"If Quang Ninh bear bile farms can fall – then they all can"

27 October 2015

Moon bear Angelica being moved onto rescue truck

Quang Ninh’s bear bile farmers were rich, powerful and well-connected – now they’re out of business. It’s a victory that provides a blueprint to end all bile farming in Vietnam, says Animals Asia.

The rescue of bears in Quang Ninh province began in May, and – with one bear left on a bile farm in the province – it’s almost reached its conclusion.

But the preparation for the rescue began in 2010, and Animals Asia’s Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen was present for every step.

Tuan said:

“Since 2007, we’ve targeted Quang Ninh as one of the bear bile farming hotspots in Vietnam. In the Vietnamese media there are heaps of articles on bear bile farming in Quang Ninh. It was the most standout province.

“So when we close down Quang Ninh, we put other provinces on notice. If Quang Ninh bear bile farms can fall – then they all can.”

Animals Asia’s plan for Quang Ninh had two levels. On the political level, Animals Asia worked with the authorities to bring bile farming in the province to an end. On an educational level, Animals Asia tried to demonstrate why bear bile isn’t a desirable attraction for such a prominent tourist destination – or anywhere, in fact.

Animals Asia's founder and CEO Jill Robinson MBE and Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen meet Quang Ninh Forestry Director Pham Van Phat, #ForgetMeNot rescue 2015

Tuan continued:

“Personally I always thought Quang Ninh would be very difficult to close. Because of the bear bile tourism, the bear farm owners are very powerful, well-connected. They were entrenched. The fact that the Prime Minister stepped in and gave the order to close down the bear farms was a big plus. If the Prime Minister can do that with Quang Ninh, he can do that with the rest of the provinces. In Vietnam – like everywhere else – when you set a precedent it gets easier.

“In 2007-08, when bear bile farming was really huge in Quang Ninh, we and other NGOs went public against bear bile farming. And because of our prominence in the media, the Quang Ninh government were really irritated by us. They didn’t want to know us.

“We soon realised we needed the Quang Ninh government on board to do something there, so we took a step back and started to build bridges. It took a year-and-a-half to get them back to the table.”

From 2010 to 2014, Animals Asia did three campaigns a year in Quang Ninh province. They gave out brochures to tourists in the streets and in hotels, and held meetings and conferences in bear bile farming areas. Anyone who lived around bear farms could come, even the bear farm owners.

Animals Asia staff handing out flyers to tourists

Tuan continued:

“At these meeting, we talked about the laws, and the Quang Ninh government joined us. We talked about what behaviour by bear farmers was illegal.

“We saturated Quang Ninh with anti-bile farming information. It got to the point where the Quang Ninh government let us put up big banners on the street. In one month during our campaign, we put up 120 banners.”

With the local government and the forestry service taking such an active role in these efforts, the effect started to be felt. In 2012-13, bear farms in Quang Ninh started to go out of business.

Without a precedent to follow, the authorities and Animals Asia felt their way through getting bear farms to surrender their bears, without much leverage to force the unwilling farmers.

However, as the bear bile industry diminished, an outsized number of deaths of the bears still on these farms started being reported. This situation eventually led to Animals Asia being allowed into one of these farms, to do an unprecedented report on the conditions of these farms.

The vet team catalogue the terrible state of the bears on the farm, November 2014

“What we saw shocked us – and those sights will stay with us forever. Incredible cruelty, bears starving and in desperate need of better care and medical attention. It was then that our Save the Halong Bay bears campaign was launched.

“First off Animals Asia supporters signed our letter to the Prime Minister in the tens of thousands. Then celebrities became involved. One by one, embassies offered their support. It became an unavoidable issue for the authorities.”

While the authorities argued over responsibilities, the Prime Minister stepped in and ordered that Animals Asia be allowed to rescue the bears. He went further than just allowing the Halong Bay bears to be rescued – he said he wanted bear farming in Quang Ninh to be ended.

It was music to Tuan and his team’s ears.

Quick health check for Kujira with the wound being cleaned (2)

Tuan said:

“It was what we were waiting for. It was historic. Now that we feel very fortunate that everything has fallen into place to make this happen. And looking towards the future, now we know how to get rid of bile farming in Vietnam – and we know it can be done.

“There is a will to see it happen and Quang Ninh has shown the way. It will take resources, commitment and patience but it has to happen now – so long as we keep pushing. We mustn’t let up.”

Taking the bears down to the portSam being pushed to quarantine