Free the Bears - Our Story
In 1993 Perth grandmother Mary Hutton saw a television program that would change her life. The segment contained horrifying footage of moon bears (Asiatic Black bears) held in coffin sized cages unable to move, with dirty catheters inserted directly into their gall bladder to 'milk' their bile.
Mary learned that thousands of bears were being held in these horrifying conditions throughout Asia, regularly milked for their bile to be used in traditional medicines.
The next day, Mary drew up a petition and stood at the entrance of the local shopping mall collecting signatures to help “Free the Bears”. She collected thousands of signatures and a group of like-minded people determined to help bears and in 1995 registered Free the Bears Fund as a not-for-profit charity (Charity No: A1004507U).
As Mary organised raffles, film nights and other events to raise awareness about the plight of Asia’s bears, word of her work spread and requests for help arrived. After rescuing a pair of sun bears from Cambodia, having seen there were more bears in need, she began construction of the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary. This is now the world’s largest sanctuary for sun bears and has educated hundreds of thousands of Cambodians about the threats facing wild bear populations.
A telephone call from India led to Free the Bears joining Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue in the seemingly impossible challenge of freeing India’s dancing bears. The first group of 25 bears were rescued on Christmas Eve of 2002. Over the next 7 years Free the Bears helped provide seed money for more than 500 dancing bear families to set up new livelihoods. In 2009 the last of India’s dancing bears was handed over and the centuries old tradition was ended.
2003 saw the opening of our Bear Rescue Centre in Luang Prabang, Laos followed by Cat Tien, Vietnam in 2008. Construction of additional Rescue Centres in both locations is currently in progress. Free the Bears provides lifelong care to over 220 rescued bears across 5 sanctuaries, and also supports over 300 rescued bears in India.
For as long as there are bears in need, Free the Bears will strive to stop their suffering. As well as rescue and rehabilitation, we continue to tackle the threats to Asia's bears. These threats are numerous and endemic, but with consistent effort from local communities up to national governments, we believe ending the suffering of bears is achievable.
Besides habitat loss, one of the main threats to bears in Asia is the illegal wildlife trade. Many of our rescued bears are rescued from poachers, exotic pet owners, or people planning to use them in traditional medicine. Poachers kill or capture bears via hunting or snare traps, selling them locally or smuggling them abroad.
Another grave threat to Asia's bears are bear bile farms. Despite bear bile farming becoming illegal in the countries in which we operate (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), an estimated 800 bears remain in captivity in Vietnam (down from 4,000 in 2006, only around 150 of those were rescued) and 150 in Laos (2018 estimates). There are an estimated 10,000 bears in bile farms in China. It is suspected that almost all bears in Vietnam and Laos bile farms were taken from the wild and additional reports indicate that wild bear numbers are plummeting.
To tackle this problem, Free the Bears and other wildlife conservation organisations are working with governments to strengthen laws and increase capacity for enforcement, working with traditional medicine practitioners to promote synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile, addressing consumer demand with education campaigns about the cruelty inflicted upon bears in farms.
We're beginning to see positive results from these efforts. In a recent study of Vietnamese bear bile farmers, farmers reported a substantial reduction in consumer demand for bear bile. Worryingly, they also reported a substantial reduction in food budgets for bears, increasing the urgency to rescue these bears before it's too late.
We never pay for bears (paying for bears would contribute to a market for wildlife). We work with government authorities who confiscate bears (and other illegally held wildlife), handing them over to Free the Bears for rescue and rehabilitation.
Free the Bears works with communities, schools and organisations across Asia to change attitudes and raise awareness of the wildlife trade. We work with universities and other institutions who conduct critical research. We also work with government, law enforcement agencies and other charities to create and implement a framework to combat wildlife traders.
Despite each country facing a unique set of challenges and issues to overcome, we will continually strive to achieve our mission of protecting, preserving and enriching the lives of bears throughout the world. Free the Bears.