Laos: Giving rescued bears a new lease on life

Vientiane Times
Australian volunteer Jacqueline Esteban at work in the Free the Bears sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Free the Bears has helped rescue over 950 of the world’s most vulnerable bear species, including sun bears, moon bears and sloth bears, and provides ongoing care to hundreds of rescued bears and other wildlife.

The wildlife conservation group was created in 1995 by Mary Hutton, an Australian woman deeply passionate about rescuing bears from Asia’s illegal wildlife trade.

Free the Bears has three wildlife sanctuaries: bear sanctuaries in Cambodia and Vietnam, and a bear and multi-species sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos. As well as rescue and rehabilitation, Free the Bears is committed to tackling the many serious threats Asia’s bears face.

On top of habitat loss, one of the main threats to bears in Asia is the illegal wildlife trade. Many of the bears are rescued from poachers, exotic pet owners, or people planning to use them in traditional medicine.

Free the Bears believes that with consistent efforts from national governments and local communities, ending the suffering of bears is achievable. The charity also welcomes international volunteers, who play a vital role in supporting the organization in its work.

Jacqueline Esteban, a highly qualified veterinary nurse from Australia, is one such volunteer. Esteban is working with Free the Bears for 12 months as a Veterinary Support Officer. Her assignment is through the Australian Volunteers Program and the Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department (PAFO).

Her volunteer role supports two sanctuaries, the Bear Rescue Centre at Tat Kuang Si and the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary, both in the Luang Prabang province.

Esteban is working alongside PAFO and her colleagues at Free the Bears to improve the care of wildlife that have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade and require treatment and rehabilitation.

Esteban has worked in veterinary hospitals in Australia and the U.K. for more than 15 years. She has also worked as an animal keeper for a variety of species in Australia, the U.K. and Thailand, and in 2018 spent a year in Costa Rica studying forest biodiversity and jaguar and sea turtle interactions.

“I feel very lucky to work with The Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department in partnership with Free the Bears. One of PAFO’s main goals is to combat the illegal wildlife trade and protect the unique biodiversity of Laos. This goal is being supported by the partnership with Free the Bears in establishing sanctuaries that provide short and long-term care for wildlife confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade and to improve the health, welfare and conservation of wildlife in these sanctuaries,” said Esteban.

Esteban’s assignment objectives include developing a fully equipped wildlife hospital to international standards and supporting the ongoing development of diagnostic capacity and disease screening capabilities. Esteban also aims to build local capacity by providing support to local veterinarians and frontline workers through protocol development, on-the-job training and knowledge expansion.

A key component of her role is to strengthen processes to help integrate captive wildlife husbandry, welfare and veterinary health to establish a holistic approach to animal management.