tue 22/09/2020

Bears About the House, BBC Two review - uphill struggle to save hunted animals | reviews, news & interviews

Bears About the House, BBC Two review - uphill struggle to save hunted animals

Bears About the House, BBC Two review - uphill struggle to save hunted animals

How conservationist Giles Clark has been trying to rescue the persecuted bears of south-east Asia

Giles Clark with Mary the sun bear at the Free the Bears sanctuary in Laos

Sun bears and moon bears are probably doomed, so why bother? Wildlife trafficking is a hugely profitable worldwide criminal enterprise, with small charities (fingers in the dyke, anyone?) doing their best to stem the flow.

Sun bears and moon bears are probably doomed, so why bother? Wildlife trafficking is a hugely profitable worldwide criminal enterprise, with small charities (fingers in the dyke, anyone?) doing their best to stem the flow.

The international charity Free the Bears operates in several south-east Asian countries, trying its best to save the sun bears and moon bears. In a pair of BBC Two programmes, over a year we followed the efforts of the conservationist Giles Clark to help his friend Matt Hunt (who runs Free the Bears) set up a bear sanctuary just outside Luang Prabang in Laos. Crucially endangered moon bears are hunted down for their bile for scientifically unproven Asian medicine, with devastating consequences for both animal and environment. The smaller sun bears are poached, often as babies, their mothers trapped in snares. They are incarcerated in bear farms, and used for meat, fur and body parts. Ten thousand of them are on the farms, but in 10 years only two sun bears have been rescued in Laos (pictured below, bears David and Jane post-rescue).

Both kinds of bears may also be sold as exotic pets. Seventy percent of the habitat for sun and moon bears in southeast Asia is already destroyed, and captured animals are kept in unspeakable conditions. And all across Asia, poachers and hunters are killing about 200 bears a month; some post their killings online.

Giles’s first rescue was the five-month-old sun bear Mary, who was fed on milk with seven times more fat than normal. Rescued sun bears and moon bears have been living at Matt’s Laotian home, wreaking havoc on the domestic environment as they are coaxed back to health and recovering from what in a human would be termed PSTD. Then they’re released to enclosures which mimic the natural forested environment.

Yes, the animals are immensely attractive, but it is more than that. Laos is one of the most forested countries on earth and is losing its forest at an accelerating rate. Protected species are sold for food, illegally in the markets, and wildlife is disappearing. The markets sell tiger balm, bear bile powder, bear bile toothpaste, bear bile shampoo, all claiming to be traditional and effective medications, the equivalent of our multivitamins.

The Laotian government has officially said it will eliminate the threat to bears and quash the wild animal trade, but this policy has aroused criminal opposition. David and Jane, two five-month-old moon bear cubs, were rescued and patiently rehabilitated, but then came a hideous setback: they were stolen from the sanctuary which naively perhaps did not have adequate security.

The programmes, wittingly or not, exposed a paradox. Humans are hunting animals and destroying habitat, yet the humans, however we deplore the trauma they inflict, are also trying to survive – while at vast effort a handful of others are trying to reverse the damage by saving animals and also habitat.

Laos is one of the poorest countries of the world, and is now putting resources into the closing of bear bile farms and the rehabilitation of the animals. While white westerners are leading the animal charity, in the sanctuary, rescued bears get more care from humans than large parts of the human population receive worldwide.

Doesn’t this mean topsy-turvy values, with such charity and compassionate effort going towards animals, but not other humans? The answer for many would be that caring for wild animals and therefore the environment contributes to our own ultimate survival, which is bound up in the well-being of the planet on which we are only guests.

The Laotian government has officially said it will eliminate the threat to bears and quash the wild animal trade

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