Wildlife Trade of Bears in Cambodia: SDZG Completes First Ever Investigation

Southeast Asia has two species of bear, the sun bear and Asiatic black bear. Both species are unique, fascinating and not as well-known as bears such as the American black bear.

Unfortunately, the illegal trade in bear parts throughout several countries in Asia is directly responsible for the rapid decline of these bear populations in the Southeast Asian region. This has caused sun bears to be listed as “Vulnerable”, with Asiatic black bears mostly extirpated from some countries, such as Vietnam. This trade is primarily driven by human demand for medicine, with bear bile believed to treat a wide variety of illnesses.

In previous blog posts we discussed San Diego Zoo Global and out partners’ efforts so far to understand why individuals want to purchase bear parts, and may choose to use bear bile over alternative medicines. If we can better understand what is driving and motivating these people to purchase these products, we can better design campaigns and marketing that will be far more effective and resonate with the consumers and within their country’s cultures. 

San Diego Zoo Global and our partners have turned our attention to the beautiful Kingdom of Cambodia, a rich and topographically varied country of 16 million people, where there is also demand for bear parts. Here, we present the newly published and freely available results of our cross-country research in Cambodia.  

Within the countries of the Greater Mekong region, generally the consumers of bear products have been poorly understood, and this has been the case in Cambodia. It has been known that individuals in Cambodia are using and trading bear products, but until our research, nothing was known about the level of use, the types of individuals who may be using bear parts, and how that use may vary across the country, and where the hotspots of consumption are.

In our study, we interviewed nearly 2,000 individuals in three sites across Cambodia. One of the key results of this far-reaching study is our finding that approximately 17% of the individuals we sampled had used bear products in their lifetime. In addition, this result was obtained through the use of innovative questioning techniques, discussed at greater length within the published paper.

Previously, it was hypothesised that Cambodia may be primarily a transit country, with bears sent to neighboring Vietnam, or up to China; however, our results definitively show that demand for bear products is prevalent within Cambodia as well. Bear populations in the region are also under threat from Cambodian consumers as well as from other markets.

To enable bear populations in Cambodia to bounce back, use of bear products will need to be halted within the country. The pioneering research presented here is now being used by San Diego Zoo Global’s ICR-Community Engagement Asia-focused team and our partners Free The Bears to inform behavior change campaigns in rural areas of Cambodia, with the goal of shifting human behavior away from the use of bear products for medicine.

It’s hoped that by using these methods to reduce demand, we may once again see sun bears walking through Angkor Wat.