The climb to freedom

Julie Miller joins a volunteer mission to help the rescued bears of Asia.

After 15 days on the road, my tour group thinks they know what's in store for them at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre in Laos – a bit of painting here, some structural maintenance there and a whole lot of food preparation for the 16 resident Asiatic black bears. However, an unexpected delivery is about to throw these plans into jeopardy.

As we step off the bus to begin our three-day volunteer placement at this tiny sanctuary near Luang Prabang, an incredible sight confronts us: a conical wicker basket on the back of a government truck containing a bug-eyed ball of fluff, panting and sucking its paw in fear.

The traumatised prisoner is a one-month-old Asiatic black, or moon bear. The official story was that he was "found" wandering alone in the woods, with no sign of his mother.

It was most likely Mama Bear had been shot, or captured for trafficking to a bile farm across the border in Vietnam. This may well have been the fate of this little fellow if kindly villagers had not intervened.

The timing of the orphan's arrival is impeccable. The Australian volunteers are immediately deployed; some are placed on feeding duty, bottle-feeding with rice milk formula; others set to work building a large wooden cage that will become the newcomer's home until he's old enough to join other bears in a larger enclosure.

Several hours later, I have my first physical contact with Baby Bear. He is nestled into an oversized teddy, his belly distended with warm milk and what looks like a bad case of worms. As I hold the little critter – the size of a puppy and incredibly canine in his countenance – I swoon, overcome with the realisation that I am cuddling a wild animal. Chomping on my fingers, licking my nose, chewing my hair – in a few months' time, he will be too strong to encourage such behaviour and hopefully less dependent on such intimate human contact.

In the meantime, the cub has plenty of willing babysitters in the form of his new fan club. I had met this group, participants in a World Expeditions Free the Bears tour, a week earlier in Cambodia, joining the last half of their 18-day trip through South-East Asia visiting bear rescue centres in Vietnam, Cambodia's Phnom Penh and Laos.

This is one of several "charity challenges" run by World Expeditions, combining general sightseeing with volunteer work at community projects around the world.

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Joining forces with Free the Bears Inc, a registered Australian charity that sponsors bear rehabilitation centres throughout Asia, World Expeditions has tailored two annual journeys, one visiting sanctuaries in India, the other following the route through Indochina.

Guests on these eco-tours spend several days at each wildlife centre, going behind the scenes and helping with the daily grind, the work interspersed with visits to iconic tourist sights. Furthermore, $1000 of each booking goes directly to Free the Bears.

Arriving halfway through the itinerary, I discover a group diverse in age and background but bonded by a singular passion – the love of animals. Many are already members of Free the Bears; others signed up simply for a unique holiday, keen to make a difference.

As we travel the dusty roads between the Cambodian capital and the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, my new travelling companions fill me in on their journey to date, sharing stories about their volunteer placement at Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam. This new sanctuary is the first of several to be built in Vietnam, housing bears rescued from the bile trade. Ending this barbaric practice, in which live bears are periodically "milked" of bile from their gall bladder, is one of the key campaigns of Free the Bears. Bile is said to reduce fever and detoxify the body. While bears are the only mammals able to produce significant amounts of bile, its active ingredient can be produced synthetically. In other words, it's an unnecessary torture, regardless of any health benefits.

There are 4500 bears in bile farms in Vietnam alone. Having lived in coffin-sized cages for most of their lives, rescued bears are not capable or fit to survive in the wild; releasing them is not an option.

Wildlife sanctuaries are the only alternative, providing large natural enclosures where the bears can re-learn skills such as foraging and climbing, and can doze in swinging hammocks.

Indeed, this is exactly the relaxed scenario we witness on arrival at Phnom Tamao: five juvenile sun bears doing the bear necessities – panting, wrestling, swinging in tyres and posing for photographs like movie stars. It's a mesmerising sight – we hover around enjoying the show, laughing and snapping our cameras, before being reminded by chief executive Matt Hunt that we are actually here to work.

First up, however, is a tour of the facility, housing more than 130 sun and moon bears. As we wander around the enclosures, Hunt recounts amazing stories of survival and rehabilitation. We meet Ralph, a large sun bear whose back foot was donated to a cooking pot; Tom-Tom, the world's only known hybrid sun/moon bear, rejected by both species; and Mario, a moody alpha male who was traumatised as a cub but is learning to temper his aggression.

Ironically, one of the major problems for Cambodia's sun bears is being too cute for their own good. These dog-like creatures are considered status symbols among the wealthy elite, kept as pets by socialites and government officials. Which is all well and good until the cubs grow up – and with claws that would do Wolverine proud, they are soon abandoned as unpredictable companions.

In a sanctuary of this size there is always maintenance to be done, so after our reconnaissance, Hunt whisks some of the men away to start building a bamboo platform. Meanwhile, the rest of us are on food duty – a task that proves as messy as it is fun. Some stuff gloops of jam, dry dog food and bananas into bamboo cylinders and large plastic globes while we labour intensively over "fun balls" of chaff, honey and fruit, treats that will be ripped apart in seconds. With the bears locked safely away in cages, we enter their enclosures to scatter the snacks as creatively as possible – hanging from platforms, buried in woodpiles or poked into rotating barrels. The idea is to keep life in the sanctuary as stimulating as possible, emulating the bear's natural habitat and helping them to regain instincts lost during years of captivity.

Meanwhile, there's plenty more hot, dehydrating work to undertake: painting, cleaning cages, gathering wood, fixing fences and hammering posts. In the pre-wet season humidity, sweat pours off us; it's 20 sticky, stinking volunteers who board the bus at sundown, exhausted but content with our humble contribution.

After three days of hard yakka and some serious bear bonding, it's time to kick off the work boots and relax. And what a reward: sunset at Angkor Wat, one of the planet's essential travel experiences. But ask any one of those 20 World Expeditions guests what their highlight was and it won't be exploring an ancient temple, admiring an amazing sculpture or the awe-inspiring silhouette of lotus towers against a blood red sky. The enduring memory remains that of a goggle-eyed, sharp-snouted baby bear, sucking on its paw with a curious throaty rumble, dozing after a bottle of warm rice milk. Now that is really something.

The writer was a guest of World Expeditions.

TRIP NOTES

TOURING THERE

The next World Expeditions Free the Bears tour departs on September 26 bound for India.

The 15-day trip includes several days volunteering at a bear sanctuary in Agra, as well as touring to Rajasthan, Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary and the Taj Mahal. The trip costs $4990 including air fares and a $1000 donation to the Free the Bears Fund. The next tour to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos will take place in March next year.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See worldexpeditions.com and freethebears.org.

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