Breeding caged bears to extract their medicinal bile may seem cruel but a leading exponent says the practice could help save endangered species, reports Trinh Thi ASIATIC black bears are making their last stand in the wilds of Vietnam. Poachers scour the regions few remaining forests to shoot, trap and poison the animals. Their bones, flesh and organs make up the key ingredient to popular medicinal remedies prescribed for centuries throughout Asia.

In high demand is the bear's gall bladder and the bile it produces. Bear bile is believed to cure fevers and liver ailments, liven up a sagging love-life and promote general well-being. The bile-producing gall-bladder is so highly sought after that in Korea a single such organ can fetch as much as US$45,000. The trade in bear-bile has spread so widely - Canadian black bears are often hunted illegally and their gall-bladders shipped to Asia - that the species has dwindled on every continent. The Malaysian Sun bear, which once roamed the forests of Southeast Asia is now one of the region's most critically endangered species. While populations of black bears still exist in the wild, they are being routinely poached by gangs of hunters who then ferry the animals to traders for sale in Vietnam and abroad. Environmentalists have drawn a line in the dirt, declaring bear bile remedies bogus. "We have called for a complete ban on the sale of such medicine," said a British environmentalist now based in Hanoi. "If you dry up market demand you stop the poachers." Some entrepreneurs see no changing the Asian belief that bear products work.

As an alternative to killing in the wild, they propose to breed bears in captivity and "harvest" their bile for sale. Do Khac Hieu is Vietnam's leading proponent of captive bear raising. In the early 70s, Hieu was a young and energetic biologist who had just finished university. He left Hanoi to live with a hunting community in a remote area of Cao Bang, northern Vietnam. Hieu saw the villagers kill many bears for sale of their gall and other by-products. One hunter with whom Hieu lived killed 50 bears. After his return from the forests, he set out to save the bears without destroying the traditional market for their bile. "I wanted to find a way to extract bear bile without killing the animal," he told the Vietnam investment Review during an interview at his Hanoi research facility. "My grandfather was traditional medicine man an many years ago he already knew how to treat liver failure with bear bile. I became aware of how precious bear bile is," says Hieu, who is a believer in the old remedies. "But I also understood that bears were on the verge of extinction, and that the killing in the wilds could not continue." In China, and more recently in Hai Phong, bear raisers have adopted a method of bile extraction by which a catheter was inserted into a living bear's gall bladder and the bile periodically extracted.

However, Hieu considered this extraction cruel. Few of the captive bears lived longer than two years, succumbing to infections brought on by the method. Hieu found a way to "humanely" extract the bile and purchased his first bear cub for experimentation. After three months, when the bear reached 50 kilos, he performed his first medical experiment. Three or four operations were needed to implant an artificial gall bladder inside the bear's stomach, attached to its actual gall bladder. The second gall bladder would extract about 100 millilitres of bile every three or four weeks with a suction pump. For the past 10 years Hieu has preformed his extraction technique at the National Centre for Natural Science and Technology's Institute of Biotechnology. He has concentrated his research on improving the bile conducting a huge market for bear bile extracted through his patented technique. "From 1979 to 1988, Japan imported as many as 60,000 hear gall bladders from China," he said.. "We have the know-how, and gathering several hundred bears from the wild after one year or two is not so difficult. So if the Government or someone will invest in bear farms we can run the farm at almost the same scale as in China where there are said to be dozens of bear farms with hundreds of bears," he said. "It will help save bears from extinction. People need to kill 300 or 400 bears in the wild to obtain the same amount of bile which one bear gives us at the farm," he said.

The question remains whether Hieu's wish to take the animals from the wild for captive breeding is preserving the species. Vietnam has seen the drastic reduction of the populations all of its bear species with sustained populations of bears now surviving only in small pockets of forests in Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai, Son La, Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Tay Nguyen provinces. Vietnamese law severely restricts the use of endangered animals, said Nguyen Mao Tai the Director of the Ministry of Forestry Control Department. "At the very least this farm must get permission of the Ministry of Forestry first to use these animals and," he said. Even then is seems doubtful. In January 1994, Vietnam joined 122 other signatory nations in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). As a CITES member, Vietnam agreed to join in the fight against the international trade in products derived from plants and animals now facing extinction. Asiatic black bears fall under this category. "Asiatic black bears are listed in Vietnam's red book as 'endangered' which is the highest threat category," said David Hulse, Vietnam field director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "Any project to exploit an endangered animal would have to be studied and approved by the Ministry of Forestry." Hulse describes two basic types of preservation in situ - and ex situ. "In situ is conservation of a species in its habitat such as a natural park.

Ex situ is placing endangered species in Captivity for protection. WWF as an organisation prefers in situ. If you want to save a species you have to save its habitat as well." "[Captivity] is often used as a last resort," Hulse said. "When the species is so imperilled in its natural habitat, drastic measures must be taken, it must be rescued but if the habitat is destroyed the animal, in effect, becomes ecologically extinct." Hulse is sceptical that Vietnamese laws would permit Hieu to set up his bear farm, citing recently passed laws designed specifically to curtail such enterprises in Vietnam Despite the debate, Hieu is in search of investors for his project. "A bear needs a space of five square meters which costs about US$700 lo build and a baby bear costs VND5 million (US$450)," Hieu said. "We have plans to cooperate with breeders in Ha Tinh and Nghe An where they have bears to set up the farms," he said. "However in the future I hope we can grow bears on an island as it's better to let the bears live in a semi-natural way. "If permitted by the Government it's not difficult or expensive to rent a small, suitable island, like the numerous isles in the Hoa Binh Lake Reservoir," he said.

(Taken from Vietnam Investment Review 20-26 February 1995 p.26-7.)