Bears tortured to meet Asian thirst for bile

Date: Oct 3, 2009 

Wild moon bears are kept in tiny cages so that they can have their gall bladders milked in Ha Long City in northern Quang Ninh Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Dan

HA NOI — More than 4,000 wild moon bears (Ursus thibetanus) are being forced to live in cages across Viet Nam so that their bile can be regularly siphoned off and sold as a super tonic, according to the agriculture ministry’s Forestry Department.

There is little hope for them. A few have been rescued and placed in sanctuaries, but the rest languish and eventually die because of weak laws.
Nguyen Van Anh, wildlife trading co-ordinator with Education for Nature Viet Nam (ENV) said the bile farming industry exploded about 10 years ago, raising the numbers of bears in captivity from hundreds to thousands.

Vietnamese Australian Tuan Bendixsen, Viet Nam director of the Ha Noi-based Animal Asia Foundation, said most bears were kept under inhumane conditions. Those that he has inspected were forced to survive in cages measuring just 150cm x 200cm x 150cm.

The trapped animals stay idle all day, while in the wild, each can roam in a territory of about 5km radius.

"The bears are fed terribly," Tuan said. "They are given waste food normally reserved for pigs."

He said it was heartbreaking to see bile extracted. As the gall bladder is beneath the liver, drugged bears, restrained with ropes, have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with 4-inch needles until the gall bladder is found - and then the painful extraction begins.
"Bears suffer a thousand times and the mental torture is unimaginable," he said.

From 2001 to 2005, the average number of bears caught in the wild was 1,000 per year, according to Ha Cong Tuan, head of Forest Protection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

In an attempt to control the situation, since September 2005 the department started to register and micro-chip captive bears to try and prevent bears being illegally captured in the wild.

"Although Viet Nam has relevant laws, fines for those who violate the rules are only a slap on the wrist. Unless the bears are taken from them, things won’t change," said Tuan Bendixsen.

"Since the introduction of the micro-chip registration, the demand for bile in the south seemed to decline," said Nguyen Vu Khoi, executive director of the HCM City-based local NGO Wildlife at Risk.

Education for Nature coordinator Anh said although domestic demand had declined, there was a new trend to sell bile to foreign tourists, especially in tourism hot-spots.
According to ENV, in the past year it has uncovered a secret world of Korean bear tourism in Ha Long Bay. During a total 10-day investigation, ENV documented more than 100 busloads of South Korean tourists visiting bear farms.

The visits are not a last minute thought, but a planned part of the tour operation. During the visit, tourists witness, and seemingly enjoy, bile extraction, taste wine mixed with the bile, and are then buy bear products to take home.

Do Quang Tung, head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Unit of the Forest Protection Department said: "Seven out of 15 registered bear farms in northeastern coastal Quang Ninh Province operate tour, but in fact are selling bear products."

Many Asians believe bear bile is capable of curing even cancer. That’s why many people are ready to pay a lot of money to buy it.

However, it is doubtful if bile taken from such mistreated bears has any medical benefits, not to say possible harmful effects according to doctor Dang Van Duong, chief pathologist at the Bach Mai Hospital in Ha Noi.

After conducting clinical examinations of the damaged gall bladders of three rescued bears at Tam Dao sanctuary, he concluded: "Had those gall bladders belonged to humans, they would already be dead."

According to Animal Asia Foundation, many traditional medicine doctors agree that bile can be substituted with 54 recognised herbs. Ursodeoxycholic, the main ingredient in bear bile, can also be synthesised under laboratory conditions. Both herbal and synthetic options are readily available, making the use of bear bile unnecessary.

"Although there are rescue centres under the provincial Forest Protection departments, they are generally not well equipped. The only good thing for bears kept there is that they are no longer tortured for bile," Tuan said.

In 2008, in an effort to create a home for bears, the foundation, in co-operation with the agriculture ministry, opened the 12ha Viet Nam Bear Rescue Centre in northern Tam Dao National Park.

The centre can hold up to 100 bears and is designed to restore a bear’s natural behaviour, including climbing and searching for food. However, there is no record of any having been released back into the wild.

At present, the centre houses only 28 bears, half of them illegally traded from neighbouring countries.

In the south, the Wildlife at Risk and Free the Bear organisations have built three separate bear centres - Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary in southern Dong Nai Province, and the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta Bear Sanctuary. They are taking care of only four to 10 bears each, but the sanctuary can handle up to 100 bears, said its director Khoi.

ENV’s coordinator Anh said the 4,000 bears in captivity were generally not suitable for release into the wild and many would have difficulty reproducing. Tuan said that after years of captivity, they would never survive in the wild.

"In the long run, if we don’t want to see such precious animals become extinct, we must stop illegal hunting and trading."

At the same time, agencies agree that a committee, including Forest Protection, Customs and Police departments should join hands more effectively to stop the trading. — VNS


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