There is never a dull moment at the Free the Bears’ Cambodian sanctuary, which current cares for the world’s largest group of rescued sun bears. What the smallest of all bears lack in size, they more than make up for in personality. Naturally solitary in the wild (apart from mothers with cubs), sun bears are renowned for being incredibly active, highly inquisitive and quite possibly the most tenacious animals on Earth! The teams at the Phnom Tamao Sanctuary are constantly challenged with ensuring that harmony is maintained amongst the twenty-two groups of sun bears at the sanctuary; assessing each new arrival for not only the more obvious indicators of group suitability (age, size and sex), but also delving far deeper into each bear’s individual personality; to build social groups that can live happily together.

Between 2005 and 2009, 70 bears were rescued and brought to the Cambodian sanctuary. More than 80% of those rescues were cubs at the time of their arrival. Meaning that today almost half of the bears at the sanctuary are between 5-10 years old. In bear years, this makes them the equivalent of teenagers, or at best, young adults. Male bears that have lived together since they were cubs suddenly decide that they can no longer tolerate the sight of one another, and females switch allegiances within their groups. In many ways, the sanctuary is like a university, only for bears, and staff/team meetings increasingly consist of discussions around movements of bears.

As well as dealing with the bears already at the sanctuary, keepers are constantly receiving many more rescued bears to look after. Recent rescues include a pair of adult sun bears that had been kept in small cages at a Singaporean-owned garment factory in Phnom Penh. The male bear is the biggest bear staff have ever seen, after spending years of being fed inappropriate food and having no room to exercise, this male bear weighed in at 144kg, twice the weight of a normal adult sun bear. After just a short period in their new quarantine area at the sanctuary, the bears were mixed together for the first time, this gave them a perfect chance to wrestle, play and splash around in their new home. In just a few months after his rescue, the male lost over 20kg and is revelling in his fast developing climbing and swimming skills.

Other new arrivals include a pair of siblings (male and female) sun bear cubs rescued back in May. Both cubs weighed less than 5kg and were handed over by a private owner. Now named Pepper and Scout, they are doing well. They were very nervous initially, but now are very confident young bears. Just a few months ago, a young male sun bear cub was brought to the sanctuary after being handed over by soldiers stationed in Preah Vihear province. The soldiers had captured him as a cub and had kept him as a pet for several months before the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team were informed and were able to secure his release. This male was the 168th rescue in Cambodia, and is currently housed in the new Quarantine area along with other recent rescues, including Scout and Pepper.

With increasing numbers, comes more development, with a large number of the sub-adult groups fast outgrowing their homes, planning is once again underway to begin construction of a new Bear House before the end of the year. Work on the third and final unit in the new Quarantine Area is almost complete, meaning that it will be ready for the official opening of this world class facility in November. However with the rate of rescues they are receiving, it is looking likely that the new area may already be filled with bears before it is officially opened!

Picture of rescued sun bear enjoying enrichment AFTW funds have helped purchase © Free the Bears

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