The open-walled shed, running the length of a tennis court, appeared forlorn at first glance. Tangled metal wires, tarnished steel frames, and empty petroleum barrels were strewn across the uneven dirt floor. It was a strange place to come looking for bears—but tucked away in a corner, hidden behind a corrugated zinc wall, we found them: two Asiatic black bears in adjoining copper cages.
Wendles had the sweeter face, but it was Bazan who first caught my attention. Her temper matched her namesake—fiery, like the red basalt soil that grows most of Vietnam’s famously bitter robusta coffee. In the 90-degree heat, Bazan paced in quick circles, growling softly. A small crowd had gathered in front of her cage. After 12 years in captivity, she’d come to learn that people usually signaled harm, not help.
“Bears on farms often mistrust people because they think they’re coming to take their bile,” says Weng Yan Ng, a veterinary surgeon. Earlier this spring, she and other members from the animal-welfare organization Animals Asia had traveled to An Khê, a town in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, to meet Quoc Viet Le, the owner of a timber construction company who had gotten in touch with the local forestry department to say he wanted to give up his “pet” bears. Now, Ng was there to rescue them to Animals Asia’s sanctuary up north.
Le, a slight man with a neat moustache, told me through a translator that he would miss the bears. But had been persuaded by his elder son, a monk in training, to release the animals for “compassionate reasons.” Le’s change of heart is encouraging to conservationists, who are part of a new push to free the more than a thousand Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, that remain trapped in Vietnam’s illegal bear-bile industry. The Vietnamese government says that it can shut down the last bear farm in as little as three years, and is about to sign a memorandum of understanding with Animals Asia affirming its commitment to that target.
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that begs some questions: If all the captive bears are rescued by 2020, where will they go, and who will take care of them?
People like Le keep bears, usually two or three at a time, on “mom and pop” farms dotted throughout the southeast Asian country. “Farm” is the common term, but the name can be misleading: Many bears are found at the back of kitchens or sheds, living in rusty metal cages—some no larger than a chest freezer—for years on end, existing in semi-darkness and surviving on watery gruel.
The animals are frequently drugged, often with ketamine, and farmers use needles or catheters to prod their bellies in search of the gallbladder. The prize: a thick yellow fluid that has been used in traditional medicine to treat ailments ranging from hemorrhoids to hangovers. Sold directly to consumers on farms and in some traditional-medicine shops, a milliliter of this bile can fetch anywhere between $1 to $3—not quite liquid gold, but in a country where the average wage ranges between $150 to $180 a month, it’s a tidy sum.
The issue of keeping Asiatic black bears—which can grow more than six feet and weigh as much as 440 pounds—in tiny cages on farms has been lambasted in the media for harming a species that is considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. There are reports describing the painful processes used to extract bile: a bear in Laos tied down by its paws to an operating table, other bears in China living with rusty catheters permanently stuck in their gallbladders, and so on. Today, the practice persists in five Asian countries. Despite it being outlawed in Vietnam since 1992, more than 300 farms remain today—the result of poor law enforcement and continued consumer demand.
The hope now is to relocate the animals to bear sanctuaries. These are large, open spaces, often located in national parks such as Cat Tien and Tam Dao, where rescued bears can live out the rest of their days—sometimes up to 30 years—in peace, with round-the-clock veterinary care, nutritious meals, hammocks and pools to play in, and enrichment activities to keep them occupied. These sanctuaries “give a viable answer to what to do physically with bears if we’re going to close down these farms,” says Robert Steinmetz, a Thailand-based conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund.
But, he adds, there’s a catch: “The existing sanctuaries probably aren’t big enough and need to be expanded.”
Nonprofit organizations run Vietnam’s bear sanctuaries and rescue centers. There’s little financial support from the government (which instead assists with the transfer of bears from farms to sanctuaries), and funding comes largely from international donors. Animals Asia has the country’s oldest and largest facility, but its 161 bear residents are nearing its capacity of 200. Two other organizations, Four Paws and Free The Bears, are in the midst of building new sanctuaries, which combined will provide space for 150 bears in the coming year. Still, that’s far short of 1,000.
Over the past couple months, Animals Asia has been working with the government’s Forest Protection Department to figure out how they can realistically end bear bile farming by 2020. The two sides hope to sign a memorandum of understanding in the coming weeks. According to Tuan Bendixsen, the director of Animals Asia in Vietnam, part of the plan involves Animals Asia helping to improve government-run animal-rescue centers that take in wild animals like turtles and pangolins but lack the infrastructure and technical know-how to care for bears.
The move will boost overall capacity, but whether Vietnam can find the space for all of its captive bears in just three short years remains an open question. If the initiative fails, some bears may have to remain on farms or, at worst, be euthanized. Rescued bears can’t be released back into the wild: Even if they could survive, there aren’t any viable forests for them to live in.
Some experts don’t think more sanctuary space is necessarily the headache it sounds. “The pressure is really on to get as many bears into sanctuaries as possible, but realistically, many bears are going to die, naturally or unnaturally, over the next few years before they get rescued,” says Matt Hunt, the chief executive of Free The Bears. Breeding rarely, if ever, takes place on bear farms in Vietnam.
If all the bears do find homes, there’s still a second major challenge that will need to be dealt with: rehabilitation. Farm bears typically arrive at sanctuaries with a variety of physical problems, remnants from years spent trapped in tiny cages. When I first saw Bazan, she had patches of fur missing and was underweight at 149 pounds—symptoms of stress and poor nutrition. Wendles, on the other hand, had overgrown claws and a few decayed teeth. Later that week, I met Hartley at the Animals Asia’s Tam Dao sanctuary. Hartley was ambling happily about, but blind and hobbling because his right paw had been reduced to a stump after getting caught in a hunter’s snare.
Sometimes, the damage isn’t just physical, but psychological, too. Manga was the first bear I saw encountered at Tam Dao. Although magnificent at over six-feet tall, Manga was doing something rather strange: She would pace close to the fence, then sit with her front paws raised and roll her head. Once, twice, and repeatedly for the next five minutes. It was later explained to me that many rescued bears exhibit similar behaviors, engaging in repeated movements when something sets off a trigger in their brain.
For many conservationists, though, there’s an equally pressing concern to rehabilitation: stomping out the roots of bear-bile farming in the first place. Four Paws has formed a tripartite group with two other organizations, Education for Nature-Vietnam and World Animal Protection.* Together they run a wildlife crime unit (apart from bile, people sell whole gallbladders for use in traditional medicine and bear paws to eat in soup); conduct education campaigns (there are more than 50 herbal alternatives to bear bile); and carry out surveys (demand has fallen in recent years because consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the quality and purported effects of farmed bile). The group is also working with the Department of Nature Conservation to step up surveillance of existing farms.
If they succeed, more bears like Bazan could have their chance at a new life. The next time I saw her was three days after she had left Le’s farm and traveled 720 miles north to Tam Dao sanctuary. I was told she remained testy on the journey, but when her cage was rolled off the truck at the sanctuary, she stood unusually still, breathing heavily and blinking as she took in her new surroundings. There was birdsong, pine trees, and fresh air—things that a thousand more bears may or may not be lucky enough to experience.
*This article originally misidentified the organization spearheading the rescue effort as Free the Bears. We regret the error.