Unbearable

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All the dramatic exposés and denouncements about the production and consumption of bear bile have done nothing to shake the popular belief that it is a medicinal panacea, a survey has found.

Conservationists have called for Vietnam to strengthen awareness campaigns to dispel this ingrained belief, and to promote the use of officially-recognized herbal alternatives.

Of around 3,000 people surveyed in three major Vietnamese cities, 22 percent reported having used bear bile in the past while 13 percent admitted they had tried it over the last two years, says the latest survey by Education for Nature-Vietnam, a local non-governmental organization.

The survey, results of which were released Tuesday (November 23), interviewed respondents in Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City to analyze motivation and attitudes toward bear bile consumption.

"It's disappointing that widespread use of bear bile has continued in Vietnam, despite alternatives being available and a ban being in place," said Chris Gee, wildlife programs manager of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. It is illegal in Vietnam to hunt, kill, transport, buy, or sell either bear species or their parts and derivatives, including bear bile.

Seventy-three percent of the respondents said they believed that bear bile is mainly used to treat specific health problems, while 24 percent thought it is also used for general health improvement. In Vietnam, bear bile has been touted as a cure-all for a slew of health problems including muscle complaints, bruises, digestive problems and even cancer.

The survey also found that well-educated people are more likely to use bear bile than those with lower education levels.

Bear bile consumption also rises with age and the use of bear bile is different between age groups, it added.

"Overall, the survey confirmed our suspicion that the older and more affluent population tend to use bear bile more than the younger generation," said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based conservation group which seeks to eliminate cruelty to animals.

 "People with higher education levels tend to have better jobs, therefore more money to spend on bile. Also, they have better access to information or know how to access them and are thus more aware of the product," Bendixsen said.

Among Hanoians, 35 percent said they have used bear bile in the past, while only 16 percent of those in HCMC and 15 percent in Da Nang said that they have tried the product.

The study's authors urged the Vietnamese government to heighten awareness and promote medical alternatives to bear bile and its ineffectiveness as reported by former users.

"It is clear that, across Vietnam, herbal alternatives are already being used by many," said Gee of the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Stronger laws and effective enforcement is critical to phase out bear farming and eliminate bear bile consumption in Vietnam, the survey authors said.

In 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a directive on phasing out bear farming in Vietnam 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. Thanks to this legal loophole, some bear farms continue 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, for use in traditional medicine and also for entertainment purposes. Usually, between 100-120ml is withdrawn at a time and sold for between $3 and $6 per milliliter. Around 3,500 bears are being farmed in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the north.

"We need to make a tough choice," said Vu Thi Quyen, founding director of Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) and author of the survey. "Vietnam can't have its bears and bear bile too."

"But ultimately, it's like the drug trade without approaching the issue of demand from consumers, we really cannot win this battle," said Douglas Hendrie, ENV's technical advisor.

Bilateral concern

As Seoul hosted the G20 summit earlier this month, animal rights campaigners used the opportunity to drive home the message that the farming of bears for their bile is something that could discredit the nation.

South Korea, where some 1,200 bears are being farmed, is one of a few countries in the world to legalize bear farming. The other countries are Vietnam and China.

"Our national image is being harmed and we are trying to resolve the situation," Choi Jong-won, an official at the Korean Environment Ministry, was quoted by BBC News as saying on November 7. "But the bears are private property and it's difficult to abolish the practice overnight."

Secretly filmed footage at a bear farm in a northern Vietnamese province broadcast last month by Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the largest of four television networks in South Korea, has succeeded in heightening awareness of the issue of bear bile farming in the prosperous peninsula, conservationists said. The film featured people tasting the bile and tourists purchasing bear bile products from the farm.

"We experienced the impact of the exposure during an awareness demonstration held shortly afterwards and found that the exposé had alerted many previously oblivious Seoul residents to the existence and horrific nature of the practice," said Kelly Frances McKenna, founder of Bear Necessity Korea, a conservation group campaigning for the rights of Asiatic Black Bears.

"We heard testimony from professionals in the travel industry that such tours were becoming scarce because of the negative attention," McKenna said.

ENV's Hendrie said his people were in the process of adding Vietnamese subtitles to the KBS film and will distribute it to Vietnamese senior lawmakers and relevant ministries shortly.

"We are trying to use this film to highlight the fact that this activity is still going on [in Vietnam] despite all our efforts," Hendrie said.

"Everybody tries to stop it but the bear farmers just don't care. The laws apply to everyone else, not to them."

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