When the price for bear gall was at its peak, bears were cared for like “kings”. The golden age for bear gall has passed, and now bears are maltreated and killed.
The golden age
Bears are bred illegally in the central province of Nghe An so nobody knows how many bears are in cages in the province. However, the number is forecast to be at least 200 bears, making Nghe An the location with the largest number of bears in captivity in Vietnam.
The “movement” of using bear gall was very popular in the early 2000s. Fancy parties often had wine with bear gall. Bear gall was also a valuable gift for the elderly.
In Nghe An, rich people began breeding bears to get gall. K, a man in Quynh Luu district, Nghe An, is known as the pioneer. He bought a 30kg Tibetan bear from Laos to collect gall for himself. After K, many rich people in Nghe An bred bears at home. Some families had 3-4 bears.
When bears reach the weight of 100kg, it is the time for taking gall. The bear is anaesthetised and scanned to find the position of its gall-bladder. 10-cm needles are used to withdraw gall from the gall-bladder. Each time a bear yields several dozen mililitres of gall, depending on its weight.
In the early 2000s, bear gall was a special product, priced between 250,000 to 300,000 per mililitre. Each time of harvesting gall, a bear could bring 5-6 million dong ($400-500) to its owner. The high profit from bear gall urged many people to breed bears for gall. When the price for bear gall was high, bears were served like kings and queens.
The two species of bears bred illegally in Vietnam are Malayan and Tibetan bears, which are listed as extremely rare animals, banned from being bred in cages, except for at zoos or circuses. However, super-profit from bear gall couldn’t prevent people from hunting and breeding these bears.
To save this animal, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development issued rules that bears in cages before March 2005 had to have electronic chips. Since March 2005, any bear that is bred in cage will be seized and the breeders will face criminal charges.
However, this rule seems to be ineffective in Nghe An. Local residents still imprison bears, don’t use electronic chips and when the market for bear gall is saturated, bears are killed.
Nghe An has a large forest area and it borders Laos, a source of supply of bears, so it is quite easy to buy a bear in this province.
When more bears are in cages and the price for bear gall is going down, bear breeders use some tricks to collect more gall.
Previously, breeders collected a certain volume of gall every three months. At present, the period has been shortened to just over one month in some cases. Some people pump water into bears’ gall-bladders and then withdraw it.
Previously, breeders used scanners to find the gall-bladders. Now, they use 10cm-long needles, which are not sterilised, and poke everywhere to seek gall.
In the past, bears were taken care of very carefully. They were bathed every day. Their cages were cleaned frequently. They were fed very well. Now, when the prices for gall have fallen, bears are ill-treated and killed.
Most bears are confined in small cages and not fed sufficiently. Their canine teeth are broken to prevent them from biting. As a result, they are malnourished and suffer from myasthenia.
It is the most terrible for old bears, which cannot yield gall or yield little gall. These bears are killed for meat. The volume of bear meat is abundant, enough to serve bear-meat restaurants.
TL, a famous restaurant in Con Cuong district, Nghe An province sells a plate of bear meat for 50,000, a pair of bear hands for 1 to 1.5 million dong. This restaurant sells 5-7 bears a month.
The number of bears in cages in Nghe An province is falling very quickly. It is forecast that in the next one-two years, the province will not have any bears.
The first semi-natural bear rescue centre has opened recently at TamDaoNational Park in Vinh Phu province. The centre will rescue and nurture 200 bears in cages before releasing them into the forest.
Nghe An province is unable to have such a centre but the local authorities can take action to prevent the slaughter of bears.
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