Beers for Bears A night of beer, music and merriment for the benefit of Free the Bears Fund, an Australian outfit dedicating to saving Asian beers from the perils of the exotic pet trade. Saturday June 18 at The FCC Phnom Penh, 7 p.m.
When Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a beaten, tethered bear in 1902, the 26th president of the United States left what would become a lasting legacy. Concerned about presidential morale, one of Roosevelt's cohorts had offered him the bear after a day's hunting in Mississippi, where the president was settling a state boundary dispute, failed to produce any big game.
An avid natural historian, Roosevelt whose nickname was "Teddy" — politely declined the offer and Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman promptly caricatured the sporting refusal. The famous etching, entitled "Drawing the line in Mississippi," captured not only the public's imagination, but also that of US toymakers. The now ubiquitous "teddy bear" was born.
In the more than a century since, Roosevelt's gesture has inspired an army of bear-lovers — people who, with iron political will, have committed their lives to championing this deceptively cuddly cause. Never have they been more needed. According to the World Conservation Union, six of the world's eight bear species — a staggering 75% — are now threatened with extinction. The area most in need of urgent protection: Asia.
Lowering itself gingerly off a tree trunk, a hillock of thick black hair shuffles over. Thump! It flops onto the Cambodian soil about 12 inches away and yawns, jaws opening and closing in what looks for all the world like a silent monologue. This Asiatic black bear, also known as the moon bear, is in a talkative mood. As well he should be, for "Big John" is one of the lucky ones. Bile farmers, the exotic pet trade and purveyors of bear-paw soup prize these natives of mainland Southeast Asia's tropical forests. Numbers, as a result, are dwindling: in the past three decades, the population is believed to have declined by as much as 50%. The culprits: land encroachment, illegal logging and poaching.
Enter Free The Bears, established as a not-for-profit charity in 1995 after Australian founder Mary Hutton saw televised footage of moon bears being farmed for their bile. It is a procedure few human beings could endure: people with no veterinary training repeatedly stab a non-sterile syringe into the bear's abdomen to locate its gall bladder, which is then drained of fluid to feed the traditional medicine market. Throughout, the bears are kept in cramped, filthy cages. To describe the process as "milking" is akin to calling Jack the Ripper "a cosmetic surgeon."
Now a major force in conservation, Free The Bears employs everything from environmental education to robust law enforcement to pursue its goal of ending the trade. Its Cambodian Bear Sanctuary — 21 lush, forested enclosures in the grounds of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre — is endeavouring to save not just the region's Big Johns, but also the Malayan sun bear, the world's smallest, measuring less than 150 centimetres (175 if it unfurls its rather disproportionate tongue). Here, bears pried loose from the jaws of hunters' traps or cages in restaurants are brought for rehabilitation. Next to pools, prostrate in hammocks or atop elaborate climbing frames they loll, cared for by local keepers trained to exacting international standards. In the "bear-hugger's kitchen," several stand watch over mountains of plump vegetables destined for the bears' dining table.
"The reason bears have got into such a state in Vietnam, for example, is because people have got so used to seeing them stuck in cages in restaurants," says CEO Matt Hunt. "If you see that growing up as a kid, you accept it as a norm. Now, attitudes are changing — and Phnom Tamao has a big role to play in helping to shape them." Instrumental has been its touring education bus. In the southern Cardamoms, where years of rigorous law enforcement failed to put a dent in hunting practices, drive-in-theatre style wildlife documentaries are screened in local communities."People would come up to me afterwards and say: 'OK. Now I get why we're protecting the area. Before, nobody ever explained to us why we can't do this.'"
Looking after just one furry charge costs the centre $3,000 per year. Multiply that figure by 30 years, the bears' average lifespan; then multiply the result by 112, the number of bears currently in his care, and you start to get the picture. To help bolster the coffers, until recently reliant on international fundraising, the charity is staging a "Beer for Bears" evening at the FCC on June 18. For a nominal cover charge, the night promises live music, free-flowing beer and wine, a glut of prize giveaways such as discounted hotel stays and restaurant vouchers, and the chance to suck a chilled vodka shot off the snout of a towering ice bear. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.