Volunteering was a big consideration while I was preparing for my six-week Southeast Asia adventure. After all, I was taking the trip to recharge from feeling professionally stagnant and personally over-committed. So I asked colleagues in conservation for their recommendations on environmental nonprofits or wildlife sanctuaries that would be worth visiting or supporting. I also did my own research which included targeted Google searches (“eco-friendly wildlife sanctuaries,” “environmental-reviewed nonprofits,” etc), reading trip reviews, reading organizations’ websites (to gauge whose goals and vision aligned with mine), and then I contacted the ones that looked promising. Based on the feedback I received, I chose two sanctuaries to volunteer at: Free the Bears and the Elephant Valley Project, both conveniently in Cambodia.
Free the Bears is located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Volunteers may visit for one day or multiple days, but must arrange their own accommodation in Phnom Penh. A daily shuttle picks up volunteers in the morning and takes them to the sanctuary located within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, which is government owned.
The Rescue Center was established in 1995 and covers 2,500 hectares of second generation forest. Free the Bears leases 100 hectares currently, but can expand and lease more land from the government should it rescue more bears.
The entire sanctuary is home to other animal species, such as clouded leopards, gibbons, otters, boar, lions, and more. Almost all of these animals will eventually return to the wild after rehabilitation. Free the Bears has the same goal: rescue, rehabilitate, release.
The two types of bears Free the Bears works to protect are sun bears and moon bears.
Sun Bears Sun bears are found in Southeast Asia in tropical lowlands. They Malay name for these tree-loving bears means “he who likes to sit high.” Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear as well as the least well-known. What we do know is that they’re typically solitary and nocturnal, they’re omnivores, and their worldwide population is decreasing due to habitat loss and poaching for their body parts and fur.
Moon Bears Moon bears, also known as Asiatic black bears, are found in high altitudes throughout Asia, and have longer, fuzzier fur than Sun Bears which keeps them warm in those cooler climates. They’re typically solitary in the wild and are opportunistic omnivores, which means if something looks tasty, they’ll try it! Moon bears’ worldwide population numbers are declining due to habitat loss and poaching for their body parts which are used in traditional Eastern medicine. However, there is zero scientific evidence that shows any part of the bear provides medicinal benefits.
Volunteering: Volunteers at Free the Bears learn about each species on their first day at the sanctuary. They also learn that the interaction with the bears at the sanctuary will be at a minimum. That’s because these bears are being taught how to be wild bears and any kind of dependency or desensitization to humans would prevent successful release into the wild. So volunteers will participate in bear enrichment-specific activities meant to teach bears how to survive in the wild. This might include hiding food high up in a tree or burying it underground. That being said, bears can eat a lot! So volunteers will also help to chop, cut, and prepare food. Once the bears eat, all of that food has to go somewhere, so volunteers will also help with less glamorous work like cleaning poop and discarded banana peels out of bear enclosures.
Conditions: What makes this sanctuary a good one? What are the conditions like for both the animals and humans? Enclosures for the bears at the Rescue Center are big and always expanding. I was impressed with how quickly Free the Bears appears to move – if new bears arrive, they’re not kept in cages but instead will spend time in a space where they may roam, climb, dig, and splash.
Then there’s the people at Free the Bears. Everyone is very passionate about their work. Coming from the policy and paper-pushing world of Washington DC, I’m not used to day-in, day-out manual labor. But that’s the daily norm for the staff here. From my experience in America, there are days in which you take it easy: that memo or email can wait until tomorrow, those tests can be graded later. At this sanctuary, there is no rest or taking it easy. The bear enrichment I mentioned earlier is done with such care – when food is hidden, it’s really hidden. There’s nothing haphazard or careless about working here. This is because a bear’s life depends on it. I admired this passion.
Volunteering with Free the Bears was a terrific experience and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to contribute to conservation efforts in Southeast Asia. You can follow them on social media to keep up with their projects and sign up for their newsletter on their website.
Want to go behind the scenes and see what Free the Bears is all about? Check out my photo album on Facebook here or watch my short video below.