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In China and Vietnam, thousands of bears are farmed for their bile, which many consider a potent traditional Chinese remedy. Scores of other bears are killed to make bear paw soup, which is considered to be a delicacy. Now, conservationists in Cambodia are rescuing as many bears as possible from animal traffickers in order to give them a better life.
Jodie Ellen spends her days playing with some of the most adorable bear cubs. Altogether, she helps look after over 100 infant and adult bears at this huge bear sanctuary, 40 km south of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. The project is run by Free the Bears, an Australian-based NGO that rescues bears from illegal traffickers who supply bile farms in China and Vietnam. Other bears are sold for their meat. The group also takes in bears that are kept as pets and often neglected and abused. Ellen only has good things to say about these bears.
Jodie Ellen: "Bears are just an amazing species. They are intelligent, they have such personalities, and they're such a vital part of the ecological scheme of things. So every species is worth protecting, and bears are up there with that."
Every morning, Jodie, her husband Peter, and a team of volunteers head to the local market. They buy dozens of bananas and pineapples - enough to feed the bears at the sanctuary for one day. Volunteers work hard unloading the fruit and chopping it up for the bears to eat. They mop and scrub their cages, making sure the animals have clean and healthy places to stay. Although the work can be long and tiring, Australian volunteer, Janine Ferris, says she loves it.
Janine Ferris: "They can do whatever they want. They eat, they throw their bananas around, they do whatever, and I'm just there to clean up, and it just brings me enormous joy. It's really wonderful."
Srey Lek is a sun bear and was kept as a pet for 12 years. She developed a habit of scratching her belly with a metal pole. When the wound became infected, her owner was no longer able to take care of her and handed her over to Free the Bears. Vuthy Chon, a project manager, is taking extra special care of her.
Vuthy Chon: "The wound on her chest has been there for at least 4 or 5 months and during that time she never received proper treatment from a veterinarian. That is why the wound got bigger and now it may be hard to treat. We are treating her in this clinic with antibiotics and cleaning the wound with saline solution."
Some bears arrive at the sanctuary with serious injuries after being caught by hunters using snares. Others are found at traders' homes awaiting sale to the highest bidder.
Once at the sanctuary, bears are treated for any injuries and are slowly integrated into groups of animals of a similar age. Sun bears are found across Southeast Asia. Adults weigh between 45 to 60 kg and healthy bears can live into their late twenties. In Asia, they face increasing poaching, especially to make bear paw soup. Some people believe eating bear meat gives them extraordinary virility and strength.
Jodie feeds a sun bear known as Sai through a hole in this wooden box. The bear will soon be sent to France in this crate to be part of a breeding program. The goal is to help increase the size of the species' population outside of Asia in case the local population drops to more critical levels.
Jodie is training the bear to get used to staying inside the box for longer periods at a time, to make the long-distance flight as comfortable as possible for her.
It is impossible to know exactly how many bears are left in the wild in Asia. The group says there are 4,500 bears at bile farms in Vietnam and over 7,000 bears at roughly 200 bile farms in China.
Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which is believed to reduce fever, protect the liver, improve eyesight, break down gallstones, and act as an anti-inflammatory. Although scientists have come up with synthetic bile that is equally effective, many people still seek the real thing, in spite of the harm that bile farming causes to these bears.
Bears are highly intelligent, so to keep the animals at the sanctuary on their toes and always learning new things. Although life in the wild would perhaps be ideal for the bears, until threats to the species subside, the sanctuary may be the next best thing for the animals.
Information for this report was provided by APTN.