Collecting bear bile seems to be a rather strange way to spend your holidays but for some tourists that visit Vietnam it is an attraction. The tourists involved in the questionable activity tend to be from Korea and stay at Ha Long city tourist resorts.
Bear bile farming in Vietnam.
About 3,000 Asiatic black bears (aka moon bears) are kept in illegal captivity – most caught directly from the wild – and are regularly ‘milked’ for their bile by having a syringe inserted into their gall bladder. Bear bile farming was made illegal in Vietnam back in 2005 but the practise is still widespread. [pullquote]The local authorities are also to be active in implementing recommendations from national government and bodies.[/pullquote]
The bears are kept in small ‘crush cages’ that allow easy access to the abdomen for bile extraction. Some bears will spend up to 20 years of their lives in these crates though most will have a captive life expectancy of between 10 and 12 years because of the mental stress and muscle wasting from being kept in such confined conditions.
Black bears kept at bile farms are known to chew off their own paws, lose their fur, have stunted growth and malnutrition. Many bears will have their teeth and claws extracted to prevent them damaging themselves which could reduce their productive life. Bears will be milked twice a day and the milking process is known to be painful with bears moaning and chewing at their paws during the process.
Bear farms damaging to Vietnams tourism reputation.
Now though the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has decided to take action against travel companies that are organising these trips or dealing with the illegal bear bile farms. Letters are being sent out to all tour companies warning them that they could lose their business operations license if they take part in this type of tourism.
A government instruction has also gone out to all provincial tourism ministry offices to inform them to raise awareness of the responsibilities of business to the welfare of wildlife and that they are to cooperate with the authorities in case of violation of the law. The local authorities are also to be active in implementing recommendations from national government and bodies.
Most importantly an instruction from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) stated that authorities are to “… prohibit all travel companies that organise tours that take tourists to bear farms where bears are illegally kept and bear bile is extracted. For a serious violation, VNAT will consider withdrawing the company’s International Travel Business License”.
VNAT have stated that they are particularly concerned that the image portrayed by this type of tourism activity reflects badly on the country as a whole and could harm the “healthy and sustainable content of activities of local tourism.”
New crackdown welcomed by NGOs.
This crack down on bear bile tourism was in response to a report released by local wildlife conservation NGO Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV). Tran Viet Hung, ENV Vice Director said “Authorities have been aware of illegal bear bile tourism for a long time, but it has taken an article to be published and put into public view for them to take action. We welcome the stern words from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and expect to see prosecutions of the very visible perpetrators of this illegal industry.”
Black bears are a protected species in Vietnam, in addition to bear bile farming being specifically unlawful it is also illegal to own or sell bears including their products under a government order dating from 2006.
Tour companies have had plenty of opportunity to move away from this market as a government order was made in December 2009 banning travel companies from offering tours to the illegal bear farms. Today’s declaration and action from the central governments means the time has come for the order to be enforced.
Bear bile is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for a number of complaints though many practitioners no longer use it as there are ample herbal alternatives. Bears have become popular as a source of bile because of the quantities that they produce. They are much more productive than other mammals. New methods, however, means that ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) – the active ingredient of bear bile – can now be extracted from other mammals and can be produced as a by-product from slaughterhouses and the meat trade in the same quality and quantity as bear farming.