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Meet the Bears outside of Phnom Penh

Free the Bears is a bear sanctuary, situated 40km outside of Phnom Penh, off National Road 2. The sanctuary is part of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the entrance is $5 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians. There isn’t much in the way of public transport to the centre, so it’s best to make your own way there via motorbike, tuk-tuk or rent a taxi.

Free the Bears was founded in 1993 by an Australian called Mary Hutton. There is clearly still a need for the sanctuary as they currently house 118 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. I was shown around by Chuon Vuthy , the Cambodian Programme Manager. He told me that some people buy bears as cubs, and abandon them as they grow into full size bears. The sanctuary also houses bears who have been injured by animal traps.

I also chatted to Emma Gatehouse, who is the Volunteer Coordinator and Technical Expert. Emma tells me Fortnam’s story (pictured in the Hammock). Fortnam is a sun bear cub, he arrived at Free the Bears six months ago. He had been kept as a pet and was in a bad way when he arrived. His fur was balding and brown – a sign of malnutrition in sun bears. Since arriving at the sanctuary, Fortnam’s coat has got darker, but he still needs to put on weight.  Emma tells me that the hammock is Fortnam’s favourite spot, he can often be found there fast asleep.

I had an agenda behind organising my visit to Free the Bears – my agenda being wanting to photograph sun bear cubs. Fortnam and his friends don’t disappoint. The cubs are either, wrestling, eating ants or napping in hammocks.  I had naively imagined being able to get closer to the cubs, but the staff explained that they bears would try and wrestle with me, so I reluctantly Iet the idea go.

Lonely Planet’s website erroneously states that visitors can wash bear cubs as part of the ‘bear keeper for a day’ programme. I must confess to liking the idea of washing bear cubs, but Emma and Chuon Vuthy explained that it would be bad for the bear cubs to have a series of tourist washing them. It’s generally important to manage how much human contact the bear cubs have. Where possible the sanctuary will introduce a rescued cub to a group of similar aged bears. If this is not possible, trained members of staff help the cubs learn bear behaviour, such as how to climb trees and catch ants.

I generally have reservations about zoos, but these bears aren’t kept for our entertainment. They are rescued bears. It wouldn’t be possible to release these bears into the wild. The bears seem content wrestling and eating in their large enclosures.

The sanctuary does offer a ‘bear keeper for the day’ programme (without bear cub washing). They also welcome volunteers from between 1 week – 8 weeks.  The Free the Bears team are really friendly and passionate about the bears’ welfare. If you like bears, I think it would be a great experience.

Read more about volunteering at Free the Bears on their website:

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