Beer for Bears

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A diverse group of Ho Chi Minh City residents on April 26 gathered to drink beer for bears.

The event, Beer for Bears, was held at Pacharan Restaurant and Bar in District 1. Guests paid VND300,000 at the door and the funds were donated to the Free The Bears Fund - a nonprofit organization designed to support an ongoing campaign to end Asia's illicit bear bile industry.

Once inside, the benefactors had the option of paying VND20,000 for a "˜bear hug' from a volunteer dressed in a bear costume. Local businesses and resorts donated prizes which were raffled off during the event.

The mixer marked the first Free the Bears Fund fundraising event in Southeast Asia.

The organization was created in 1995 by Australian Mary Hutton after she learned that Asiatic Black bears were being confined to coffin-sized cages and repeatedly milked for their bile, which is believed to function as a cure-all for many physical ailments.

Despite the fact that the active ingredient of bear bile, Ursodeoxycholic Acid (UDCA), can be produced synthetically, and that bear trade is illegal in Vietnam, the black market industry continues to persist throughout Asia.

"Sadly, Vietnam has the second largest number of bears around 4,500 Sun bears and Asiatic Black bears suffering in these terrible conditions," said Matt Hunt, CEO and Southeast Asia manager of Free the Bears (FTB) Fund. "What is also sad is that it's the rich and well-educated that back this business," Hunt added.

The Vietnamese government has agreed to illegally confiscate farmed bears only if sanctuaries are constructed to house the seized animals.

In 2008, FTB began work on the Hon Me Bear Sanctuary in the southern province of Kien Giang. In 2009, the first nine bears were transferred to the sanctuary, which has since been expanded to house 25 new bears.

The organization also supports bears at Cat Tien National, which is now home to 17 bears.

"I always like to watch the bears at the sanctuaries. This reminds me that each and every one is such an individual and whatever it takes, it is well worth it," said Hunt. "However, our greatest challenge in Vietnam will be developing sanctuaries quickly enough to handle the bears that arrive in the coming years."

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