Sun bears and Asiatic Black bears are under serious threat in Cambodia. So the Free The Bears Fund have set up their own Bear Keeper for a Day programme to bring in much needed revenue to contribute to their mission to provide a safe haven for rescued bears.
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center, where the Free The Bears project is home to more than 120 rescued bears, is the world’s biggest sanctuary for Sun bears. You really have to see it to appreciate it. I visited the center last week to get the run down on the Bear Keeper project with the organizer, Pesei, showing me around and explaining how participants are invited to prepare enrichment toys for the bears, filled with food, to help brighten up their day and to give the bears activities that encourage them to use their natural talents. Later in the day, you get to go inside the forest enclosures to hide the food toys and then witness as they are eagerly sought out and enjoyed by the bears.
Going behind the scenes with Pesei and meeting the bear keepers, vet and volunteers was an eye-opener as to exactly how much work is involved in looking after these animals every day. There are seven ‘houses’ to maintain over a vast area of land and it’s a tough job. As a newbie Bear Keeper, you don’t get to have direct contact with the bears, that’s the domain of the real bear keepers, but you get privileged access to areas that visitors are not allowed to see and watching the three small bear cubs at play – or squabbling as it turned out – was one of those “aren’t they lovely” moments everyone would enjoy, but few get the chance to see. The project is enabling the bears to live a happy and healthy life in their forested sanctuary and it works a treat. Top marks to the staff and volunteers who make Free The Bears such a success story. We also took time to visit a few of the other animal enclosures, getting the low-down on each of animals we saw, and gaining access to more behind-the-scenes sections of the zoo, including the tiger house, where I was literally inches away from three gorgeous tigers eating their food and relaxing, and therefore, fortunately, paying no attention to me. It was a great experience, and between Free The Bears, Wildlife Alliance and the forestry authorities, who all co-manage the Wildlife Center, all of the animals I saw looked well-fed and cared for, healthy and in good spirits. I was suitably impressed.
Ask Hanuman for more information about the Bear Keeper for a Day programme at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center, located some 40kms southwest of Phnom Penh.