A bear lies in its cage at a bile farm outside Hanoi. Image Credit: Washington Post

PHUNG THUONG, Vietnam

Inside a row of rusting cages, 15 adult moon bears are imprisoned in varying degrees of apathy and distress. Some lie on their backs in the tiny enclosures, unable even to stretch out; other loll their heads or chew listlessly at the bars of the cage in tortured, repetitive motions.

Every few days, the bears will be sedated, a needle will be inserted into their gall bladders and bile extracted to be sold as a cure for anything from haemorrhoids to a hangover.

More than 20,000 bears are kept, most in appalling conditions, across eastern Asia to satisfy an age-old obsession with the medicinal and magical power of products culled from exotic animals.

Yet there is a ray of hope for some of these bears, as public awareness of animal protection and welfare gradually rises across Asia.

Last year, Vietnam’s government promised to close down all its bear farms by 2022, following on from a promise by the country’s traditional Chinese medicine community to stop prescribing bear-bile products by 2020.

That means bear farming is very clearly coming to an end in Vietnam, “once and for all,” said Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia. “I think they realised that both internally and internationally, bear-bile farming was becoming a very unpalatable subject.”

There has been progress as well in South Korea, where the government completed a sterilisation program on captive bears last year as part of an effort to phase out farming.

Outside these bright spots, however, the picture is much grimmer. China is the centre of the industry and of demand for bear bile products.

Bear farming remains legal in China, and here at least 10,000 bears are still kept in cages on nearly 70 farms.

Asian black bears — closely related to the American black bear — live in mountains and forests from Japan to China and across the Himalayas to India. They are known as moon bears because of a white marking on their chests, roughly in the shape of a crescent moon.

In Vietnam, the government banned the poaching of wild animals in 1992 but allowed bear farming to continue — even though the industry was being almost exclusively supplied from wild populations.

In the years that followed, rising public pressure had an effect. In 2005, shocked by how widespread bear farming had become, Vietnam outlawed the extraction of bile while allowing farms to keep existing animals so they weren’t just slaughtered.

The village of Phung Thuong outside Hanoi is where the industry grew up in Vietnam, and is the biggest holdout today: In an area of just a few square miles, and among a population of 15,000 people, there are about 195 bears in metal cages, many in small compounds straddling the main road.

Everyone knows that these farms still extract bile, says Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam country head of Animals Asia. “It’s obvious,” he said.

Bear farmers have the biggest houses and the fanciest cars in the village.

In Vietnam, the bear-bile industry was partly a victim of its own success — as production rose, the price dropped.

And as the price dropped, people began to consider bear bile less valuable.

“When I first took bear bile, it wasn’t from a farm,” said 48-year-old Hoang Thi Nga, seeking herbal medicine for her bad back at a mobile clinic run by Animals Asia in Phung Thuong.

“Bile from bears kept in a cage is not as effective as bile from bears in the wild.”

There’s a positive picture too...

North of Hanoi, it is a different story at a bear sanctuary run by Animals Asia in Tam Dao National Park. Bears rescued from farms arrive here with immense psychological and physical problems, some too weak to walk or climb after lifetimes in cages. Others have lost limbs from the metal traps used to capture them; some are blind because of stress-induced hypertension.

Many have to be gradually coaxed out of confined spaces to get used to their new freedoms.

Today, 175 recovering bears swim in pools, climb ladders and platforms, play gently with each other or stretch out in the shade. Three times a day, workers place vegetables all across their enclosures for the bears to forage and find in an important part of their mental stimulation.

But campaigners are struggling to replicate their Vietnam success in China.

BOX

What’s happening in China

There, bile extracted from bears, in processes involving considerable pain, infection and disease, is baked into powder and sold in a range of products - including eye gel and toothpaste - freely available in pharmacies.

Polls show that public opinion in China overwhelmingly deems bear bile extraction to be cruel and supports a ban on bear farming. But while China has moved to outlaw the trade in ivory, for example, international efforts to convince it to end bear-bile farming may have boomeranged.

“From the beginning, this issue became politically sensitive in China,” said Toby Zhang, who has campaigned to end bear farming for more than a decade. “It became about foreigners coming to China to blame Chinese people for doing something.”

It is an example of the tightrope that animal welfare groups have to walk as they try to effect change in China without stepping on some very sensitive toes.

When it came to ivory, the Chinese government realized that elephant-poaching efforts to satisfy Chinese demand were damaging its image in Africa, a continent where it is keen to increase its influence. On bears, it has dug in its heels.

In 2013, Chinese wildlife groups generated enough public pressure to force Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical to abandon an IPO to raise funds to expand the bear-farming industry. Since then, though, the Chinese media has been warned away from the subject, experts say.

Scientists at Shenyang University in northeast China created a synthetic alternative to bear bile more than two decades ago, but failed to get approval from the China Food and Drug Administration.

The Development Research Center of the State Council, a government think tank, issued a report in 2016 calling for the industry to be gradually closed down by 2035. Faced with an internal backlash, that report was soon deleted from the organisation’s website.

In March, a member of China’s National People’s Congress, the country’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, introduced a proposal calling for bear farming to be phased out by 2035.

Shi Minghai, president of the Buddhist Association of Hebei Province, said that China should take a lead from Vietnam and South Korea to end an industry that is damaging the country’s international image.

The proposal, not the first of its kind, has yet to gain much traction.

(Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.)

The Washington Post