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Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade
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Cambodia's wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears.

This government wildlife sanctuary outside Phnom Penh is home to hundreds of animals seized from wildlife traffickers.

The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center holds more than 130 bears: moon bears, also known as Asiatic Black Bears, and smaller sun bears.

This three-month-old sun bear, saved from traders, is the most recent arrival.

Last year, the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC applauded Cambodia's efforts to counter the bear trade as the best of 16 nations in Asia.

"It's the result come from the cooperation between the conservation NGOs, like Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears Fund and Forestry Administration. We work together in fighting the illegal trade," said Nhek Ratanapich, a worker from Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.

The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team is at the forefront, a mix of military police, Forestry Administration officials and staff from the U.S. non-profit Wildlife Alliance.

Success also requires a safe place to take rescued bears. That's where Phnom Tamao comes in.

That success, however, is rare in Asia.

"You can protect bears in one protected area within Cambodia, but still the threats that are emanating from China or from Vietnam will lead to increased threats on those animals so you need to take a regional approach to actually protect these bears in the long run," said Matt Hunt, CEO, of Free the Bears Fund.

In Cambodia, that approach also includes changing attitudes through the Free the Bears' education center.

"So we would like to enhance the people to understand what is the benefit of the animal and what is importance of the wildlife conservation. When the people understand they can stop hunting or killing the animal," said Nhek Ratanpich.

That's unlikely to happen soon.

Meantime, Matt Hunt predicts, the plight of bears in Asia will worsen.

"They're large mammals, they require huge amounts of space, and we've got a vastly growing human population that also has a long cultural tradition of utilizing wildlife or exploiting wildlife," he said.

One long-term solution is a captive breeding program to allow offspring one day to be released. For this cub, though, the coming years will be spent safely at Phnom Tamao.