Tue, Sep 27, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The plight of Vietnamese bears

An estimated 4,000 bears are kept caged and drugged in Vietnam, where they are tapped daily for their bile, which is sold for huge profits

By Pat Sinclair  /  THE GUARDIAN , HANOI

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

To the crush cage go the gates, wedging him in. It's so tight he can hardly breathe. A man on each side jabs in a long metal bar, prising his limbs off his stomach. He's moaning, fighting, protecting himself. They force a leg up against the bars and inject him in the ball of the foot. Other people are standing and watching. Then the gates come up and, unraveled and drugged, the moon bear slouches back to his normal quarters.

His captors, at this small farm in Hanoi say he's called Nghien. The name means addict; it's a bit of humor.

The bear looks like a druggie, they think. He's tall, skinny and has "weird behaviors." He is also being tapped daily for his bile, a product revered as a cure-all in Asia -- drunk fresh or made into medicines, tonics, cosmetics and aphrodisiacs.

"People think bile is magic," Nguyen Quan Thong, a wildlife campaigner, said. "They believe they'd die if it wasn't for mat gau [bear bile]."

In Vietnam, bile pays. Indeed, it is an astonishing "pick-me-up," yielding a living standard way above average for keepers. Just 1g of bile powder sells in local pharmacies for about 60,000 dong (US$3.80), but around the city, in upmarket restaurants, it can sell for 100,000 dong, a fortune, given that the average urban resident earns just 37,500 dong a week. Officially, captive "bile bears" in Vietnam number 4,000. Most have been snatched straight from the wild.

Bile not being cheap, people like to know they've got the real thing. So extractions are often performed in front of customers. At the hangar-style shed in Thinh Liet-Hoang Mai, Hanoi, early on a Sunday morning, eight people surround Nghien's cage.

Collapsing six minutes after being sedated, Nghien now has green straps round his limbs and a pump and scanner of the sort used to scan pregnancies are standing near the cage. The staff and the contracted "doctor" push him on to his back, anchoring him with the straps. As jelly is smeared on his stomach everyone gathers to watch the screen. After a couple of goes, and some head scratching as an insertion yields nothing, the doc licks the hypodermic needle and jabs it in. Fluid the color of Marmite slowly seeps up the syringe and through a plastic tube into a jar. The men smile, absorbed.

Nghien's jaws quiver. The doc licks the needle again before re-inserting it then jabs the bear four times with antidotes. He dabs blood from the hole and leaves the cage with half a jam jar of bile.

The collection takes 10 minutes, but it is half an hour before Nghien can sit up again and more than an hour before he stands on all fours. His head rocks and he drops flat again and again. He froths at the mouth. As he rolls near the upright bars of his cage -- with no solid floor, no inner retreat, no water trough -- the next-door bear nuzzles him and froths too. Nghien gently shifts when the neighbor starts to chew on the claws of his swaying paw. I ask if he can have water but he does not get it.

Bear bile has been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years, but farms only began to appear in the 1980s, after North Korean scientists developed ways of extracting the digestive fluid from living bears. Other Asian countries followed suit. The prized ingredient is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which, China's state pharmacopoeia says, makes a remedy that removes liver heat, relieves spasms, improves vision and banishes toxicity. These days, claims stretch to bile being able to rejuvenate brain cells.

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