Video by Brendan McCarthy. Text by Leanne Younes
Note: This story was first published on February 9, 2012, and it was updated on December 21, 2012 with new information
In a blistering tin shed on the outskirts of Hanoi, rows of caged Asiatic Black bears pant with thirst and gaze despairingly through the bars.
The bears have struggled to stay alive amidst horrific cruelty; perhaps hanging on to the hope they may be rescued from the constant onslaught of bile-extraction agony – a process where they are subdued, tied down and jabbed numerous times in the abdomen in a “hit-and-miss” attempt to locate the gall bladder and extract the bile.
But, even if the bears are rescued, the reality is there may be nowhere for them to go.
The state-of-the-art rescue centre at Tam Dao National Park, in northern Vietnam, has been served with an eviction notice, threatening the lives of 104 rescued bears and the livelihood of more than 75 staff.
The centre was purpose built and paid for by the Animals Asia Foundation but, after battling for more than a year against constant takeover attempts by the National Park director and his allies; the future looks increasingly uncertain.
Animals Asia’s infrastructure and development has created a tourism drawcard, making the area increasingly valuable. The land has been reportedly been pledged, if not re-leased to a property-development company.
Meanwhile the Asiatic black bears or Moon bears as they are known because of the distinctive, yellow crescent-shaped marking on their chests, are becoming increasingly scarce in the wild, with thousands still trapped on bear farms. The bears produce bile with high concentrations of Ursodeoxycholic Acid (UDCA) as a natural protection for their liver and to prevent gallstones and illnesses during the long hibernation.
The bile is reputed to cure everything from bruises to cancer, and is notably regarded and consumed as a libido-enhancing tonic and hangover cure throughout Asia. This makes the bears, and their bile, a valuable business commodity, and a target.
Bear-bile farming is illegal in Vietnam and the Moon bear is listed internationally as a critically-endangered species, but this has not halted or even slowed the rampant trade. The bile sells for exorbitant amounts and that means for many Vietnamese “farmers’, giving up the bears they have trapped from the wild, is not an option.
For Animals Asia Vietnam director Dr Tuan Bendixsen, the situation is untenable and his bid to save the bears has become his life work.
The “farmers’ we visited as part of this documentary have had these bears as “pets” for several years now. In 2007, when the Vietnamese Government first introduced bear-keeping regulations, those who had micro-chipped bears were allowed to keep them but had to abide by regulations that meant it was illegal to extract bile, sell it or any other bear product.
The ‘gate-keeping’ process around these regulations is not upheld and that leaves all stakeholders in limbo. Dr Bendixsen has been negotiating for years, appealing to have the bears surrendered.
Now there is a real risk that even if the farmers change their minds and hand them over, the bears will have nowhere to go. Instead these bears and thousands more, face the ongoing hell of cramped cages, starvation, torture and pain – the only life they have ever known.