Saturday, 30 July 2011

China, Vietnam and Moon Bears

In mid 2009 I had recently finished a book about polar bears when I received an email from Laura Godwin, Vice President of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, located in New York City, asking if I wanted to go to China for a few weeks to photograph and work on a book about moon bears. Furthermore, she indicated that she would be disappointed if I did not go.

My first thoughts were that it would be nearly impossible to find China’s Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears) in the wild and that I could never obtain adequate photographs for such a project in just a couple of weeks.  But Laura was not to be dissuaded. She told me that she was in close contact with a conservation organization called Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) which was in the business of rescuing moon bears from bear bile farms  and providing a home for them in large, semi-natural enclosures on a sanctuary in Chengdu, China. Up until that point I had never heard of Animals Asia.

Laura put me in touch with Alice Ng, the Hong Kong-based organization’s US director at that time, and with Alice’s assurance that good photographs of the bears at the sanctuary were, indeed, possible, the book project was launched.  It took some last minute scrambling to come up with visas and plane tickets, but by early April 2010 I found myself in Chengdu at Animals Asia’s Moon Bear Rescue Center.
I was introduced to Jill Robinson, Founder and CEO of AAF and given permission to wander freely about the sanctuary.

There were 168 rescued bears at the center, in a variety of large, outdoor semi-natural enclosures. Each bear had been given a name and received a devoted amount of attention and care from their keepers. A full-time staff of 140 people attended to their needs.  For the most part the moon bears seemed content and even happy, even those bears that were missing parts of limbs from having been caught in snares by hunters. But a large bear cemetery with dozens of somber grave mounds at the edge of the sanctuary grounds, with a huge jumbled pile of rusted coffin-size cages nearby, imparted a mood
that was anything but happy. The bears had suffered greatly.

All the moon bears came from tortured conditions on bear bile farms. Jill Robinson had managed to negotiate their release in a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities signed in 2000 (a similar agreement was signed with the Vietnam government in 2006).  Jill, in her inspiring way, clearly demonstrated how one person can make a big difference.

When Laura Godwin at Holt became aware of the moon bears’ plight she felt compelled to also try to make a difference and spearheaded the creation of the book that I was sent out to create in order to educate young people.  Even most adults have never heard of a moon bear. 

For the assignment I relied mostly on my Nikon 80-400 VR stabilized lens, mounted on a D300 body. I brought along four Sandisk Extreme III 8GB CF memory cards.  Each card held the equivalent of about 750 images when shooting in RAW.  Having spent most of my career in the era of film I think of that as the equivalent of about 21 rolls.  In addition I travelled with a small computer and two Western Digital palm-sized external hard drives to be able to back up all files in duplicate.  At maximum focal length, the 80-400 lens gave the equivalent power of a 600mm lens when used with the small Dx sensor on the Nikon D300.  I did not bring a tripod along on the trip. I rarely do, choosing instead to rely on image stabilization technology to achieve sharp photos.  I value mobility, speed and spontaneity and they cannot be achieved adequately with constant tripod usage.

The main Animals Asia Foundation sanctuary is located in Chengdu, China.  But when I discovered that the foundation also ran a sanctuary rescue center on the edge of Tam Dao National Park in Vietnam I decided to visit that location as well.  Upon arriving in Tam Dao it was immediately obvious that the setting was more lush than China, being true tropical jungle, and would provide for more natural looking photo opportunities. As in Chengdu, the large bear enclosures were surrounded by cyclone fencing. This would have been problematic if I was shooting with a small lens, but by using the telephoto and keeping the f-stop wide open I was easily able to shoot through the fencing without it showing up in the pictures. All of the bear images in this blog were shot right through the fence. In order to accomplish this it is best to place the lens as close to the fencing as possible.

Between China and Vietnam I was easily able to obtain enough variety of  images for the book, which will be published by Holt in 2012 and called, simply, Moon Bears.  There are about 10,000 farmed bears being kept in horrible conditions in China and about 4000 in Vietnam.  The sooner that people worldwide are educated about the natural history and plight of this unique species, the more progress that can be made in convincing governments to shut down the bile farms and discontinue the practice of exploiting the bears altogether.

Mark Newman 

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