By Eric San Juan
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (EFE).- An estimated 300 bears in Vietnam are still kept on farms for the illegal extraction of their bile to be sold on the black market for medicinal remedies, but the country is nearing the end of this practice thanks to awareness efforts and to an organization’s work, which includes a rescue sanctuary.
Breeze, a male bear held in captivity since 2005, last week joined more than 200 others rescued from bile farms at the sanctuary that organization Animals Asia set up in 2008 and manages in Tam Dao, 70 kilometers north of Hanoi.
After 18 years of living in a confined space without a healthy diet, it will be impossible for Breeze to be returned to the wild, but in this 12-hectare sanctuary nestled in a mountainous area in northern Vietnam, he will be able to recover and lead a peaceful life.
“When we rescue them as cubs (…) they are still physically and mentally okay. Those bears are okay to be released back in the wild if we can find a safe place for them. The biggest bears that we rescued (…) they’ve been on farms for 22 years so it’s going to be very difficult to put them back in the wild. It’s like for us being in jail for so long and then getting back into society again,” says Animals Asia’s Vietnam director Tuan Bendixsen.
This is also the case of another five bears brought to the sanctuary two weeks ago, who had spent 22 years behind bars, enduring the 10-centimeter-long needles that were stuck into their abdomens every few weeks to extract bile to be sold on the black market as a cure for joint pain and liver disease.
The practice has been banned in Vietnam since 1992, but it has survived due to reasons such as the entrenchment of the practice, the slow change in attitudes and the difficulty of implementing the ban, since the possession of bears is not prohibited, only the extraction and sale of their bile.
“It has a long history of uses in traditional medicine (…) we are working with the Vietnam traditional medicine association to promote herbal remedies instead of bear bile,” says Bendixsen.
Demand for this traditional ‘medicine’ has been declining, Bendixsen says, but adds that just last year during the rescue of seven bears from a village outside Hanoi where more than 100 of the country’s 300 captive bears are kept, a farmer was found with 400 jars of bile for sale.
A positive sign in recent years is that most of the rescued animals arrive at the center after being voluntarily surrendered by their owners due to growing awareness, the difficulty of obtaining economic benefits due to the drop in demand, and pressure from authorities.
The change in government attitude towards the problem resulted in a partnership agreement with Animals Asia in 2017 and a commitment last year to eradicate bile extraction by 2026.
The numbers invite optimism: in 2005, three years before the sanctuary opened, there were 4,300 bears on illegal bile farms in the country, compared to the 300 that remain today.
“The Vietnam government is committed to end bear bile farming. This is the change we have seen over the years and that change came with our hard work with the government and the trust that we have built,” says Bendixsen.
The sanctuary, however, already exceeds the ideal capacity of 200, so this year Animals Asia is looking forward to the opening of a new refuge near Hue, in the center of the country.
“It’s part of the agreement with the government to rescue 300 bears – the capacity in Hue will be for all the bears that are being farmed in Vietnam,” he concludes. EFE