From Wildlife Extra:
Rescued Moon bear given life-saving brain surgery in Lao PDR
First brain surgery on a bear
April 2013. A rare Moon bear (Ursus thibetanus) suffering from hydrocephalus recently underwent a world-first neurosurgery at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre in Lao PDR. Moon bears are a globally threatened species and are given the highest level of protection in Laos, where they are targeted by poachers to feed the demand for their bile and other body parts.
Rescued from wildlife traders
The bear, named ChamPa, was brought to the Free the Bears-sponsored sanctuary as a cub in 2010, after being rescued from wildlife traders. ChamPa was estimated to be just a few months old at the time of her arrival at the sanctuary. Her sibling, captured at the same time as her from forests in northern Laos, had already died whilst in the hands of illegal wildlife traders, who had hoped to sell her into a life of misery on one of the many bear bile extraction facilities that can be found throughout Laos and neighbouring countries.
Free the Bears staff noticed ChamPa’s pronounced, dome-like head when she first arrived, but at that stage the symptoms of hydrocephalus were mild. In humans, hydrocephalus is diagnosed using specialist imaging techniques such as MRI or CT, however these are not available in Laos. Hydrocephalus, also known as “water on the brain”, is a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the cavities of the brain, leading to increased intracranial pressure inside the skull and progressive enlargement of the head. Headaches, convulsions, tunnel vision and mental disability often result from hydrocephalus which, if left untreated, often leads to premature death.
After nearly three years at the Free the Bears sanctuary, ChamPa’s condition had deteriorated, leading to her vision being drastically impaired and her being unable to handle interaction with other bears. On February 26th 2013, Free the Bears assembled an international team of veterinary specialists for a workshop aimed at building capacity of local veterinarians from Laos, Cambodia and India. Following a thorough examination of ChamPa the specialists, led by Dr. Romain Pizzi and Dr. Jonathan Cracknell of Wildlife Surgery International, concluded that she was indeed suffering from hydrocephalus.
ChamPa became the first bear of any species to receive neurosurgery, the procedure requiring the placement of a ventricular shunt which allows the excess CSF to be drained from the brain and into the abdominal cavity of the bear where it can be naturally absorbed. The procedure took over 6 hours and involved assessment of the ideal location to place the shunt, creating access to the brain via a 6mm bone tunnel drilled using specialist equipment. The ventricular catheter, inserted into ChamPa’s brain, was then attached to a low-pressure shunt that was buried under her skin, almost running the entire length of her body. This was finally linked to a peritoneal catheter which drained into ChamPa’s abdomen and was placed using minimally invasive keyhole surgery. This long and difficult surgery required both specialist surgical and anaesthesia techniques to be applied.
By the following morning ChamPa’s condition was already showing noticeable signs of improvement, with increased activity and balance, improved mental alertness and signs that her vision appeared to have returned. Close monitoring over the past six weeks has concluded that the surgery was a success, with ChamPa now enjoying a greatly improved quality of life.
Free the Bears Founder Mary Hutton commented “Free the Bears offers the very best quality of life possible to each and every new bear that is rescued and brought into our sanctuaries. All of the bears have been rescued from terrible circumstances, and we feel it is our duty to make amends for the suffering they have endured prior to their rescue. Thanks to this surgery, the outlook for ChamPa is certainly much brighter”.
Matt Hunt, Chief Executive of Free the Bears, added “ChamPa’s case was exceptional in many ways, yet she is one of many bears that require ongoing veterinary care to overcome the conditions which they have suffered prior to their rescue. We hope that with continued improvement over time it will be possible to mix ChamPa with some of the other 24 rescued bears at the Free the Bears centre in Laos, so that she can enjoy a normal life in her beautiful forest sanctuary”. Dr Pizzi added “Operating on one bear won’t save the species from extinction, and making life better for one bear won’t change the world, but the world of that one bear is changed forever”.
Individuals wishing to support Free the Bears in their mission to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout Asia can donate via the website http://www.freethebears.org and can even purchase a general health check for a rescued bear through the virtual gifts section of the online store.
The Moon bear (Ursus thibetanus) is also known as the Asiatic black bear, or Himalayan black bear. It can be found in eighteen countries across Asia, ranging from south-eastern Iran to Japan, and is considered to be Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.
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