Vietnam Investment Review 20-26 February 1995 p.26-7.
BIG BUSINESS IN 'BATTERY BEARS'
Breeding caged bears to extract their medicinal bile may
seem cruel but a leading exponent says the practice could
help save endangered species, reports Trinh Thi
ASIATIC black bears are making their last stand in the wilds
of Vietnam. Poachers scour the regions few remaining forests
to shoot, trap and poison the animals. Their bones, flesh
and organs make up the key ingredient to popular medicinal
remedies prescribed for centuries throughout Asia.
In high demand is the bear's gall bladder and the bile it
produces. Bear bile is believed to cure fevers and liver
ailments, liven up a sagging love-life and promote general
well-being. The bile-producing gall-bladder is so highly
sought after that in Korea a single such organ can fetch as
much as US$45,000.
The trade in bear-bile has spread so widely - Canadian black
bears are often hunted illegally and their gall-bladders
shipped to Asia - that the species has dwindled on every
continent. The Malaysian Sun bear, which once roamed the
forests of Southeast Asia is now one of the region's most
critically endangered species. While populations of black
bears still exist in the wild, they are being routinely
poached by gangs of hunters who then ferry the animals to
traders for sale in Vietnam and abroad.
Environmentalists have drawn a line in the dirt, declaring
bear bile remedies bogus. "We have called for a complete ban
on the sale of such medicine," said a British
environmentalist now based in Hanoi. "If you dry up market
demand you stop the poachers."
Some entrepreneurs see no changing the Asian belief that
bear products work. As an alternative to killing in the
wild, they propose to breed bears in captivity and "harvest"
their bile for sale.
Do Khac Hieu is Vietnam's leading proponent of captive
In the early 70s, Hieu was a young and energetic biologist
who had just finished university. He left Hanoi to live with
a hunting community in a remote area of Cao Bang, northern
Hieu saw the villagers kill many bears for sale of their
gall and other by-products. One hunter with whom Hieu lived
killed 50 bears. After his return from the forests, he set
out to save the bears without destroying the traditional
market for their bile. "I wanted to find a way to extract
bear bile without killing the animal," he told the Vietnam
investment Review during an interview at his Hanoi research
"My grandfather was traditional medicine man an many years
ago he already knew how to treat liver failure with bear
bile. I became aware of how precious bear bile is," says
Hieu, who is a believer in the old remedies. "But I also
understood that bears were on the verge of extinction, and
that the killing in the wilds could not continue."
In China, and more recently in Hai Phong, bear raisers have
adopted a method of bile extraction by which a catheter was
inserted into a living bear's gall bladder and the bile
periodically extracted. However, Hieu considered this
extraction cruel. Few of the captive bears lived longer than
two years, succumbing to infections brought on by the
Hieu found a way to "humanely" extract the bile and
purchased his first bear cub for experimentation. After
three months, when the bear reached 50 kilos, he performed
his first medical experiment. Three or four operations were
needed to implant an artificial gall bladder inside the
bear's stomach, attached to its actual gall bladder.
The second gall bladder would extract about 100 millilitres
of bile every three or four weeks with a suction pump.
For the past 10 years Hieu has preformed his extraction
technique at the National Centre for Natural Science and
Technology's Institute of Biotechnology. He has concentrated
his research on improving the bile conducting a huge market
for bear bile extracted through his patented technique.
"From 1979 to 1988, Japan imported as many as 60,000 hear
gall bladders from China," he said..
"We have the know-how, and gathering several hundred bears
from the wild after one year or two is not so difficult. So
if the Government or someone will invest in bear farms we
can run the farm at almost the same scale as in China where
there are said to be dozens of bear farms with hundreds of
bears," he said.
"It will help save bears from extinction. People need to
kill 300 or 400 bears in the wild to obtain the same amount
of bile which one bear gives us at the farm," he said.
The question remains whether Hieu's wish to take the animals
from the wild for captive breeding is preserving the
Vietnam has seen the drastic reduction of the populations
all of its bear species with sustained populations of bears
now surviving only in small pockets of forests in Tuyen
Quang, Lao Cai, Son La, Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Tay Nguyen
Vietnamese law severely restricts the use of endangered
animals, said Nguyen Mao Tai the Director of the Ministry of
Forestry Control Department. "At the very least this farm
must get permission of the Ministry of Forestry first to use
these animals and," he said. Even then is seems doubtful.
In January 1994, Vietnam joined 122 other signatory nations
in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species (CITES). As a CITES member, Vietnam agreed to join
in the fight against the international trade in products
derived from plants and animals now facing extinction.
Asiatic black bears fall under this category.
"Asiatic black bears are listed in Vietnam's red book as
'endangered' which is the highest threat category," said
David Hulse, Vietnam field director of the World Wide Fund
for Nature (WWF). "Any project to exploit an endangered
animal would have to be studied and approved by the Ministry
Hulse describes two basic types of preservation in situ -
and ex situ. "In situ is conservation of a species in its
habitat such as a natural park. Ex situ is placing
endangered species in Captivity for protection. WWF as an
organisation prefers in situ. If you want to save a species
you have to save its habitat as well."
"[Captivity] is often used as a last resort," Hulse said.
"When the species is so imperilled in its natural habitat,
drastic measures must be taken, it must be rescued but if
the habitat is destroyed the animal, in effect, becomes
Hulse is sceptical that Vietnamese laws would permit Hieu to
set up his bear farm, citing recently passed laws designed
specifically to curtail such enterprises in Vietnam
Despite the debate, Hieu is in search of investors for his
project. "A bear needs a space of five square meters which
costs about US$700 lo build and a baby bear costs VND5
million (US$450)," Hieu said. "We have plans to cooperate
with breeders in Ha Tinh and Nghe An where they have bears
to set up the farms," he said.
"However in the future I hope we can grow bears on an island
as it's better to let the bears live in a semi-natural way.
"If permitted by the Government it's not difficult or
expensive to rent a small, suitable island, like the
numerous isles in the Hoa Binh Lake Reservoir," he said.
Vietnam Investment Review 20-26 February 1995 p.26-7.