by Hoang Anh
Last week, five more bears held captive in northern Quang Ninh Province's bear-bile farms were reported to have died. This brought the numbers that have died in the province to 106 since the beginning of last year.
That was when the provincial authority finally put a stop to bear-bile trading as well as bear-bile tourism. It did this by stopping men from East Asian countries queuing up to get a dose of bear bile. However, they did not have the power to close the bear farms down.
The decision received much praise for bringing to an end the brutal suffering of the caged bears, but that has now all fallen flat. At the time, the Animal Asia Foundation, a wildlife organisation, estimated there were about 2,000 bears kept for bile farming throughout Viet Nam. An ingredient in traditional medicine, bear bile is extracted from living bears through a long needle pushed into their gall bladders while they are sedated.
Strangely, ever since the crackdown last year, the bears in Quang Ninh bear farms have been dying off one by one. Their numbers are down from 152 bears as reported by the provincial Department of Forest Protection in 2013. There are now said to be as few as 38 remaining in the whole province. Most are said to be underfed, wounded or infected with diseases.
The reason for their decline was simple enough. Without a sufficient source of income, farmers could not afford to feed the bears. Farmers once spent about VND100,000 (US$4.60) on daily food for each animal, but now can only spend one-sixth of that. In addition, many of the bears have become infected through poor living and poor treatment.
It was a hollow victory. Efforts to fight bear-bile farming resulted in most of the animals being starved to death or dying from untreated injuries and diseases. People now realise the provincial authority was careless with its decision to ban bear farming without an ongoing plan to rehabilitate the animals.
The dead bears say it all. Failing to get the farmers on board by providing them with a way to sustain their livelihood was actually detrimental to the overall well-being of the captive bears. Farmers bought the bears and raised them hoping to make a profit. Granted, that is rather a questionable practice, but it was condoned by society at large and was an important part of commercial tourism.
Even the State attempted to recognise that the bears had rights by attaching monitor chips to their bodies to ensure they could not be sold or moved illegally. This meant the bears could not be taken from farmers by force nor bought with money. It seems that the very decision to save them was also their execution warrant.
I recalled my trip to Laos, a neighbouring country of Viet Nam, and my visit to the Kuang Si Waterfall in Luang Prabang where I was impressed by the local bear rescue centre. The centre was neatly organised, from the way they placed information panels with bears' names and stories for all to read. There is also an information hut where visitors can learn about the on-going threats bears are facing.
What impressed me most, however, was how relaxed and tranquil the bears at the centre were. Probably thanks to all the signs which were put up to instruct people not to feed them or agitate them unnecessarily. Given the rapid rate of deforestation, the adverse effects on wildlife associated with climate change and the illegal hunting and poaching in the region I said to myself: "This is not a bad place for them to live, not at all."
And I remembered the Vietnamese bears, living in cages, suffering from pain and hunger. I wonder why we can't give them that: a place to live in just like the one I saw in Laos where the animals are treated with respect. I do not believe that the Vietnamese farmers wanted to hurt the bears. They just had to. Some borrowed money to set up a bear farm, hoping it would be a way for them to feed their children, send them to school or just a shot at a better life.
But did anyone ever try to show them another way, a way in which the farmers do not have to exploit or hurt the bears they bought or raised. The objective of saving the bears was certainly not accomplish. The Provincial Authority and the farmers are still in gridlock – and the remaining bears are starving.
To be sustainable, wildlife conservation projects should include local farmers. Bear parks could handle the trapped and injured animals that remain or breed – as long as they are treated well and given heaps of room. It might be the only place for semi-domesticated bears to live out their days.
These places could be monitored by local authorities, sponsored by wildlife conservation organisations and help provide farmers with a source of income. The bears could finally leave their cages and receive the medical care they desperately need.
A book published by the Viet Nam Oriental Traditional Medicine Association and Animal Asia Foundation listed 32 types of herbal medicines that possess same healing attributes claimed for bear bile, so there is no need to encourage bile tours by ignorant people.
There are still close to 2,000 bears waiting to be rescued across the country. It is high time for policy makers and local authority to come up with a real scheme to save them. Otherwise, there will be more hollow victories, just like the case with the Quang Ninh bears. — VNS