Bear bile trade rising across Asia: report

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Farms could be shifting from Vietnam to Laos, says a new report

This picture taken by TRAFFIC on October 2, 2010 shows an Asian back bear cub being raised in captivity at a bear farm in Hanoi.

Despite high profile campaigns against the practice, bear bile products are being sold widely in many Asian countries, according to the latest report by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

The report, released Wednesday (May 11), said bear bile was being sold in traditional medicine outlets in 12 out of 13 countries or territories surveyed.

It was sold most frequently in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam, where it was available in more than half of all outlets surveyed in various form including liquid, powder, and flakes.

In traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile is used to treat a raft of ailments from sore throats to epilepsy and sprains.

In Vietnam, bear bile products were available in 65 percent of the shops surveyed, the report said.

"This is the first good overview of the bear trade situation in Asia," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, the country's largest conservation group.

"Now, people realize that the bear trade is not in isolation in China, Korea, Vietnam, or Laos but in fact is a regional problem."

China "appeared to be the largest producer" of bile across the region, churning out between six to 30 tons annually, the TRAFFIC report said.

Several of the countries or territories surveyed were either producers or consumers of bear bile products, while in some cases, including Vietnam, they were both.

"Vietnam plays a dual role as both a producer and consumer of bear bile products," said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Program Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

The study found that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam did not have captive breeding programs, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild. At least 12,000 bears, a majority of them Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, are being farmed in Asia.

With their global population estimated at between 25,000 and 100,000, the trade in any parts and derivatives of the Asiatic black bears is internationally prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The Vietnamese government in 2005 issued a directive on phasing out bear farming through attrition, permitting owners to keep their bears but prohibiting the acquisition of new bears. Farmers who already had captive bears were allowed to maintain them as tourist attractions.

This has been used as a loophole, with farms continuing to extract bile and sell it to Korean and Chinese visitors. Bile is regularly extracted from the bears' gall bladders, in an agonizing procedure for the animals. Apart from the use of bile in traditional medicine, the extraction process is also meant for entertaining visitors.

The demand for bile is the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed, activists said.

Conservation groups are also fretting over the fact that Laos could become a more popular destination for unscrupulous bear farmers finding it difficult to persist with their trade in the face of increasing crackdowns in their own countries.

TRAFFIC's Foley said that of four bear farms in Laos surveyed for this study, three said they were Vietnamese owned.

"We are also concerned that with fewer restrictions on bear farming in Laos and increasing pressure to shut down farms in Vietnam, a burgeoning market for bear farms could likely develop in Laos and Myanmar," Foley said.

With increased international exposure to the illegal activity, the Vietnamese government had announced in March that tour companies persisting with the so-called bear bile tourism risk losing their business licenses.

Foley stressed that while Vietnamese authorities are taking "small steps" to stamp out this trade, these may not be enough.

"We need stronger action, fast, or Asia's wild bears will be sliding down the same path to extinction as so many of this region's charismatic species."

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