Near-demented and with bloodshot eyes, a large Asiatic black bear is trapped inside a cage barely larger than its hefty body in the dank backroom of a hotel near Hanoi.
The owner beats the cage to stir the beast and hails the medicinal benefits of the bile from its gall bladder, a practice animal welfare groups are trying to stamp out.
Keeping bears caged for commercial purposes has been banned in Vietnam for nearly two years. But experts say 4,000 to 5,000 remain trapped, sometimes in battery farms with hundreds of bears.
"Everywhere you look in Vietnam, you will see bear bile openly for sale," said Tim Knight of the non-profit group Wildlife At Risk. "Wild bears in Vietnam are dangerously close to extinction, and the main reason is the bear farms."
Asiatic black bearshave long been trapped and "milked" in Vietnam and China for their bile, hailed by some traditional medicine practitioners as a health tonic or a cure for a wide range of ailments.
The bile has been praised for relieving pain, liver and heart ailments, as an anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac, an elixir that reduces "heat" and the effects of alcohol.
"Drinking bile can help reduce the harmful effects of alcohol," said Vu Duy Tien, owner of the Tien Tuu Quan traditional alcohol bar in Hanoi, who sells a 1cm3 of the liquid for around 80,000 dong (US$5).
"It also makes you less drunk and increases men's sexual performance," he says.
"It's become a cure-all," Knight said. "That's the problem we're grappling with, something that is steeped deeply in cultural traditions."
The liquid is extracted through metal pipes or, in more sophisticated operations, with sterile syringes and ultrasound equipment to locate the gall bladder.
Under international pressure from animal welfare groups decrying the practice as barbaric, Vietnam, unlike its northern neighbor China, outlawed the commercial trade in bear products in March 2005.
But faced with the logistical challenge, authorities effectively turned a blind eye while trying to stop new farms or the import of bear cubs.
Despite the ban, trade in the questionable cure-all flourishes.
"You can step into almost any traditional medicine seller, and they'll open the fridge and sell you a 5 milliliter vial for 60,000 dong," Warne said.
With most of Vietnam's forests now almost emptied of bears and other wildlife by hunting, poachers have turned to Laos, Cambodia and elsewhere to catch hundreds of bear cubs a year and smuggle them into Vietnam.
"A baby cub costs about US$100 dollars," Warne said. "They fatten them up, and when they are about six months or a year old, they start the tapping process."
There is a glimmer of hope for at least some of the animals. The Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation is now building a bear sanctuary for 200 bears north of Hanoi, having set up a similar site in China.
The group plans to open a quarantine station for 50 bears by April and is waiting for government approval to expand the center across 12 hectares of enclosures and rehabilitation areas for severely disabled bears.
"We will use the center to raise awareness, because at the moment people really don't have much of a concept about bear conservation and welfare," said Tuan Bendixsen, the foundation's country representative.
"It will also mean the government can really enforce the law. At the moment if they want to confiscate a bear, they have nowhere to take it. If someone really breaks the law, mistreating an animal or hunting them, they can confiscate right away and show the public `we can do it if we want to.'"
But with room for only 200 bears at the center, thousands more will remain trapped in cages while the trade flourishes in a country now seeing rapid economic growth.
AAF executive director Annie Mather said that setting up the center would cost up to US$3 million, and it would eventually have similar staff numbers as its facility in China, where 140 workers now care for 170 bears.
Awareness is key to wiping out the cruelty. The animals brought into the new center would be confiscated by the Forestry Department from illegal bear farms, and the foundation had no plans to pay compensation to the owners, as it does in China where the trade is legal, Mather said.
The question of compensation would "be up to the government," she said. "We're not involved in any compensation effort at this point. Bear farming is illegal, so presumably people who are doing it are breaking the law, and presumably the government can confiscate them."
The key to ending the practice, campaigners say, is changing attitudes.
TRAFFIC and the Worldwide Fund for Nature plan to launch a public awareness campaign soon with advertising group Saatchi and Saatchi to dispel the myths about the so-called health benefits of bear bile and highlight the trade's impact on Southeast Asian wildlife.
Non-profit group Education for Nature Vietnam plans to take its public information campaign "Bring Peace to Vietnam's Bears" to Ho Chi Minh City in the first half of this year, following a similar show in Hanoi late last year.
"Bear farming is a hot issue in Vietnam, it's an environmental and an animal welfare issue," program director Nguyen Phuong Dung said. "We hope that our exhibition will change people's ideas and attitudes."
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