Understanding Use of Bear Products in Southeast Asia
: Human-Oriented Perspectives from Cambodia and Laos

  • Elizabeth O Davis

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are currently threatened by the changing landscapes and societies of the countries within their home range of Asia, and in particular within the region of Southeast Asia. To date, most studies of bears in this region have been concerned with identifying population threats. Consequently, it is known that poaching to fuel the illegal trade in bear parts is one of the biggest drivers of bear decline, and is the most pressing issue affecting bears in Southeast Asia. Currently, consumer demand for bear products is unsustainable for preserving wild bear populations. Although substantial research has been conducted to understand the motivating factors and cultural context of bear part consumption in Vietnam, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos have been neglected. It is vital that these countries become more understood, as it is known that bears are being poached and that bear products are being sold in both areas. Using a mixed methods approach of anthropologically-focused interview techniques and various specialised questioning techniques in both countries, and quantitative questionnaires, in Cambodia. Together, this methodology facilitates a bottom-up, human-centred approach. In both countries, semi-structured interviews were used to gather baseline understanding of the overall perceptions of bears, as well as bears’ cultural importance. These results then informed and complemented the patterns identified through the large-scale quantitative studies conducted in this thesis, in Cambodia, and in 2014, in Laos, around the motivations for use within these target societies, including who is using bear parts, how they are using them, and why they are using them. In both sites, the qualitative results have elucidated the complex social dynamics that influence bear part use. In addition, the specialised questioning techniques have overcome the effects of social desirability and illegality bias to provide an estimate of bear part use prevalence, along with spatial variation of use. By prioritising a non-judgmental, human-oriented approach, this thesis has shown the validity and necessity of neutrality when attempting to understand sensitive conservation issues. Altogether, this thesis provides a comprehensive picture of the social, spatial, and demographic heterogeneity of bear part use in Cambodia and northern Laos, and serves to refute some accepted generalisations about the illegal trade in bear products in Southeast Asia.
Date of Award24 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorMhairi A Gibson (Supervisor) & Kate Robson Brown (Supervisor)


  • bear bile
  • illegal wildlife trade
  • Cambodia
  • Laos
  • specialised questioning techniques

Cite this