Polar Bear Researcher Joins Forces with Free the Bears

A truly dangerous bear

This month, our team in Cambodia were happy to welcome Dr. John P Whiteman, Research Associate with the Institute of Conservation Research at San Diego Zoo Global. 

John P Whiteman is a Physiological Ecologist who has most recently been researching free ranging Polar bears in the Western Arctic. His focus has been investigating the Polar bears physiological ability to cope with seasonal food deprivation and the longer summers caused by climate change. The work of John and his team has been nothing short of amazing in terms of the scale of this research project and the colossal operational mechanics of managing it.

Using specialist equipment such as an icebreaker ship and helicopters, the project saw over 150 bears sampled in a very remote environment in the Beaufort Sea. Funding was primarily provided by the National Science Foundation (USA), and critical collaborators on the project included the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Total logistical costs likely tallied into the millions to support a large team of personnel working on the sea ice and on the tundra for months at a time.

Following his time in the Arctic John spent 5-months at the Free the Bears supported Agra Bear Rescue Facility initiating a long-term study on Sloth bear behaviour and reproduction. He then joined Free the Bears at our Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at Phnom Tamao where he has been working with our research team to investigate opportunities to collaborate o

n research on Sun bears and Moon bears. John says that he hopes to take advantage of the large numbers of bears in our care at the sanctuary to generate scientific information that will directly support conservation efforts of the species in the wild. 

  “I think that one of the best things a group like Free the Bears can do is to bring in researchers to collaborate, particularly with a species for which there are so many unknowns. The 133 bears currently in care with Free the Bears in Cambodia represent a resource to do some truly amazing scientific work. Such a large sample size should most definitely be leveraged to produce data that would otherwise be unobtainable, to support care of 

captive bears and conservation and management of the remaining free-ranging population. I am excited to spend time with the Free the Bears team to see what can be done. While it is heartbreaking to come to know the rescue stories of each animal and how they came to be in care, with research we can make the best of a bad situation. Ultimately, we want to make sure we are doing all that we can to understand the species in order to get them back into the wild. And while there are too many factors right now that prohibit us from doing so now- that’s the end goal for everyone involved."

While John’s studies initially focused on the Polar bears of the Arctic, he is looking forward to expanding his knowledge to working with other species of bear. John describes his work on bears across the world as something of great personal interest. 

“As a research subject, bears are a unique group to focus on. There are only 8 species of bears in the world and yet they cover almost every type of habitat that you can imagine on the planet, and they employ a wide variety of strategies in their patterns of feeding and reproducing. Physiologically, they truly are fascinating. The knowledge I am able to acquire working with one species of bear will be invaluable not only for understanding that species, but also in comparative work across species.”

Free the Bears Research Programme Manager, Brian Crudge, describes research partnerships as instrumental to work towards the conservation vision of the organisation.

"By forming partnerships with organisations such as the Institute of Conservation Research at San Diego Zoo Global, we're able to take advantage of the vast skills and human resources of over 200 conservation scientists to help find solutions to some of the most pressing threats facing bears. Ultimately we still have much to learn about Sun, Moon and Sloth bears if we are to protect them in the wild - and the bears in our sanctuaries can help us answer many of the questions that we have. For example, we've recently been trialing a new technique for capturing hair samples from Sun bears at our sanctuaries, with the resulting method now being deployed in field surveys studying wild bear populations in Vietnam.

With the expansion of our research facilities within Bear House 8 in Cambodia we hope to work with partners such as San Diego Zoo Global to create a new generation of young conservationists who will lead the protection of their countries native bear species. And, perhaps most importantly, by working with international partners such as Dr. John Whiteman people can understand that bear conservation is a global issue that requires inter-organisational collaboration if we are to succeed in saving these species for future generations." 

We would like to take this time to thank Dr. John P Whiteman for spending valuable time with our team over the past few weeks. We will endeavour to keep you updated with the research projects and outcomes as they develop. In the meantime, John has shared with us some amazing photographs from his personal album of his time working with the Polar bears in the Arctic. 


Free the Bears have ongoing opportunities for Volunteer Researchers to assist our research team. Click here to view our Research Prospectus and find out more about our projects and how you can get involved. 

Photographs courtesy of Dr John P Whiteman: A yearling Polar bear from John's project in the Western Arctic.


Photographs courtesy of Dr John P Whiteman: John at work in the field somewhere in the Beaufort Sea.