIN, they have freedom to EXPRESS NATURAL BEHAVIOURS and freedom from FEAR & DISTRESS. To me this is the best possible alternative we can offer them, sanctuary and a safe place to call home. Sadly our rescued bears cannot be released back into the wild and I am asked often why.
Unfortunately, specifically in Cambodia there is less than 25% of the natural forests remaining with deforestation and logging continuing throughout the country.
But what about the protected forests? I would love to say that these are viable options for release but alas they are not. In the protected areas of Cambodia illegal poaching and hunting is still all too common. Hunters have been seen on camera traps in protected areas with guns searching for their prey. The hunters themselves may not specifically be searching for bears but perhaps wild pig or deer and in doing so they often set snare traps to catch them. Snare traps are indiscriminate killers, in the effort to catch deer & pig sometimes other threatened species happen across them such as Leopard Cats, Civets, Bears, Elephants and all manner of small mammals. For some snare traps the hunter never returns to check it or the trap is forgotten, leaving a captured animal to die a slow, torturous death alone in the forest under unimaginable pain and stress. For those that ARE found by hunters the outcome is no better, as the hunters may not be able to get near the animal terrified and thrashing around they have to be killed to be caught, sometimes by gunshot which is an expensive choice, a cheaper alternative being that the animal is bludgeoned to death by the closest usable object.
Recently I was asked, “So what’s the point then? You can’t release them so you just keep them? You don’t breed them so they just live at the rescue centre and then die? I just don’t understand what the point in all of that is. You seem to be fighting a lost cause..”
My response was simple, wildlife conservation isn’t for everyone. It is heartbreaking at times to accept the fact no matter how hard you work that things may not always have a happy ending or go your way. But that doesn’t mean you give up, close the door, dust off your hands and say well screw it I tried, it’s all going to shit anyway why should I bother!
Look, this is my passion in life, the one thing that I have always leant towards, even as a child…and if my small part to play in the protection of species is to coordinate a group of volunteers to help repaint a bear house inspiring people to WANT to do more and spread the word than call me crazy because I am more than happy to do it!
I love my job, I meet people who come with preconceived notions about what conservation is, how it works and how effective it can be and they leave better aware of the sheer volume of time, money, commitment and determination it takes to make change happen and have lasting positive outcomes! You have to be patient, you have to be willing to see out the work and devote yourself and your life to it.
In whatever form that may take or path it may lead me on, I am.