The Malayan sun bears and Asiatic black bears, or „moon bears,” found across much of South and Southeast Asia have experienced a dramatic decline in population in recent decades. Throughout Asia, bear bile is believed to have medicinal properties, leading poachers to remove bears from the wild and establish “bear farms” where the animals are kept in captivity and have their bile drained for profit.
In a new study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy researchers survey Laotian villagers about their attitudes towards wild bears and support for bear conservation efforts. Darunee Sukanan, a 2017 CEU graduate, and Professor Brandon P. Anthony conducted this research in a rural area of Laos where a sanctuary for bears rescued from bile farms and the illegal wildlife trade is under construction.
Through surveying hundreds of households in five villages surrounding the sanctuary, the researchers found that locals hold largely positive attitudes about bears and support conservation efforts. However, villagers "lack a deeper understanding of the status and plight of wild bears in the country, particularly how bear farming is a threat to the species,” they write in the study. They conclude that the success of the sanctuary will require culturally relevant conservation tactics that garner support and participation from local communities.
In an interview with Sustainability Times, Sukanan and Anthony further discussed “Community attitudes towards bears, bear bile use, and bear conservation in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR” and how to positively impact bear populations with local involvement:
"Natural resources such as forests are essential to villagers who live on subsistence farming, as well as by hunting and gathering. As a result, many local people see wild animals as part of their livelihood. That is why community outreach projects are important in educating local people about the need to protect diminishing natural resources, including wildlife," said Sukanan in the interview.
"I believe community outreach projects are of fundamental importance, but they must be culturally sensitive, and operate on a foundation of trust and mutual understanding where co-learning is an articulated outcome,” Anthony told Sustainability Times. “I believe our research highlights that community engagement in wildlife conservation must be culturally relevant and is highly contextual in terms of the target species/ecosystems, the communities involved, and the institutions responsible for managing the engagement," he continued.