The sad life of Ha Long bears

September 19, 2009

LookAtVietnam would like to introduce an extraordinary exposé of the lucrative but flagrantly illegal business of ‘bear bile farming’ near Ha Long City published by Tuoi Tre Newspaper recently. 

Part I:  Infiltrating a Ha Long bear farm 

Though allegedly tourist sites, the bear farms in Ha Long city (Quang Ninh province) are all barricaded secret places. No unexpected visitor escapes the probing gaze, the stone-cold rejection of security guards. What is actually going inside? The answer is not easy unless you’re in a group of foreign visitors booked in advance. 

Behind the mystery gate 

8:00 am, 28th August.  A chili pepper-red 46-seat bus pulls into the driveway of “Ha Long Farm,” a well-known bear farm on Route 18 just before the highway reaches the Bai Chay resort area of Ha Long City.  Security guards rush to open the heavy metal gate, let the bus in, then quickly close it again. 

No room for us

Following the bus, we Tuoi Tre reporters ambled up to the security post, carrying our backpacks. Pointing to the “hotel” sign near the gate, we asked for a room.  A curt gesture and an unfriendly look from the security guy told us “under maintenance, no room for you.”

We were not surprised; volunteers from wild animal protection organizations had already told us what to expect.

In May, National Assembly member Nguyen Dinh Xuan succeeded in paying a surprise visit to this same bear farm.  He arrived in a brand new bus.  A guard thought Xuan and his companions were regular guests so he opened the gate wide. By the time the guard realized his blunder, it was too late. Mr Xuan and his companions got off the bus, introduced themselves and walked straight inside just as another 35-seater bearing the ABC Bus logo arrived, filled with Korean tourists.

We Tuoi Tre reporters were not so lucky, and had to find a place nearby to observe the comings and goings at Ha Long Farm.  After more than an hour, the bright red bus was still in the yard.  At about 9:30, the metal gate opened to admit a white Daewoo four-seater.  We knew this car; it belongs to a Korean who regularly brings tourists to bear farms in Ha Long.

At 9:45, a lilac 46-seat ABC bus brought some more Korean visitors to Ha Long Farm.

On the same day at another bear farm on Route 18, we noted two groups of Korean tourists.  Each group stopped there for almost two hours.  This second farm belongs to Dat Viet Travel Company.  Because it used to have a sign displaying five bears, local people call it “Five Bears Farm” to distinguish it from the other establishment (Ha Long Bears) that had only one bear on its sign.

After the unexpected visit of Assembly Deputy Xuan, those signs were taken down.  Actually, they are not necessary, for visitors are still guided to these farms every day. Each farm can receive up to 4-5 buses per day.  We were told that there are 50 to70 bears at each of several farms in the area. 

After Mr Xuan’s visit, the process of screening visitors was further tightened at the Ha Long bear farms.  All visitors must be directly admitted by farm owners or brought there by one of a number of Korean brokers. Security guards with frigid faces stare from a far distance and only open the gate when they are sure that the vehicle is one they were expecting. 

A close look at bile extraction

Through “shape-shifting” and stressful professional methods, we reporters finally managed to enter a bear farm.  

We say that when a group of guests arrives, its Vietnamese tour guide goes off-duty, passing on the role of guiding and introducing to the broker. The farm’s staff and managers stand clear, keeping watch on the visitors.

All conversations between the broker and visitors from beginning to end were in Korean or Chinese.  The names, age, weight and height of the bears was written in Korean on signs at each cage.

Moon Bears (scientific name: Ursus Thibetanus and also known as the Asiatic black bear), is among wild species listed as endangered in the red book of International Union for Conservation of Nature, and also in Vietnam’s national red book.

We were taken for a tour around the bear farm by the broker. The so-called “tour” is nothing more than seeing huge moon bears kept in tiny cages lined up side by side.

The bear-watching tour took about 15-20 minutes as the broker gave only a brief introduction.   Most visitors seemed quickly bored with beholding the bears panting heavily and growling behind bars.

During the tour, the broker extolled the medical and health virtues of bear bile, setting the scene for the highlight of the visit: viewing bile extraction directly.

Due to negative reactions expressed by some visitors who watched bears struggling and being knocked down with anesthetics, we understood that some farms only anaesthetize bears in front of visitors when requested.  It is more typical now that when visitors arrive, the farm’s staff will ‘prepare’ a bear.  They start the anaesthesia while visitors are still on the tour of the cage area.

While bile is being extracted, the gates are thoroughly secured. No exit or entry is allowed. At farms like Dat Viet, Plus and Ha Long Bears, the bile extraction process is discreetly performed in a wooden room.  At the farm we managed to visit, we could see ultrasound machines, electrical extractors, instruments for bile extraction (cylinders, vials, tin foil packagers …) and a Visa card reader, all ready for business.

We were seated on one side of the room. The equipment was placed on a table on the other side.  Right at the door was the “operating stage” for bile extraction. Before our eyes, a bear was wheeled out on a trolley, anaesthetized, facing upward with all four limbs tightly roped as if he was about to be dismembered by four horses.

A man in a white smock deliberately carried out each step, smearing gel and rubbing the ultrasound scanner across the bear’s abdomen while watching the monitor to locate the gall bladder. A needle was inserted into the bear’s gall bladder and connected to the extractor via a rubber tube.

At the same time, the broker explained every move of the operator, speaking non-stop in Korean. In a little while, when the amount of bile taken out reached 120 cc to 150 cc, the process ended and the bear, still motionless, was wheeled back to its cage.

Right after the show, the farm’s staff divided the bile into vials of one to ten cubic centimeters, or packed equivalent amounts in tin foils under the supervision of the manager.

The bile was now extracted and packaged.  Anyone who had no further duties was asked to leave. In that wooden room, there remained only visitors, the farm’s cashier and the broker. Even without witnesses, however, everyone would understand that the people who remained inside were completing the final step of the “bear farm tour”: buying and selling bear bile.

VietNamNet/Tuoi Tre 

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