Up Close with Luang Prabang’s Rescued Bears

Tad Keuang Si waterfall is a beautiful turquoise vision in the lush, green jungle 30km from Luang Prabang.  But my reason for going there was not to admire the beauty of the waterfall and certainly not to swim in its chilly waters, being the world’s biggest wuss when it comes to all things cold.  I’d come to visit some of my very favourite animals at the Bear Rescue Centre.  The centre is run by the Australian not-for-profit Free the Bears and is currently home to 23 Asiatic black bears.

I’d been told that it’s good to get there around 1230 for feeding time.  The keepers hide the food around the enclosure so the bears have to search it out, as they would do in the wild where they forage for food.  Feeding time had started earlier that day but there were still bears searching around, ever hopeful.  There are viewing platforms and information boards around the perimeter and it’s fun trying to identify the bears from their photos.  I was utterly enthralled by the each and every bear.  Bears climbing up the wooden structures, sitting in the little stream, lolling about in the hammock – the preserve of the big bear as and when he wants it, according to the information boards.

An extra strong hammock - every bear should have one

An extra strong hammock – every bear should have one

My delight at seeing these lovely creatures living in safety, well fed and well looked after was tempered by knowing the horrors they had been rescued from.  The bears, an endangered species, come to the centre after being confiscated from poachers who plan to sell them for body parts, or from illegal bile farms.  Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite the availability of herbal and synthetic alternatives.  The animals endure suffering beyond imaging: kept in tiny cages unable to move at all their muscles simply waste away, deliberately starved to produce more bile, and, up to three times daily, undergoing bile removal through tubes inserted into their gall bladder through open wounds.  They suffer severe pain and trauma.

Typical set up at a bear bile farm

Typical set up at a bear bile farm

Although it’s hard to even think about the torture that thousands of bear on bile farms are enduring right this very second it is wonderful to see the lucky few now living in peace at this sanctuary and know there are others like it in China and Vietnam.

I couldn’t cuddle a real bear so I snuggled up to this wooden one, carved by Jantai, one of the keepers at the centre

I couldn’t cuddle a real bear so I snuggled up to this wooden one, carved by Jantai, one of the keepers at the centre

I bought a t-shirt, made a donation and bought Christmas cards (my family back in Scotland are going to wonder why on earth they are getting very un-Christmassy card with photos of bears on them).  If I’d had more money on me I would have given much more to support the brilliant work of the rescue centre (which gets nothing from the entrance fee to the waterfall).

This was definitely the highlight of my short visit to Luang Prabang.

One of the pools at Tad Keuang Si waterfall

One of the pools at Tad Keuang Si waterfall

The info

There are agencies around town organsing trips to the waterfall and you pass the bear rescue centre on your way in, it’s just past the entrance.  I was told the time at the waterfall is quite short so choose to get a tuk tuk (jumbo) there and back which cost 180,000 kip/US$22, paid on arrival back in LP.  Entrance to the waterfall is 20,000 kip.

It’s possible to swim in the pools under the multi-tiered waterfall and there is even a rope swing which looked like a lot of fun.   We saw lots of people in standard swimming gear – shorts for the guys, bikinis or one-pieces for girls.

There are lots of stalls and cafes outside the entrance and you can buy food and drinks to take in and enjoy while sitting on a bench gazing at the tumbling water.

More about bear bile farms and how you can help groups working to end this horrific practice and care for rescued bears: WSPA   Animals Asia

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