Illegal bear bile tourism still flourishes in northern province

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Bear bile tourism, though banned in Vietnam, is still continuing in the northern province of Quang Ninh, Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper has reported.

In March, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT)issued a regulation banning tours to bear farms where bears are illegally kept and bear bile is extracted.

For a serious violation, the VNAT will consider withdrawing the company's International Travel Business License, according to the regulation.

However, Nguoi Lao Dong reporters were told by a xe om driver in Ha Long City (home to the famous Ha Long Bay) that he could take them to a bear farm to buy bile.

All bears in Ha Long farms are moon bears (Asian black bear) and the exploitation of the bear for commercial purposes is banned under Vietnamese law.

The man introduced himself as Q.T. and led the reporters to "the biggest bear farm in Ha Long," he said, near the Tuan Chau Tourism Area.

When they arrived at the farm, a man named D. who serves as a security guard and also a broker for the farm told them the establishment was temporarily closed for maintenance.

"This morning, a group of tourists also came here to buy bear bile but I had to turn them down," he said.

"Please come back next week and you can buy as much as you want."

When the reporters -- who posed as customers -- asked him about the ban on bear bile tourism, he fleered.

"Yeah, yeah, there is a ban. Forest management officers have also tightened inspections," he said.

"But when demand is still high, supply is sufficient." 

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He picked up the phone, telling another man to bring a small box with 50 ml of bear bile.

"Take this for a trial. It costs VND50,000 (US$2.4) per ml, very good quality," he said.

While seeing the reporters off, he said they could buy as much as they want next time, with discounts offered for larger orders.

Rampant trade

T. (the xe om driver) led the reporters to another bear farm in Ha Long's Dai Yen Ward. The owner of the farm said it extracted thousands of milliliters of bear bile each month, although it had to limit the number of visitors to the farm following the ban.

Several bears at the farm are anesthetized and turned upside down everyday for bile extraction, he said.

T. said the bile sold by the farm is often smuggled into China.

"Tourists can order the bile with tour guides; they do not have to come directly to the farms," he added.

Since travel companies stopped bringing tourists to major bear farms publicly, many locals serve as brokers who lead interested customers to the farms.

The brokers can be xe om drivers, street vendors, or anyone you meet in town.

Smaller bear farms, however, publicly receive individual visitors. The Hoa Toan bear farm in Ha Tu Ward kept the bears in small iron cages, and the entire location smelled terrible.

The owner of the farm told the reporters, who said they were interested customers, not to stand too close to the bear or they could be attacked. But the bears looked too weak to attack anyone.

Whenever a visitor came near the cages, the bears looked frightened and in pain.

The woman who owned the farm gave the reporters her number "so you can order bile anytime," she said.

"We do not receive tourist groups, but individual tourists can come and buy bile here."

Pham Van Phat, director of the Quang Ninh Forest Management Department, however, said bear farming had been closely monitored following the ban.

"Many local and international groups have made field trips to the bear farms and they all said bear farming is now under control thanks to the microchipping method."

The method requires all bear owners to place microchips in all their bears for tracking purposes.

"No travel companies dare continue bear bile tourism anymore," said Phat.

He also noted that the bear bile widely sold on the market can be fake.

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