Vietnam’s illegal bile trade traps bears in agony

Near-demented and with bloodshot eyes, a large Asiatic black bear is trapped inside a rusty cage barely larger than its hefty body in the dank backroom of a hotel near Hanoi.

The owner beats the cage with a stick to stir the tormented beast and hails the medicinal benefits of the bile siphoned from its gall bladder, a practice animal welfare and environmental groups are trying to stamp out.

Keeping bears caged for commercial purposes has been banned in Vietnam for nearly two years. But experts say 4 000 to 5 000 remain trapped, many of them feeding the illicit trade, sometimes in battery farms with hundreds of bears.

“Everywhere you look in Vietnam, you will see bear bile openly for sale,” said Tim Knight of the non-profit group Wildlife At Risk (WAR).

“Wild bears in Vietnam are dangerously close to extinction, and the main reason is the bear farms.”

Asiatic black bears — also known as moon bears for the distinctive white crescent marking on their chests — have long been trapped and “milked” in Vietnam and China for their bile, hailed by some traditional medicine practitioners as a health tonic or a cure for a wide range of ailments.

The “mat gau” has been praised for relieving pain, liver and heart ailments, as an anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac, an elixir that reduces “heat” and the effects of alcohol. It has even been mixed into eye drops and shampoos.

“Drinking bile can help reduce the harmful effects of alcohol,” said Vu Duy Tien, owner of the Tien Tuu Quan traditional alcohol bar in Hanoi, who sells a cubic centimetre of the liquid for around 80 000 dong ($5).

“It also makes you less drunk and increases men’s sexual performance,” he says.

“It’s become a cure-all,” said Knight. “That’s the problem we’re grappling with, something that is steeped deeply in cultural traditions.”

The liquid is extracted through metal pipes in the crude “free-dripping technique” or, in more sophisticated operations, with sterile syringes and using ultrasound equipment to locate the gall bladder.

The animals, usually moon bears and sometimes Malayan sun bears, typically languish in cages so small they can barely move, causing stress that sees some of them bang their heads against the bars and chew their paws.

Under international pressure from animal welfare groups who decry the practice as barbaric, Vietnam, unlike its northern neighbour China, outlawed the commercial trade in bear products in March 2005.

But, faced with the logistical challenge of rounding up and keeping thousands of the animals, authorities effectively turned a blind eye to existing operations while trying to stop new farms or the import of bear cubs.

In the lead-up to the ban, WAR helped pilot a project in 2004/05 to catalogue and microchip all the bears in captivity. The Forest Protection Department was tasked with ensuring no new animals enter the system.

“After the ban, authorities allowed people who already had micro-chipped bears to keep them under the condition that they are no longer exploited in any way,” said Sulma Warne, Traffic’s greater Mekong programme coordinator.

“The expectation is that these bears are supposed to be kept in a humane way until they die, and that their bile is not allowed to be extracted, kept or sold. But in reality this is very difficult to enforce, largely as a result of very limited financial and human resources.”

Meanwhile, the trade appears to be flourishing.

“You can step into almost any traditional medicine seller, and they’ll open the fridge and sell you a five-millilitre vial for 60 000 dong,” said Warne.

With most of Vietnam’s forests now almost emptied of bears and other wildlife by hunting, poachers have turned to Laos, Cambodia and further afield to catch hundreds of bear cubs a year and smuggle them into Vietnam.

“A baby cub costs about $100,” said Warne. “They fatten them up, and when they are about six months or a year old, they start the tapping process.”

There is a glimmer of hope for at least some of the animals. The Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) is now building a bear sanctuary for 200 bears north of Hanoi, having set up a similar site in China.

The group plans to open a quarantine station for 50 bears by April and is waiting for government approval to expand the centre across 12 hectares of enclosures and rehabilitation areas for severely disabled bears.

“We will use the centre to raise awareness, because at the moment people really don’t have much of a concept about bear conservation and welfare,” said the foundation’s country representative Tuan Bendixsen.

“It will also mean the government can really enforce the law. At the moment if they want to confiscate a bear, they have nowhere to take it.”

But with room for only 200 bears at the centre, thousands more will remain trapped in cages, while the trade flourishes in a country now seeing rapid economic growth.

AAF executive director Annie Mather said that setting up the centre would cost up to three million US dollars, and it would eventually have similar staff numbers as its facility in China, where 140 workers now care for 170 bears.

“The purpose is to help the bears but at the same time highlight the whole issue, the cruelty of bear farming, and to highlight the point that bear farming is not necessary because there are many herbal alternatives,” she said, speaking from AAF headquarters in Hong Kong.

“We’ll have the alternative herbs there, and a herb garden.”

The animals brought into the new centre would be confiscated by the Forestry Department from illegal bear farms, and the foundation had no plans to pay compensation to the owners, as it does in China where the trade is legal, Mather said.

The question of compensation would “be up to the government,” she said.

The key to ending the practice, campaigners say, is changing attitudes.

Traffic and the Worldwide Fund for Nature plan to launch a public awareness campaign soon with advertising group Saatchi and Saatchi to dispel the myths about the so-called health benefits of bear bile and highlight the trade’s impact on Southeast Asian wildlife.

Non-profit group Education for Nature Vietnam plans to take its public information campaign “Bring Peace to Vietnam’s Bears” to Ho Chi Minh City in the first half of 2007, following a similar show in Hanoi late last year.

The first exhibition, which drew local celebrities and featured a walk-in bear “torture chamber,” will also be replicated in a mobile Wildlife Awareness Unit set to tour the country, aiming to target consumers and their children.

“Bear farming is a hot issue in Vietnam, it’s an environmental and an animal welfare issue,” said the group’s programme director Nguyen Phuong Dung.

“We hope that our exhibition will change people’s ideas and attitudes.” – AFP

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