Dear Supporters and Friends, Greetings to our Free the Bears family, I hope everyone is healthy, safe and coping with the many challenges we’ve faced in recent times. In 1993, after seeing a television news report about the bears in bile farms, I went to my local shopping centre and stood with a pen and clipboard hoping someone would stop to sign my petition to help the bears. I can still clearly remember feeling like a bit of a fool standing there alone. Thankfully, many lovely people just like you stopped by to say hello and signed up to help, which led to the 1995 registration of ‘Free the Bears’.
I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined the things we would see, hear and achieve in the 26 years that followed. Although we’ve helped rescue almost 1,000 bears and set up bear sanctuaries in 3 countries, there’s still many more bears in need and a lot more work to do. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, we’ll learn of another devastating situation or face another roadblock in our efforts to end bear bile farming. And yet every single time our wonderful team of bear carers and supporters rise up and take it in their stride.
In the past 6 months we’ve rescued an incredible 18 moon bears across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Our team in Cambodia rescued 4 bears, 3 of which were female cubs. All 3 cubs had lost paws to wire snare traps. The youngest, only 6 months old, had also been hog-tied and had additional wounds on all legs. Her fresh snare wound required multiple surgeries and she sadly ended up losing the entire limb.
Our team in Vietnam rescued 3 moon bears from a bile farm where they had been caged for over 16 years. One of the bears was also missing a paw, which likely occurred when he was just a cub as a result of a wire snare trap. In Laos the rescues just keep coming - 11 bears in 6 months, 10 of which were orphaned cubs, the 11th a stunted young female that had been kept for years in a tiny, dark cage in a restaurant kitchen.
All of the bears are now safely at our sanctuaries, receiving healthy diets, expert veterinary treatment and loving care in an enriching environment with forest enclosures, swimming pools, hammocks, climbing platforms and beautiful bear houses.
You’d think the past 26 years would have prepared me for almost anything. Like most of us I’ve been shocked by the impact of Covid and couldn’t possibly have foreseen that in one hit we’d lose many of our sources of fundraising, or that poaching of bears could suddenly increase (as people turn to the forest to make up for lost income), or that we’d be prevented from doing something as simple as meeting.
After postponing our 25th anniversary celebration, in August we were finally able to hold a beautiful 26th Anniversary Lunch in Perth. We enjoyed a lovely meal, great company and lots of laughter as we reminisced and shared stories. Everyone had a wonderful time. I’d like to specially thank Alex Cearns for acting as MC and triple Gold Logie winner Rove McManus for agreeing to serve as the new patron of Free the Bears.
It was so heartening to be surrounded by such loving and caring supporters of Free the Bears. I think everyone who attended left the event feeling a little more hopeful and with their batteries recharged, I certainly did! It was a great reminder that no matter what new challenges pop up, by working together and supporting each other, we can overcome them. Everything Free the Bears has achieved is only possible thanks to your ongoing support and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness. I’d like to wish everyone in the Free the Bears family a very safe and merry holiday season, and a Happy New Year. Bear hugs, Mary
UPDATE FROM CAMBODIA
What a rollercoaster of a ride we’ve had over the past 6 months! As many have experienced, we’ve had several Covid lockdowns. Now that more than 80% of the population of Cambodia are vaccinated, we hope that things will start to get back to normal (or as normal as they can in this part of the world). We managed to keep our sanity & hope throughout - lucky we did as we’ve had several dramatic bear rescues. In late June we collected Cambodia Rescue #212, a female moon bear that had been caged for over 12 years. Early July brought a stunning rescue of 2 female moon bear cubs estimated to be around 7 months old, both of which had lost their front right paw to wire snare traps. Although the wounds had healed over by the time the cubs came into our care, these poor little bears, who have been adopted & named Chhaiya & Kannitha (meaning ‘beautiful light’ & ‘angel’ in the local Khmer language) are quite severely traumatised & will require a huge amount of loving care by our expert cub carer Mr Heng (& his daughter, our newest vet, Dr Sourphea). Both of the girls are improving day by day & we’re hopeful they’ll be able to enjoy a healthy & happy life.
At the end of September we were in for an even bigger shock when we were informed of a small female moon bear cub who had been caught in a snare trap & then hogtied by poachers. Our rescue team & vets rushed to the location to find a tiny cub missing most of a paw, with a fresh open wound & additional deep wounds on all legs from being tied. The vets had to set up a makeshift clinic on the spot to treat her wounds. She required more surgeries in the days that followed. Due to the extent of her wounds, Cambodia Rescue #215 eventually lost her entire limb. Despite the incredible trauma she’s suffered, she’s making an incredible recovery. We believe she is now free of pain & is an active, inquisitive & playful cub.
In recent months we’ve been upgrading enclosures & adding bear houses. We’re about to complete a satellite Bear House 7a, connecting to Bear House 7. Special thanks to Brown Bear Coffee for donating this bear house. Construction is underway on Bear House 4a which connects to Bear House 4. The additional houses will provide some of the less sociable adult male moon bears with a beautiful space they can call their own, as well as providing additional space for the many cubs we’ve rescued in recent years that have outgrown the Cub Nurseries. We can’t wait to see the reaction of the bears as they move into new houses & enclosures in the coming weeks. The new enclosures also required swimming pools, caves & climbing towers. Everyone has been working extremely hard throughout the hot summer months (thank goodness for regular cooling rains). Great work by our committed & talented bear care team. We’ve also made a little progress on the Research Centre above Bear House 8 (under construction since 2014 due to funding restraints) which we hope to soon complete.
Our small research team is wrapping up an interesting project researching hunters while continuing to monitor wild bear populations. We recently co-authored a paper on bear bile use in Vietnam & completed a Conservation Academy course. Despite no travel to Cambodia & schools closed for much of the past 6 months, we were very excited to recently receive a couple of small groups to the sanctuary, to learn about & meet the bears, & help with some repairs! Although our Volunteer Programme has effectively shut down thanks to Covid, we hope that in 2022 we’ll be able to start receiving volunteers again. Some sad news, Jen Padgett, our Volunteer Coordinator for the past 5 years, will be leaving Free the Bears for a new & exciting chapter in her life. Many of you will know Jen from your visits as volunteers & many more will know Jen from her wonderful Facebook livestream videos. Jen has been a great help to Free the Bears in so many ways (several of the gorgeous pictures in the 2022 wall calendar are from Jen). Thanks for all your help Jen & best of luck in the future. Happy holidays & Happy New Year everyone!
UPDATE FROM LAOS
We’ve had a VERY challenging 6 months in Laos. Having successfully avoided Covid for most of the pandemic, the Delta variant finally impacted us. Travel restrictions & lockdowns prevented bear rescues, halted construction & even required our amazing bear care team to quarantine themselves in the sanctuary as a biosecurity measure, sleeping in tents on top of bear houses, not seeing their families for weeks. A very special thank you to our amazingly committed team!
Despite all the issues, we managed to rescue an incredible 11 moon bears over the past 6 months, 10 of which were orphaned cubs, their mothers likely killed by poachers (a mother bear would never willingly leave her cub). Roberta & Blossom were rescued in May in an unusual rescue. With provincial borders closed, we relied on our government partners to rescue the cubs. We met them in the middle of a bridge marking the provincial boundary, which neither of us could cross, like a scene from a spy novel! Our next rescue in June was Janey, a stunted moon bear kept for years in a tiny, dirty, dark cage in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. Brother & sister Sid & Nancy, just 5 months old, followed in July.
3 rescues of 4 cubs came in rapid succession - Laos Rescue #97, a terrified female cub just 4 months old, brothers #98 & #99, around 5 months old, & our 100th bear rescued in Laos, a male around 1.5 years old. At the end of August we rescued a tiny male cub that was incredibly stressed from being held in a small bird cage. Finally, on Nov 10 we rescued #102, a young female. All of the rescues are on the road to recovery. Roberta & Blossom have bonded with Sid & Nancy, with #100 soon to join the group. #97 & #101, terrified for weeks after rescue, were recently introduced to #98 & #99. The transformation is remarkable - from shy & scared to confident non-stop play, it warms the heart! Janey joined a group & is building confidence by the day. #97-#102 are all waiting for their forever name - if you’re interested in adopting & naming a cub (involves donating annually to cover basic care costs), please contact us - we’d love to get names for the new rescues (& we need help coping with so many new bears).
It’s not only bears we’ve helped, we recently rescued a tortoise, pig-tailed macaque, porcupine, 2 binturong & 2 critically endangered Sunda pangolins, a mother & pup. Sadly the mother passed away shortly after rescue. We also sadly bid farewell to handsome moon bear Keo, rescued in 2005 & a favourite of visitors to the Bear Rescue Centre.
Our new Bear House 6 was completed in July (special thanks to AJN Steelstock) & is now home to 7 happy, young male moon bears. With so many rescues arriving, we’re already clearing land for Bear House 7 & hoping for it be completed by mid-2022. The older Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre desperately needed upgrades & over recent months the bear houses received new roofs. New climbing platforms have been installed in various locations (bears are very destructive). Sun bears Mary, Noy & Pandy are loving their new enclosure which has been specially designed for the world’s most arboreal bear species, full of walkways & climbing structures.
It was such a relief to have a normal rainy season over the past 6 months, following 2 years of drought, with lakes at our Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary now relatively full. Groundwater bores have been successfully drilled to supply water in the dry season, a vital addition to the sanctuary. Work is slowly progressing on a facility to house visiting experts, government partners (for training), & volunteers to help care for the bears & develop the sanctuary (please visit as a volunteer for a once-in-a-lifetime ethical travel experience).
Although the Covid situation in Laos is deteriorating, we’re all staying safe & are hopeful this will soon pass. We wish all of our supporters a healthy & safe holiday season & the happiest of new years. Thanks for your support.
UPDATE FROM VIETNAM
Earlier this year we campaigned heavily for the release of the final 4 bears that were left in bile farms in Long An province in southern Vietnam. In June we finally received approval from the owners of 3 bears to move them to our sanctuary. Just as we were about to set off for the rescue a Covid outbreak sent Vietnam into lockdown. It wasn’t until October 26th that we were finally able to proceed & rescue the bears from the bile farm where they’d been caged for over 16 years. The rescue went surprisingly well - we were expecting it to take amost 24 hours however the stars aligned & our team were back to the sanctuary in under 16 hours. All 3 bears are in relatively poor condition. There are 2 males, one of which is missing a paw, likely from a wire snare trap injury when captured as a cub. The female is overweight & missing fur. They’re now in a safe & quiet space at our quarantine facility, enjoying a healthy diet, special treats & expert loving care. We hope they’ll be able to enjoy many healthy & happy years, free to roam the forest in our beautiful Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary. We’re fighting to secure the release of the 4th bear from a different owner before the end of the year. If successful, another province will be free of caged bears & this will bring us one step closer to ending bear bile farming in Vietnam forever.
Although the recent Covid lockdown led to a pause in construction activity at the sanctuary, we’ve been able to return to work & are now putting the finishing touches on our new Bear House 4. The house, dens & enclosure fences are complete & looking great. While the enclosures contain thick forest, we’re also installing swimming pools & caves to make them even better. Several lucky bears will be able to enjoy their beautiful new home later this month. Completion of Bear House 4 will also create additional space to allow for more rescues of bears from bile farms. Special thanks to supporters of our fundraiser for bear houses, Welttierschutzgesellschaft e.V. (WTG) & Marchig Animal Welfare Trust for enabling this project to proceed. Our second construction project currently underway is a Bear Discovery Centre, to educate visitors to the park about sun bears & moon bears, the issues they face, alternatives to using bear bile as medicine, the importance of wildlife conservation, & the work of Free the Bears. We’ve made great progress & hope to have the structure completed by the end of the year. Meanwhile we’re also upgrading all enclosures & installing wastewater treatment facilities. Always busy!
As Vietnam overcomes Covid & opens up, we hope to welcome tourists & visitors back to the Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary. After a very wet rainy season the sanctuary is looking spectacular. The forest is an explosion of every shade of green imaginable. The incredible birdlife of Cat Tien National Park is everywhere to be seen & we have very happy bears who love to forage all day. Thankfully, our staff have been able to access vaccinations - everyone is feeling a little more safe & secure. We’ve welcomed a new Sanctuary Manager (welcome Thuong) & the team recently gave a presentation about bear rescue & welfare to National Park & Forestry Department staff, tour guides & students from the Dong Nai Forestry & Agriculture University, which was very well received.
Although we’re a small team in Vietnam, our family of rescued bears is growing. We’ll continue to focus on the bears remaining on bile farms as well as increasing awareness & changing attitudes towards wildlife conservation. The 2005 Vietnam law which banned the capture of wild bears & the killing or extraction of bear bile of caged bears, but allowed any bears already owned to be kept, means that all the bears remaining in the bile farms have been caged for a minimum of 16 years. We’re doing all we can to rescue as many of these suffering bears as we can, as soon as possible, before it’s too late. Wishing you happy holidays & a Happy New Year. See you in 2022. Stay safe! Thanks & bear hugs!