AAF aims to end illegal bear trade
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
HANOI: When they were smuggled across the Lao-Vietnamese border in tiny
cages, three wild bear cubs were destined for a life of painful misery in
the illegal but flourishing East Asian bear bile trade.
Today they are the first inhabitants of a bear rescue centre in northern
Vietnam, a facility that organisers hope will help change public attitudes
toward what they call a cruel and unnecessary trade.
The Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) sanctuary now taking shape is set to house
an initial 200 animals on the edge of a national park north of Hanoi, where
bears freed from captivity will be rehabilitated in a mountain forest
Like thousands of other bears in Vietnam and China, the three cubs named
Mara, Mausi and Olly by their new minders were caught in the wild to be
tapped for bile, a substance produced by their gall bladders that is used in
Asian traditional medicine.
Called "mat gau" in Vietnamese, bear bile is sold in the region as a health
tonic, an anti-inflammatory, a cure for liver and heart ailments, an
aphrodisiac, and even as an additive in shampoo, toothpaste and soft drinks.
The trade, along with habitat destruction, has driven Asiatic black bears,
also known as moon bears, to the edge of extinction here, forcing poachers
to travel deeper into the forests of neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.
The three playful cubs at the AAF centre were confiscated in May from cages
smuggled on a bus across the Lao-Vietnam border after a tourist contacted an
environmentalist group which alerted the authorities.
In the park's initial phase, workers are now building two houses with 24
holding dens, veterinary facilities, nurses' quarters and food storage areas
in a picturesque valley on the edge of Tam Dao national park.
Under the blueprint, subject to final state approval, the facility would be
expanded across a broader area to resemble an adventure playground for
bears, with water pools, climbing structures and a public viewing area.
Vietnam has outlawed bear farms, but at least 4,000 of the animals remain
trapped in cages across the country, in part because so far there is no
place to put confiscated animals, said AAF Vietnam director Tuan Bendixsen.
"We are building this rescue centre so the government can enforce the law,
and to use it as a focal point to educate the public," he said.
"Hopefully we can change public attitudes and rescue more bears."
Bear bile used as cure-all, aphrodisiac and in shampoo. The extraction of
bear bile is painful and dangerous, said Bendixsen. "In China they use the
'free drip method' where they just cut a hole in the stomach and let it drip
out," he told AFP.
"In Vietnam they knock the bear out with drugs, but not fully. They pull the
bear out of the cage and tie it down, use ultrasound machines to find the
gall bladder and use a long needle to pump the bile out.
"The needles are not sterile. This causes massive tissue damage and
infections. Bears get cancers and nasty diseases. Some animals also lose
their paws in traps, some in bear paw soup or in rice wine."
Veterinarian Bloom said experience in China had shown that "some of the
bears are completely traumatised, banging on their cages. It's quite a
horrible experience. Some bears take years to recover."
Sulma Warne, Vietnam director of wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC,
said all bear species are listed under the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which Vietnam has signed.
Vietnam, under pressure from animal welfare groups, outlawed the commercial
trade in bear products in 2005, micro-chipped thousands of caged bears to
monitor the population, and told owners to keep the bears but stop the
"In reality it's quite an expensive operation, so many owners have resorted
to continuing to tap the bear bile, to sell that bear bile to finance the
upkeep of those bears," said Warne.
Vietnam's economic boom has only fuelled the trade. "Not only in Hanoi but
also in the countryside in many shops you see signs advertising bear bile,"
AAF admits that its rescue centre for 200 bears is a drop in the ocean, with
4,000 bears still in captivity, but Bendixsen said the foundation would be
willing to scale up its operation if it gets the green light from Vietnam.
"If the government were going to shut down all the bear farms tomorrow, we
could look at a semi-enclosed area, like a safari park, where we could do
basic feeding," he said. "We are willing to work with the government, and
this is a first step toward ending bear farming once and for all."