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The demand for bear bile poses a critical threat to Vietnam’s bears. Bears are hunted in the wild and sold live to commercial farms, where they are exploited for their bile to meet consumer demand.
Vietnam is home to two species of bears; the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). Both species are protected under Vietnam’s wildlife protection law Decree 160 (2013) (amended by Decree 64). It is illegal to hunt, trap, possess, kill, sell or advertise bears or bear products in Vietnam. They are also protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
|Threats to bears |
The demand for bear bile poses a critical threat to Vietnam’s bears. Bears are hunted in the wild and sold live to commercial farms, where they are exploited for their bile to meet consumer demand. Bears are also hunted for their meat and body parts, or to be kept as pets or trophies in hotels and businesses. Additionally, deforestation, expansion of agriculture and modernization have also resulted in the loss of the bears’ natural habitat.
With rapid economic growth in Vietnam, the use of bear bile has become a more popular form of traditional medicine. In order to supply the demand, bears are kept confined in small cages, where they have a long syringe repeatedly poked into their gall bladders to extract bile.
View a short video clip of a bear bile extraction here:
The National Forest Protection Department (FPD) estimated that about 1,250 bears remained in captivity on farms in Vietnam in 2015 – down from the 4,300 initially recorded in 2005.
Another development in the illegal bear bile industry was the emergence of bear bile tourism. ENV investigators found that foreign tourists regularly visited bear farms as part of organized tours to Ha Long Bay. During some of these visits, tourists witnessed bile being extracted from a bear, had the opportunity to taste bear bile wine, and purchase bear bile products, which they then illegally smuggled out of the country when they left Vietnam. This activity violated Vietnamese laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In 2008, ENV carried out surveillance at the entrances of six major bear farms located near Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province. Investigators documented daily visits by tour buses loaded with mainly Korean tourists. In 2013, following a year of ENV surveillance and the formation of a law enforcement task force that included ENV inspectors, the last two of six bear farms operating in Ha Long Bay were closed to visitors.
Photo: A roadside sign, in four languages, placed in front of two remaining bear farms, represented a significant step taken by provincial authorities in stopping bear bile tourism and a notice to the bear farmers that bear bile farming will not be tolerated in the area.
In 2005, the Vietnamese government launched efforts to phase out bear farming. The first step of this process was to register all of the approximately 4,300 bears being held in captivity on farms, and insert microchips in each one so that they can be identified during future inspections. The phase-out process began once all known captive bears were registered, and now any new bears discovered on a farm without microchips are to be confiscated and the owner punished. Attrition will reduce the number of captive bears on farms, and without replacements, bear farming will be phased out and eventually end.
The number of captive bears has decreased by 84% over the last ten years to 689 bears by the end of November 2019, showing that the program has been working. However, there is still a lot of work that must be done in order to shut down bear bile farming permanently in Vietnam.
ENV’s Bear Program and Wildlife Crime Unit undertakes regular monitoring and surveys of bear farms, and tracks cases involving bears or bear products. Furthermore, since 2019, ENV has focused on joint efforts between Forest Protection Departments and ENV in convincing bear owners to give up bears. The purpose of these missions is to meet with bear owners to discuss the disadvantages of keeping bears as well as the need to give captive bears a better life at a rescue center.
Information relating to bear crime cases uncovered by ENV or reported to the wildlife crime hotline is passed on to authorities. In each case, ENV’s bear crime officer then works with authorities to address the crime. ENV also works to build support amongst key government decision-makers and leaders to strengthen policy and legislation protecting Vietnam’s bears and ensure that current laws are enforced.
ENV recognizes the importance of addressing demand reduction as an essential part of any effort to successfully end bear farming and trade. Reductions in demand must correspond with the phasing out of farming, or consumers will simply purchase bear bile products elsewhere, such as from farms in China or Laos.
To accomplish this change in behavior and reduction in demand, ENV has completed two major baseline surveys examining public attitudes toward the use of bear bile, in 2009 and 2011. In late 2014, ENV completed a major survey in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang in order to evaluate changes in public attitudes toward use of bear bile, and another survey in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was undertaken in 2019, with results being released in 2020.
As part of a strategic campaign aimed at addressing demand for bear bile, ENV conducts regular campaigns via Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on television and radio, aimed at raising public awareness about Vietnam’s bears and reducing the consumption of bear bile and bear products. In addition to this, ENV continues its 13-year partnership with the Voice of Vietnam (VoV). VoV is the country’s primary radio channel reportedly reaching all 63 provinces nationally with monthly radio programs covering current and timely topics of public interest or concern and highlighting public actions and enforcement news. All 5-10-minute VoV shows are aired live on the highly popular VoV1 News, which reaches millions of radio listeners across the country. ENV also airs 20-40 second ads on VoV to educate the public about the exaggerated medicinal efficacy of bear bile and the negative impact on bears in Vietnam due to its use as traditional medicine.
Since 2011, ENV has been carrying out the bear PSYOP campaign, aimed at psychologically pressuring farm owners to give up their captive bears. On one hand, the campaign targets bear farm owners with monthly communications by sending them postcards or letters with strong messages to urge them to stop bear farming. On the other hand, a quarterly communication targeting chairmen in communes that are bear farming hotspots, reminds them of the law and pushes them to address illegal activities within their area, as well as to encourage bear farm owners to give up their bears. ENV also carries out “hotspot” missions, where bear farms are monitored, owners are profiled, and violations noted. These inspections coincide with other monthly campaign activities targeting bear farming communities, including events at schools, public address announcements, and market events. Feedback from authorities, friends of ENV, and other sources report that the bear farmer campaign has a substantial impact on the attitudes of farmers, and some farmers have since given up their bears.
Phuc Tho District is considered a “bear hotspot” in Vietnam, with nearly 30 farms housing around 160 bears as of 2019. Eliminating bear farming in Phuc Tho will therefore help leverage an end to bear farming across the country, adding momentum to end the industry. Since 2008, ENV has put a huge effort into implementing public awareness activities urging bear farm owners to stop bear farming.
In addition to securing political support from the Phuc Tho authorities to put an end to bear farming, and alongside the organization’s broader activities to put an end to bear farming, ENV has been implementing a series of quarterly bear awareness events at two local markets, two secondary schools in the bear communes, and at various public events within this district. The aim is to reduce bear bile consumption as well as to utilize local citizen support in encouraging bear farm owners to turn over their bears.
Since 2009, ENV has been encouraging Vietnamese citizens to pledge not to consume bear bile and other products from bears. Members of the public can pledge online via a web platform, which was created by ENV, or offline at ENV’s awareness events.
ENV hosted the “Bring Peace to Vietnam’s Bears” national poster competition. The competition received 96,000 entries expressing concerns and ideas from people of different ages, ethnicities and occupations around the country. Check out some of the exhibited works from this competition here.
In order to mobilize public involvement in reducing demand for bear bile, ENV organized the bear PSA (public service announcement) competition, open to all Vietnamese citizens. Over four months, excellent entries were sent to ENV and 8 outstanding videos were selected. Watch the videos here.
Since 2012, September 13th has been Vietnam’s official Bear Day. In 2012, more than 50 Vietnam celebrities came together with ENV to urge the public to stop bear farming in Vietnam. On the same day, bear protection exhibits were organized in eight different cities by ENV Wildlife Protection Volunteer Network clubs.
In June and July of 2014, ENV launched the “I SUPPORT” viral campaign, which engages Vietnamese celebrities to encourage their fans to “Say NO to bear bile and bear products consumption”, by posting the campaign’s poster with the message about bear protection on their fanpages or Facebook profiles. All of them are encouraged to end the caption of the photo with the sentence “(Name of celebrity) supports ending bear farming and hopes that you do too”. In just two months, 17 celebrities posted the campaign’s poster on Facebook and achieved a total of over 44,000 Likes and 350 Shares. All of our celebrity supporters on the I SUPPORT campaign are famous singers, TV presenters, game show hosts or comedians in Vietnam. The campaign has also enjoyed good media coverage with more than 30 entries on online newspapers and a 3 minute show on Voice of Vietnam (VOV), the national radio broadcaster.
2019’s Vietnam Bear Day event was the awards ceremony for the Better Life for Bears 2019 Letter Writing Challenge. Students from 910 schools across the country submitted at total of 97,184 letters over the course of just six months, all writing to bear bile farmers urging them to end this cruel and illegal form of business and transfer their bears to rescue centers.
At the event, a total of 11 winners were awarded prizes for their efforts (seven individual prizes, two creative prizes, and two group prizes). Winning entries ranged from a letter written from the perspective of a bear longing for its freedom, an ex-bear owner persuading a colleague to quit farming bears, to illustrated poems, letters from the future, and a personal plea to a bear-owning father. These winning entries were selected from a shortlist of 100 entries by a panel of judges comprised of an established writer, a literature teacher, and ENV senior staff members. The Letter Writing Challenge and its ceremony were hosted as part of a broader partnership by the End Bear Farming Coalition comprised of World Animal Protection, Four Paws, and ENV to expedite an end to bear farming in Vietnam.