An animal rights organization has reached an agreement with Vietnam's government to build a bear sanctuary near Hanoi. The refuge will house bears rescued from farms where their bile is harvested, painfully, for use in traditional medicine. The move is part of Vietnamese government efforts to gradually abolish the practice.
Ursus Selenarctos Thibetanus, the Asiatic black bear, inhabits mountain woodlands from Pakistan to Japan. It eats mainly fruit, nuts and small mammals.
But this bear behind a house on the outskirts of Hanoi is eating a slop made of honey and herbs. It, and the nine other bears on this farm, live in cages just large enough to lie down in. Like thousands of other black bears in Vietnam, they are kept for their bile, which followers of Vietnamese and Chinese traditional health practices believe has powerful medicinal effects.
The liver bile is extracted every few months through painful surgery, and the bears usually die after a few years. The Vietnamese government has banned the practice, but it still goes on, as Jill Robinson of the animal rights group Animals Asia explains.
"In fact, since 1992 it's been an illegal practice, but obviously still, there are four thousand bears incarcerated on farms, and in many instances we believe that their bile is still being extracted," she said.
Last week, Animals Asia reached an agreement with Vietnam's Forest Protection Department, or F.P.D., to build a bear rescue center in Tam Dao National Park, outside Hanoi. The center will open in January 2007, according to an F.P.D. official.
The official, who requested anonymity for procedural reasons, says the center will give the bears check-ups and release the healthy ones into protected forests. The more fragile animals will be taken care of for life.
But as Robinson explains, the center's reach will be limited.
"The ultimate aim of the project, at least, is to rescue 200 bears, although with 4,000 bears still in the country on these horrible farms, it's quite a challenge," she added.
Robinson knows how many trapped bears there are because the F.P.D. has implanted microchips in them over the past two years so their whereabouts can be monitored. That program, sponsored by the World Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has largely ended the practice of buying and selling bears.
But it has not stopped those who already own bears from harvesting bile. Do Thi Hai is a bear farm manager.
Hai says she keeps 10 bears, and sells their bile to long-standing customers. Advertisements for bear bile are easy to find in Vietnamese newspapers and on street-side signs.
The F.P.D. says all such harvesting, selling, and advertising is illegal. It has mounted a campaign, including TV shows, to educate the Vietnamese public about the poor treatment and bad food the animals receive.
Fears for the welfare of the animals have increased recently because farming them has become less lucrative.
Hai says it now costs her more to take care of the bears than she makes from selling bile.
With bile harvesting less profitable, there is concern bear owners will simply stop feeding the animals.
The F.P.D. says this should not happen because bear farmers signed contracts when the microchips were implanted, promising to take care of their bears for life.
The agency rules out giving the farmers compensation as an incentive to give up their bears.
The F.P.D. official says bear farmers are rich, having made a lot of money over the years.
Animals Asia's Robinson also says that, since the practice has been illegal for more than 10 years, farmers have had plenty of time to get out of the business and so do not merit compensation.
Still, many older Vietnamese continue to use bear bile. Dr. Tran Huong is a physician and an expert on traditional medicine. She says the substance is believed to be effective against everything from sore eyes to liver disease.
"Most people use this one after you have an accident, or when you play tennis, you have some strain," she said. "And the second one, people use this one for someone have some tumor in the body. And also for some kind of treatment for someone all the time have problem with blood circulation. Because only this kind of bile have some kind of special ingredient. But another kind of bile from cat, from other animal, it's not the same ingredient."
As in much of Asia, Vietnamese traditional medicine is ancient and deeply rooted in the national culture. But the surgical extraction of bear bile is a modern practice. And, in Robinson's view, it does not have to be a permanent one.
"Once the imagery of bears in cages being punctured with spinal needles to pump out their bile becomes very obvious, I don't think there'll be too many people, especially when there are alternatives, that will say, 'Hey, we really want this tradition to continue,'" said Robinson.
But users of traditional medicine may be hard to win over. And educating farmers about the need to care for their bears and stop harvesting their bile will be a slow process. Animals Asia expects to be rescuing and rehabilitating bears in Vietnam for some time.