International rescue

JIMMY THOMSON
Last updated 05:00 04/03/2014

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The old moon bear is not into sharing.

A cracked-open coconut has been tossed into his enclosure and he is alternating chews with muffled growls as the younger bears sidle up. If they get too close, this cute bundle of fur turns into a snarling flurry of fangs and claws. This is no teddy bear.

But the youngsters are smart and fast. While one of them distracts their grizzled companion into a threatening lunge, the other snatches the coconut and races off with it, leaving the old timer to moan quietly at his misfortune. The law of the jungle applies even in the safety of the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre just outside Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

You feel sorry for the old chap, until you remember what brought him here. Tat Kuang Si is home for 26 moon bears that have been rescued from various horrors. The lucky ones were simply caged outside restaurants or the homes of the rich and the powerful, for the amusement and amazement of guests.

Others had tubes driven into their stomachs and permanently fixed there, to harvest the bile so highly prized in traditional medicine. You don't want to think about the fear and pain they endured to immobilise them and render them harmless to their heartless captors.

So, all in all, the old bear is better off here, even if someone has stolen his lunch. Over in the distance, a female hobbles gamely through her paddock on three legs, the fourth having been amputated. It had become infected when her paw was cut off to make bear paw soup.

We shouldn't dwell on the human capacity for cruelty to other animals - this centre is all about compassion and caring. And the best news is that if you truly care about the fate of these animals, you can do something about it, much more directly than just sending money.

Tat Kuang Si and its much bigger equivalent in Cambodia, Phnom Tamao, housing about 130 bears, are into "voluntourism" - schemes where you spend a couple of weeks working for a charity and pay for the privilege too.

Run by the Free the Bears organisation, this is the most Australian of overseas experiences. It's just over 20 years since Perth woman Mary Hutton saw a TV documentary about the plight of Asiatic bears, kept captive in appalling conditions while their bile was drained and their paws amputated.

From raising a petition outside her nearest shopping centre, Hutton Mary has built Free the Bears into a global charity instrumental in rescuing hundreds of animals in South-East Asia and an amazing 500-plus in India.

But still, people trap and maim these beautiful creatures. When we visited Luang Prabang, we were told that a weekend sweep of a nearby jungle area had cleared more than 100 bear traps.

So what can a voluntourist expect? You will be feeding the bears, cleaning up their habitats and getting to know them much better than a bus trip to the zoo could ever provide. You'll be kept busy - either on general duties or on one of the specific tasks such as maintaining or building enclosures and other facilities.

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Accommodation is going to be clean and comfortable. In Laos you'll be housed in a private room in a villa overlooking the nearby waterfalls. You will be expected to clean your own room, make your own bed and cook your own breakfast. Lunch can be bought at the sanctuaries for less than $5 but dinner, local food cooked by your housekeeper, is provided most nights.

Many travellers will see this as a way to really get to know a local culture just by being in it. Both the Free the Bears centres take groups, couples and individuals but you may have to be flexible with your times, depending on demand.

"For Cambodia we have a maximum limit of six volunteers per week, the idea being that with smaller numbers we can offer a better experience," says chief executive Matt Hunt. "However, we do occasionally break this rule for people travelling in larger groups.

"For Laos, we tailor specific trips throughout the year - about three per year - the programme there is smaller and the dates are based on specific projects that we would like to accomplish during volunteer trips."

Hunt says there is ' no waiting list, but there are periods of the year which have been booked out.

"We usually try to accommodate more people, but more often than not volunteers are flexible with their dates and join us on another day. And we do get return bookings.

On average the volunteers tend to be 21-35, but a whole range of age groups have visited.

The minimum age is 21, the maximum is unlimited as long as the volunteer is able to physically cope with strenuous work in tropical climate.

That's a point worth making. These trips are not like some voluntourist holidays where you spend your time faffing around taking selfies with "grateful" locals. At Free the Bears you are expected to work.

At time of writing, Free the Bears was specifically looking for architects, a landscaper or gardener, tilers, an artist, painters and decorators, a welder, a graphic designer and a tree surgeon. Most of these posts are for a minimum of two or three weeks. But you can still go along if you don't have these specific skills - if there is room.

If you are including your voluntourism as part of a longer trip, your weekends are your own at both reserves so you will get the opportunity to do the regular tourist thing too. The Luang Prabang reserve, though smaller, does have the advantage of being 20 minutes from one of the most picturesque and friendliest cities in South East Asia.

The dawn procession of monks in Luang Prabang as they collect their food from local people (they are not allowed to cook for themselves) is a sight worth seeing. And the sanctuary is just two minutes from spectacular waterfalls and rock pools where you can go for a cooling dip after a hard day's bear-freeing.

But the bears are what you'll be there for, and it's your memories of seeing these beautiful animals up close and imagining their relief from the horrors they have endured that will last as long as the shelters and fences you help to build to protect them.

They may be fenced in but, partly thanks to you, the bears are free.

The writer was a guest of Vietnam Airlines

MORE ANIMAL WELFARE HOLIDAYS

EARTHWATCH The Earthwatch Institute takes travellers all over the world to places where volunteers can help save endangered wildlife. See earthwatch.org.

ELEPHANT PARK Elephant Park in Thailand has two elephant conservation volunteer projects - one of which allows the whole family to pitch in. See elephantnaturepark.org.

CONSERVATION WORK On Conservation Volunteers' "Get Involved" holidays, you work with professional park rangers in country areas of Australia, conserving the habitats that support our wildlife. See conservation volunteers.com.

 

BIOSPHERE TRIPS Biosphere Expeditions takes volunteers to look for signs of and, with luck, photograph the shy and increasingly rare Arabian leopard in Oman. See biosphere-expeditions.org.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Vietnam Airlines flies to Ho Chi Minh City and then to Hanoi and Luang Prabang (with a stopover necessary in Hanoi). Alternatively, you can fly Qantas to Bangkok and then Laos Airlines to Luang Prabang. The Free The Bears sanctuary is 20 minutes from the city and you will be picked up just outside the city centre on the first day of your tour. You can get a full volunteer information sheet - including what to wear and where to stay - by sending an email to laosprogramme.ftb@gmail.com.

STAYING THERE The minimum stay at either of the Free The Bears sanctuaries is one week. Trip costs vary greatly depending on the length of stay, time of year and what you, as a volunteer, bring to the project.

MORE INFORMATION freethebears.org.au

- FFX Aus

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