ACRES Lao PDR first heard about Neung, a Sun Bear cub, during a meeting at the Laos Department of Forest Inspection (DoFI). She had been confiscated from a guest house in Vang Vieng, a popular tourist destination just north of Vientiane capital. The authorities were keen to send the Sun Bear cub to a proper facility where it can receive proper care. We swiftly did the paper work to offer ACRES Lao Wildlife Sanctuary as a refuge for this little one.
On the afternoon of 11th October, I received a call from DoFI that the Sun Bear cub had been surrendered to the office of a provincial office for forest inspection. I was requested to receive the bear cub immediately. Although a night den and an outside environment had been allocated for a Sun Bear cub, I had no warning that it was going to happen immediately that afternoon. Fortunately, I was able to arrange for transport and a representative from the Lao Zoo to meet me at the provincial office.
When I first arrived at the office, I saw 3 uniformed men seated in a row. I tried my best to ask about the Sun Bear cub, and asked if they could lead me outside to where it was. Amusingly, they gestured at the foot of a cupboard and said that it was right there in the office! I went down on all fours, peered under a cupboard, and my eyes were met with the smallest bear cub I have ever seen, all curled up in a ball. She was tiny!
I certainly was not expecting a bear cub this tiny. After a flurry of formalities resulting in the photo above and signing of documents, I quickly whisked away with Neung and wanted to get her to the sanctuary as quick as I could. She was highly stressed and agitated throughout the journey which included crossing a river in the car. Looking at the bag of condensed milk which came with her guest house owners, I guessed that she was also severely malnutritioned and that might have caused her to be grumpy as well. Sun Bear cubs in the wild stick with their mothers all the time and have excess to milk 24/7.
Neung took to her new environment very quickly. Here is a cheeky picture of her when she first got out of her transport cage. She is fond of stretching her long tongue out as she yawns, and eh… also as she poops!
With a network of contacts from various NGOs such as Animals Asia Foundation, Free the Bears and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, I was fortunate to be able to see various protocols and receive advice from these generous NGOs in order to ensure that I am offering the best care that I can for this Sun Bear cub.
Neung has put on the recommended Esbilac milk replacement formula within 4 days, specially flown in from Thailand by our partners Love Wildlife Foundation and seen to by their vet. In addition, a visiting vet from Canada happened to be in Laos and also took a look at Neung. As if that was not enough, Dr Zoe from WCS Lao Programme was visiting their Siamese Crocodiles and had a quick look at Neung too! All was okay, although Neung tried to climb the walls of the den before she was ready, and likely suffered an awkward fall. She was limping for a day, but proceeded to run again the next day! Her weight is taken daily and her intake and other vital information also recorded down and shared with colleagues abroad through Google Drive.
While I have had experiences working and caring for bears, this responsibility was nothing like I have ever been entrusted with. It is very satisfying seeing Neung grow stronger day by day, and seeing new behaviour on a weekly basis. When she first arrived, she was 2.5kg. Now, I am proud to say that she has steadily grown to 3.9kg after a month! The most rewarding part of this responsibility is seeing how happy and at ease she is at our sanctuary, happily enjoying the sun and exploring her world. Of course this only happens after she’s had her fill of milk and quit crying.
It is very fascinating to witness signs of adult Sun Bear behaviour at such a stage, this includes facial expressions, sounds and the delicate use of their claws. I remember fondly when she first tried to take swipe at me 2 weeks ago!
No matter how tiny that paw is, encouragement is important. I gave Neung her due respect, playing along by dodging and swiping back, for now.
She is extremely curious about her environment and loves to sniff at everything, which is what bears love to do. Here is her sniffing at a tree log I provided that is also home to a lot of insects. She was thoroughly entertained for a whole 30min before deciding to go to sleep.
Neung is also an extremely adventurous little girl, often attempting to climb tree logs and trees. She’s had success with the tree logs, but will need a bit more practice with the trees.
Recently, she’s even gotten the chance to try some semi-solid fruits. Bananas seem to be her favourite, although she doesn’t quite understand how to use her teeth yet, and gets annoyed when fruit gets stuck to her gums.
Indeed it has been a stressful and tiring month of milk-mixing and 4-hourly feedings, but also been extremely satisfying watching her grow.
While caring for a Sun Bear cub at this age is a very intimate and satisfying job, I cannot help but think about how everything is a result of an unfortunate circumstance. Bear cubs at this age (~3.5mth) or younger are sometimes called “Velcro Cubs”, so the only way you are going to separate it from its mother is to kill her. Even if she is alive, there is a high probability that she is locked away somewhere as an attraction or a bear bile farm. I have had visitors ask me where her mother is, and I’ve had to honestly reply in my limited Lao that she has no mother anymore.
Please remember the bigger picture of habitat destruction and animal exploitation. Wild animals make terrible pets, and more importantly, humans make even more terrible pet owners for wild animals.
Time for Neung’s next feeding! Stay tuned as I update about her progress in ACRES Lao PDR!
*Opinions expressed in this post are of my own and in no way reflect that of ACRES or Love Wildlife Foundation (LWF). The place I work at will be simply referred to as ‘The Facility’ to protect its reputation. If you do already know where I work at now, your confidentiality is requested. Some details are intentionally left vague to protect The Facility.
We were all seated around an old-fashioned wooden table in the Meeting Room of The Facility. Representatives from the construction crew were excused from this part of the meeting. I was seated beside the owners of The Facility. On the opposite side was the vet, the manager of animal husbandry and food, the crocodile keeper-in-charge collaborating with an international NGO, the landscape manager as well as the General Manager of The Facility. The confrontation was about to begin…
Before I go into the session, let me try and give everyone a brief background of what has been happening. I have been based in Laos for a month and a half now as the representative on the ground from ACRES & LWF, which are based in Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand respectively. My task for our conservation project here is further split into components:
1. Attend meetings with Laos governmental officials to expedite the necessary documents for the success of our project.
2. Network and forge relationships for future partnerships and fund-raising opportunities. This involves other NGOs in the region and corporate representatives.
3. Assess The Facility to come up with a formal business plan that will significantly improve the welfare of animals, as well as work in line with the principles of ACRES & LWF.
4. Understand the magnitude and shortcomings of the animal welfare and conservation scene here in Laos in order to have a more targeted approach when a renewed version of The Facility is ready.
I split my time between the village in which The Facility is located in and Vientiane capital. While at The Facility, I concentrate on surveying the welfare of the animals there, taking photographs, notes and coming up with possible solutions. All this is conducted with the help of my indispensable Bike Friday foldable bicycle which I brought from Singapore, after having received a generous 50% sponsorship from My Bike Shop SG.
The following is a summarized chronology of my time here:
This was my first complete week of surveys of the animals’ welfare. The staff were unsuspicious as the purpose of my stay was not communicated to everyone. This suited me as I went about recording the staff acitivities and taking photographs. 3 animals died within the first 2.5 days of my survey.
This was a major shock to me. I wasn’t taken seriously when I gave very subtle suggestions to help the animals. Suggestions include the most basic things like providing animals with clean water… Or relocating macaques, civets and pythons out of bird cages and meshed chicken coops.
Suspicious behaviour was noticed after working hours on one occasion, after which an animal went missing the following morning.
After returning from 3 days of meetings and time off in the capital, I found myself locked out of areas in The Facility. This included the gate leading from The Facility to my own house. I was shocked and annoyed at their attempts to control and monitor my movement. ￼
A fence was also built within that 3 days to deny me access to an area with animals that required the most attention. My alternative access was now in plain view of all the staff. This infuriated me even further, not because it was a directed action against me, but because of their ability to build a fence but inability to improve the lives of the animals. When I did eventually got into my house, my water supply was cut.
An Immediate Action Plan complete with pictures was written by me and addressed to the owners of the facility as a recommendation to rectify faults that did not cost money or time, only effort. In my opinion, more animals would be dead if they weren’t executed immediately. A full survey would be too late. The owners of The Facility flew into Laos within the week to listen to my opinions and had a talk with the staff. I made a specific request for the owners to make their visit unannounced, which did send everyone scrambling upon their arrival. The fence was also immediately taken down without request during the surprise visit. Very unfortunately, it was hinted that the staffs’ jobs would be at stake. I knew this did not necessarily bode well for me.
Everyone was understandably more cautious of me, watching me as I took pictures. They gave me a little more attention when I asked questions, but nothing significant. By this time, I kept my drinking water indoors to avoid it from being tampered with. My Bike Friday is always locked indoors. I had 3 padlocks which I swapped for my house when I’m not around and I sleep with 3 Swiss Army knives in 3 strategic places in my house. (Fine, this may be paranoia, but I think its legitimate? I’ve heard stories of events at another facility in Cambodia that did not end well.)
I started getting invited for dinners and drinking sessions in which they insisted I partake any Beer Lao or rice wine offered. Call it a curse or a blessing, but any possible attempts to get me drunk have failed. My liver is well-conditioned.
Everyone started acting unnaturally cooperative towards me. I got occupied by other components of the project outside The Facility, and could not focus as much on the animals there. The owners were coming back for another visit anyway, which brings us back to The Confrontation…
So we were all seated there… And the owners requested a self-introduction from all 5 of them. He wanted to know their roles, the number of years they’ve been working here and what they envisioned The Facility to be. The owners then started his/her pep talk, starting with the broadest scope of the role of The Facility on a regional level… And slowly zooming in on their important roles that have not been fulfilled satisfactorily.
Do keep in mind that all this happened in the Lao language, so the only interpretation was from body language and the bits and pieces of words I recognised.
The owners pulled out the copy of the Immediate Action Plan and pictures of the animals that I had submitted to them. There was no denial, but the vet started sounding very defensive and raised his voice… The other 4 bowed their heads and looked awkward. The vet made eye contact with me… And then a lot of waving and pointing went in my direction. At one point he mimicked me taking photographs of the animals. I sat there and firmly stared back at them, I was not apologetic and I knew that what ever they wanted to say, it couldn’t possibly defend them from their complete lack of effort to house animals humanely.
The confrontation ended. I was later given a very censored and brief summary of the session by the owners, which I didn’t totally appreciate. However, it was probably for the better. I don’t think I should be unnecessarily intimidated, not when I am still vastly outnumbered and don’t know the language.
The most important thing that resulted from it all was that the 5 of them now have exactly 1 month to prove themselves. Otherwise, drastic action will have to be taken. ￼
For now, at least this stump-tailed macaque juvenile is taken out of his old bird cage that he had been living in for at least the past 4 months. He is now in an adjacent cage 4 times its size and closer to the ground. Funds for a brand new enclosure are coming in.
Things obviously aren’t ideal now, but it will be as close to it as I can help it to be. At least there is a light in sight for them.
It has been more than a week since I arrived in Laos. This is my third trip here for the ACRES Lao PDR; Wildlife & Bear Rescue Centre project. This time around, I’m here on a one-way flight ticket, with most of my life packed into 2 luggages together with my Bike Friday foldable bike.
Although I had been to the site for the rescue centre, as well as Vientiane capital before, this time the situation proved to be more challenging. First of all, I don’t have Nancy as a translator anymore. She is half Thai, half American, and the founder and CEO of Love Wildlife Foundation (LWF), our close partner in this project. Things quickly got extremely difficult when I left the capital.
Our rescue centre will be in a village called Ban Keun, situated in Tulakhum District, Vientiane Province. This is about 1.5hrs north of the capital by car. In this little village, hardly anyone speaks or understands English. Thankfully, I have a Thai staff from Lao Zoo assigned to me to help me around for now. His English isn’t fantastic, but we understand each other.
This is the main gate to the Lao Zoo. The Lao Zoo belongs to a much bigger corporation that owns several hotels and automobile businesses both in the region and internationally. They have very generously offered their land for ACRES and LWF to set up our rescue centre. Part of the deal also entails us giving them technical advice and support for the running of their zoo. We see this as a win-win situation. It definitely spells more work for us, but it is a golden opportunity to really make a difference for the animals in Laos.
The Lao Zoo was set up 18 years ago as a request from the Laos Government. There was a significant number of wildlife being surrendered and there was no where for them to go to. The Lao Zoo served as a basic place for these animals, and a zoo was built around them. More animals were added to the collection. Today, the Lao Zoo remains as the first and only zoo in Laos. It has 97 staff, mostly locals from Ban Keun Village and an animal inventory that I still do not have a clue about. There is no veterinary facility and enclosures were from a different era. Despite these difficulties, the Lao Zoo have an impressive partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Lao PDR Program.
The Lao Zoo is in partnership with WCS for a captive breeding program for the critically endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodulus siamensis). This species used to inhabit most of SE Asia, but its range is reduced to only a few tiny pockets of relatively undisturbed habitat. According to the WCS expert that I spoke to, there may be only 100 wild ones left in Laos. These newly-hatched crocs were being tagged, measured and DNA-tested to ensure that they were indeed pure Siamese crocodiles. Introducing a hybrid into the natural system would be a disaster to the precious gene pool.
It was indeed a thrilling experience watching, and at one point helping, the process of handling, measuring and tagging these precious newborns. Some still had their egg sacs attached to their bellies! If there’s one thing I learnt, I now know what a group of baby crocs sound like. If you tried imagining the sound of baby dinosaurs, you’re probably not far off!
Right now, I am surveying the zoo in order to write a formal business and animal welfare report. After 5 days of documenting the animals’ plight, I am almost completely emotionally exhausted. It can be extremely distressful taking photographs of animals dying or others that were better-off dead. Losing internet connection out there didn’t help and kept me in a state of constant reflection.
After years of being critical of zoos in the region, this is ACRES’ chance to show how a proper facility for animals should be like (we are steering away from calling it a zoo). Just imagine a humane zoo with proper education setting the example for an entire country, what potential it has!
Meanwhile, my other report is to get the surveys on the bear farms started. I have already completed an undercover visit to a bear bile farm, complete with video, during my last trip. That sort of work is going to be very draining I’m sure.
Nonetheless, I am positive about the bigger picture for conservation and animal welfare.
I’ve completed 2 weeks at the ACRES Singapore head office. I’ve been working on preparations for our project in Lao PDR and handling the ongoing wild pig situation in Singapore. I’ve also observed the Community Outreach team as well as worked with the Animal Rescue team. Working at ACRES has been enriching, to say the least. Its all been very exciting, albeit it being crash course on how I can run my centre in Lao PDR.
Working with the Animal Rescue Team has been particularly fulfilling. Its a real privilege working alongside experienced people such as Anbu and Kalai. I’ve been lucky enough to experience quite a variety of animal rescue cases ranging from…
- A captive long-tailed macaque that had to be handled and then released.
- A feisty baby civet that fell from a roof.
- A bird described as “huge and not a pigeon” stuck in a HDB apartment, but turned out to be very much a pigeon and a very confused one at that.
- A monitor lizard that had apparently been feasting on koi fish in a condominium.
- A wolf snake and whip snake (separate occasions) in someone’s garden
- A reticulated python hiding under a taxi that sprayed pee all over me when I helped to grab the tail.
- A baby bat that was picked up from a road.
…and this was all in one and a half shifts of work! It was also encouraging to meet so many concerned members of the public who would give us a call because they cared about an animal in peril, when they could have easily walked away. Most importantly, it was the type of conversations that I had with people in ACRES, as well as with people I meet through ACRES, that I find particularly valuable.
My prior experience came from handling captive animals at the Singapore Night Safari, thus I had to relearn quite a few things. No more grabbing at snakes and slinging them over my neck (why was I okay with that in the past?). Things are done professionally now, with strict adherence to prevent injuries and spread of diseases. I’ve never handled an animal with latex gloves until now. Wild snakes aren’t going to let me lift them clean off the ground in one sweep, but have to be swiftly immobilised by grabbing near its head.
I am certain things will be different in Lao PDR, but its good to get back in touch with animal handling. Judging from my first 2 trips in Lao PDR, I would expect a lot more macaque cases and endangered wildlife being exploited as pets or killed for food.