The Difference Between Sun Bears and Farmyard Animals

A recent opinion piece in The Cambodia Daily—“We Can Save Country’s Protected Sun Bears by Eating Them” (August 20)—has again raised a case for farming or sustainably hunting wildlife to save a species. Whilst perhaps well intentioned, some fundamental errors mean that the “basic economics” relied on in this article are deeply and dangerously flawed.

In summary, sun bears (and most other wildlife) can never be effectively “farmed” due to their innate species characteristics. In addition, fundamental weaknesses in Cambodia’s rule of law means that “sustainable” hunting of any wild­life species would simply descend into a free-for-all, or in ecology-speak, a “tragedy of the commons.”

Solutions to society’s demand for traditional medicine, fashion or meat continue to be proffered whenever economists decide the world’s problems can be solved from behind a computer. Ten thousand years ago someone started the process of domesticating jungle fowl and we now have 20 billion chickens scratching around, or at least the luckier ones are! Same story with cattle—there are thought to be almost 1.5 billion cows alive today, collectively contributing to forest destruction and global warming with their collective flatulence.

Unlike chickens or cattle, sun bears are highly intelligent, solitary living and hugely strong creatures, wholly unsuited to being farmed. They simply cannot be placed in a small cage and fed twice a day—they scream incessantly, mutilate themselves out of sheer boredom and most certainly never breed. This means that “stock” would need to be constantly replenished from diminishing wild populations.

The latest “Living Planet” report from the conservation organization WWF shows that numbers of wild animals have declined by 52 percent over the past 40 years. The iconic sun bear is one of those species on which recent history has been tough, with a decline of at least 30 percent over the past 30 years. Sadly, most experts predict that the number of sun bears roaming Southeast Asia’s forests will continue to decline for decades to come. So how can we go about increasing the population of sun bears?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that herds (or more correctly, sleuths) of bears could simply be turned out into a grassy paddock just because you’ve seen cute bears together in groups at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. The daily care of these bears is a complicated process undertaken by a team of skilled experts who have more experience in sun bear management than anyone else on the planet. Even then, they’ll tell you that each bear would prefer to have an enclosure to themselves rather than having to share!

There is a reason why Vietnamese bear farms (even at their horrific peak when 4,500 sun bears were incarcerated) kept fewer than 200 bears each, and Chinese bear farms contain fewer still. Even within well-managed international zoo breeding programs, the sun bear has proven difficult to breed, failing thus far to produce the cubs required to sustain a healthy population. Since the commercial “farming” of bears first began, no country has shown that it is possible to breed and rear sufficient numbers of cubs to sustain a captive population. This has led to the continued hunting and depletion of wild bears, with scant attention paid to prohibitions.

In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress called for illegal bear farms to be closed and for no new licenses to be issued. They also called for an independent, peer-reviewed analysis on the impact of bear farming on wild populations, including the economic impact of farmed bear products. The evidence so far points toward a con­sumer preference for wild bear products, even when farmed products are available. This is driven by demand for a new tier of exclusive products from the region’s growing elite classes.

Creating a legal market for bear products risks increasing consumer demand and hampering law enforcement efforts as officials struggle to differentiate between wild-caught and farmed products. Given this region’s weak record in wildlife law en­forcement, can we really afford to create more loopholes? The idea that people will value and sustain wildlife resources near their communities is also sadly misguided and fails to reflect any known economic principle. Famously, the “tragedy of the commons” demonstrates empirically that people will continue to exploit a shared resource long after any threshold of sustainability or common sense.

Could an alternative income source from bears be found through tourism? Sadly, this is doubtful. It is nice to think of tourists visiting Cambodia to trek through the Cardamom Mountains and see sun bears, similar to how one can watch grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., or polar bears in Chur­chill, Canada.

However, the smallest of the world’s bear species is unlikely to ever pay for its place on the planet in this manner, as its habits and habitat do not accommodate the zebra-striped jeep-bound safaris that most tourists prefer. Even if Cambodia were to enable sport hunting, it is highly doubtful that the sun bear would be of interest because few field researchers have even seen a sun bear in the wild, and we all know that American dentists generally only enjoy two weeks’ holiday per year.

Economists may not be able to come up with an equation that values sun bears in a way that fits with their dollar-centric view of the world. Perhaps then, we should ask ourselves, how would we explain it to our grandchildren if we allowed such a fascinating and unique animal to go extinct under our watch? Sun bears form an intrinsic part of Cambodia’s natural heritage and, like the temples of Angkor, are not ours to dispose of for short-term profit. The real reason to save sun bears is rooted within our own humanity, not in seeking to refill our wallets.

Matt Hunt is chief executive of Free the Bears and a member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group.

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