By Manabu Sasaki
HANOI--At a bile farm about 40 kilometers west of Hanoi, most of the bears in the cages were so emaciated, they could barely move.
Some kept listlessly turning their heads left to right. Others simply sat motionless.
Twenty Asian black bears and sun bears were confined in cages measuring each 1.5 meters wide and 2 meters high, to collect bile from their gallbladders.
The digestive fluid is a coveted ingredient used to make traditional medicine in Vietnam and purportedly treats a spate of health problems.
“You can mix it with alcohol,” said a woman who runs the bear bile farm behind a building that resembles a warehouse situated near a main road. “It is good for boosting your virility and also good for liver or heart ailments.”
The woman said she has 100 cc of bile extracted from each bear through a syringe every six months. She added that a 1-cc bottle of the digestive juice is traded at 30,000 dong (about 167 yen, or $1.35).
Bile extraction at bear farms is thriving in China and Vietnam due to the supposed therapeutic benefits.
In China, the number of captive bears kept for their bile is estimated from thousands to more than 10,000.
Many of the bears are in an appalling physical condition after being confined year after year in cramped cages, according to animal rights advocates.
Some showed signs of being in excruciating pain when they were stuck with a needle to harvest their bile.
The trans-border trade in bears has been regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Convention, since 1992.
The same year, a law took effect in Vietnam regulating the hunting of bears. The Vietnamese government issued a directive banning the harvesting of bear bile in 2006.
Still, dealers have continued to be involved in its illicit extraction and trade across Vietnam.
The woman at the bear farm said her clients include visitors from other Asian countries, as well as residents of her neighborhood.
She also said she was visited by brokers who want to purchase bear bile for reselling. The same 1-cc bile bottle was priced at 80,000 dong at a market in central Hanoi, nearly three times what it fetches on her farm.
Along with bile, bear body parts are also finding their way into lucrative deals.
There were reports that some vendors marketed paws severed from bears and soaked in liquor as food items and remedies to treat injuries.
Data is not available on the overall population of wild bears in Vietnam. According to experts, bears that were brought to farms after being caught in the forest and from other countries for the harvesting of bile totaled more than 4,000 in 2005. The number is estimated at about 1,400 today.
A factor behind the steep drop is that operators have skimped on feeding the animals since they no longer generate income, as authorities have clamped down on bear bile transactions.
One notable example of the plight of the captive animals is the deaths of as many as 108 bears out of 152 over the past year in Quang Ninh province, renowned for Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In an investigation in January, the local government found that many bears died of starvation or developed signs of malnutrition as owners stopped properly feeding them.
The illicit sale of bear bile products had been rampant in the province for many years, drawing foreign tourists to bear bile farms as part of a tour. Many signing up for such trips are from South Korea and also included visitors from Taiwan, China and Japan, according to local tour operators.
But animal welfare proponents with international conservation groups mounted a campaign against bile harvesting, calling the practice “abuse.”
Vietnamese researchers of environmental biology joined the chorus condemning the bile extraction industry.
And Animals Asia, an international organization calling for the protection of bears, set up a sanctuary for captive bears in 2006, the same year bile milking was banned by the Vietnamese government.
Many bears in captivity live up to 20 years, while their counterparts in the wild live about 30 years.
The local authorities’ tightening of a crackdown on bear bile tours began in Quang Ninh province in 2007. All trips that had been planned after last October have been suspended.
The crackdown, however, led to the worsening plight of bears in captivity.
Proprietors stopped giving sufficient feed to the animals after the money that formerly was paid by tourists seeking bear bile was lost.
Feed alone typically costs at least 6 million dong a month to maintain a facility with 20 bears.
Aged bears that produce less bile were the first to be neglected, according to local authorities.
If they are lucky, some bears living in the heartbreaking conditions of bile farms find a new home in a sanctuary, the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center, in Tam Dao National Park, about 60 km northwest of Hanoi, run by Animals Asia.
All the 114 bears currently in the center were rescued from farms across Vietnam.
Many were thin and injured after butting their heads against the wall out of stress when they first arrived at the 12-hectare sanctuary.
But after spending six months or a year in the center, they regain their health and come to play in a pool and with toys, according to Animals Asia officials.
“Our goal is to rescue all captive bears in Vietnam,” said Tuan Bendixen, head of the sanctuary.
The group’s immediate target is saving farm bears in Quang Ninh province.
Animals Asia has also waged a campaign to educate the public about the substitutability of bear bile in hopes of eradicating this item from Vietnam.
Under collaboration with the traditional medicine industry in Vietnam, members began handing out leaflets to tourists two years ago explaining that similar medicinal benefits as touted from bear bile can be achieved through herbs.
Practitioners of traditional remedies are also trying to shift to ways to make products without relying on the digestive fluid.
“Citizens need to cooperate with the conservation effort to change regrettable practices,” said a 38-year-old company employee who participated in a May 16 event held under the banner of “Rescue Bears.” Participants traveled the 60 km from Hanoi to the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center on foot or by bicycle in the event.