January 22, 2010
By Margie Mason
Tan Uyen, Vietnam - The three
tractor-trailer containers sat in a row, divided with metal
partitions into 19 tiny, sweltering cells.
and furry black noses poked between the iron bars: 19 rare
Asiatic moon bears awaiting their next gall bladder milking.
Their bile is a coveted traditional medicine ingredient used to
treat everything from haemorrhoids to epilepsy.
paced nervously inside the cages, panting and foaming at the
mouth with wild bloodshot eyes. Others laid in their urine and
faeces, resting on the cool concrete floor.
They devoured the bananas and chunks of watermelon -
including the rinds - offered to them, a welcome treat from
their usual diet of rice gruel
The bears were found at an
illegal Taiwanese-owned operation in southern Vietnam. On
Friday, four days after being hoisted onto tractor trailers and
driven 2 000 kilometres north, they reached a new home with
grass and tire swings at a rescue centre about two hours outside
of Hanoi, the capital.
The government had deemed their
previous living conditions unsuitable.
Bear bile has been
used for thousands of years in Asia to treat fevers, pain,
inflammation and many other ailments.
In the 1980s, China began promoting bear farms as a way to
discourage poaching. The bears were housed in small cages, and
the green bitter fluid was sucked from their gall bladders using
crude catheters, sometimes creating pus-filled abscesses or
internal bile leakage. Many bears die slowly from infections or
liver ailments, including cancer.
The idea caught on in
Vietnam and elsewhere as demand grew alongside the region's
increasing wealth. Bear bile products are also illegally
smuggled into Chinatowns worldwide.
An informal survey by the World Society for the Protection
of Animals found 75 percent of stores visited in Japan selling
bear bile products, followed by 42 percent in South Korea. In
the U.S. and Canada, it was around 15 percent.
harvesting remains legal in China, where the government says 7
000 bears are milked on around 250 farms, though animal welfare
groups say the real number could be double that. Demand for
illegal wild bear bile, believed to be more potent, is also
increasing, they say.
Amid international pressure,
Vietnam outlawed the milking practice in 2005, and some 4 000
bears in captivity were implanted with microchips to help
identify any new bears added illegally. Owners were warned not
to tap them for bile. But the practice continues, and a black
"We want this industry to end. Government
has decided to phase this out, and we understand it's going to
take time," said Chris Gee from the World Society for the
Protection of Animals in England.
"Across the whole of Asia there's probably 20 000 bears on
Last year, a farm in northern Vietnam was
raided for selling bile to busloads of South Koreans, who
watched it being extracted as part of their sightseeing tours.
Some of the farms in Vietnam are owned by South Koreans and
"They're more organised and bigger. They're
run like a business now," said Tuan Bendixsen of Animals Asia
Foundation in Vietnam, which rescued the bears this week in
"It's part of a package tour."
Bear bile contains a high
concentration of ursodeoxycholic acid.
A synthetic version is sold as a pill and used in Western
medicine for treating gall stones and liver ailments.
pill is sold in China but cannot be used in traditional medicine
because it is not derived from a natural source.
paper published last year, Yibin Feng from the School of Chinese
Medicine at the University of Hong Kong suggested herbal
substitutes that produce the same healing elements for various
ailments could replace bear bile.
Another option is to
use bile taken from slaughtered pigs or rabbits, which contains
lower concentrations of ursodeoxycholic acid, or use artificial
bear bile, which has a similar chemical makeup and produces the
same medicinal effects.
"We found some animal bile and
plants have better effects than bear bile in some diseases,"
"Given all these, people in China should accept these
alternatives. Of course, some people in mainland insist that no
matter how close those substitutes can be, it is still not as
good as the real ones."
The newly rescued bears - two of
them missing limbs and one blind - were sedated and removed
one-by-one from their tiny cages on Friday at Tam Dao National
Park. They are joining 29 bears already at the rescue centre.
Ultrasound tests found evidence of thickened gall bladders,
a telltale sign of milking, said Animals Asia veterinarian
Heather Bacon. She said some may need to have the organ removed
due to extensive damage.
Many of these black bears, some
standing 1,8 meters tall on their hind legs and weighing 150
kilograms, have been caged since being snatched from the wild as
cubs up to seven years ago, Bendixsen said.
bears, named for the tan crescent-shape marking across their
chests, will remain in quarantine for 45 days.
They will then be moved to a building with large living
cells where they will learn to mingle with other bears, before
moving to a bear house where they can play outside in an
enclosure with trees, grass, tunnels and swings.
also be spoiled with dollops of honey and peanut butter. - Sapa-AP