About ALF > Worldwide Actions > Vietnam
AAF aims to end illegal bear trade

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 setting.

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 trade.

"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," said Warne.

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."

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,