Coronavirus: China's bear bile 'treatment' for Covid-19 alarms wildlife groups

PHOTO: Unsplash

When the number of coronavirus cases in Vietnam began to climb last month after weeks with no infections, the Four Paws Vietnam Foundation bear rescue group swung into action.

Huong Ngo, its director, decided the foundation's animals needed to be isolated and temporarily stopped admitting visitors to its Ninh Binh sanctuary, home to 29 Asian black bears. All were once privately owned - most so their bile could be harvested and sold as traditional medicine.

Four Paws pre-empted the imposition of social distancing measures in Vietnam on April 1 by almost two weeks, and stockpiled between six months' and a year's worth of food and medication for the bears.

Yet Ngo said she was worried about other bears still being held in private facilities that have yet to be rescued.

Vietnam has temporarily banned the transport of wild animals, following similar moves by Beijing which in February barred the domestic trade and consumption of wild animals - a multibillion dollar industry that employs millions of people.

This was done amid mounting evidence that the coronavirus appears to have emerged in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan where wild animals were being sold.

But days later, China's National Health Commission published a list of recommended treatments for the Covid-19 disease caused by the virus, including injections of a traditional medicine that contains bear bile, according to the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency - a development that Ngo said deeply troubled her.

"If there's demand for this, there will be supply," she said, noting the "excruciating pain" bears suffer during the extraction process and the "vague" effects their bile is meant to have.

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One of the methods used for extracting bile involves locking the bears in cages so small that they cannot move and cutting a hole through their stomachs directly to the gallbladder so the bile runs from the open wound, according to Brian Crudge, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Bear Specialist Group and a researcher for Free the Bears, an Australian wildlife protection non-profit organisation.

Vietnam officially prohibited the commercial exploitation of bears in 2006, a year after it made microchip and registration programmes for farmed bears compulsory. Those who acquired their bears before 2005 can keep them as long as they follow the mandatory regulations.

Demand for bear bile is reportedly declining and so is its price - dropping from about 200,000 dong (S$12) per cubic centimetre before the ban to 20,000 dong today, Ngo said. Yet as many as 450 bears are still thought to be living in cruel conditions in Vietnam, on bear farms or in private ownership.

"It's too soon to tell what the long-term knock-on effects of coronavirus will be for wild bear populations but it is known that illegal poaching increases when other livelihood options are limited, as they are for many people at the moment," Crudge said.

Four Paws Vietnam needs about 1.3 billion dong per month to stay operational, about 90 per cent of which comes from donations. The rest is raised from sanctuary entrance fees and local fundraising.

But with the pandemic upending global travel and stamping out tourism, the group is concerned about its funding - it currently only has enough money set aside to last about six months.

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Wildlife Alliance, a non-profit conservation organisation in Cambodia, has similar concerns. Nick Marx, its director of wildlife rescue and care programmes, said securing ongoing funding was "the biggest problem we are experiencing".

The organisation cares for and feeds more than 100 species - 1,694 animals in total - including Asian elephants, tigers, pileated gibbons, otters, birds and reptiles at its Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre near Phnom Penh, as well as at other sites in other parts of Cambodia.

"We relied heavily on the income generated through tourism like the tours we offer at Phnom Tamao and the purchase of gate tickets helps support the care of animals at the centre. These have been suspended indefinitely as a result of the virus," Marx said.

At its busiest, especially during public holidays such as Khmer New Year, Phnom Tamao could host up to 5,000 visitors per day. Not in the time of coronavirus, however.

To make matters worse, Cambodia's government has cut funding to the centre. Yet Marx said it would continue its rescue and rehabilitation work and ensure all the animals are fed.

"We have worked too hard to let it go now and we are working hard with new ideas to find the funds we need," he said.

Free the Bears, which has sanctuaries across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that are home to 235 bears, is also struggling, after most of its funding - the bulk of which is generated from fundraising events, visits and volunteer programmes - evaporated.

"We are trying to increase stocks of longer lasting foods for the bears in case they become more difficult to source and/or prices increase," said Rod Mabin, the organisation's communications manager.

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One upside of the pandemic has been to draw attention to the cruelty inherent in the wildlife trade, welfare groups said.

Last month, the WWF surveyed about 5,000 people in Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan on their perceptions about Covid-19 and the illegal wildlife trade.

Almost all respondents supported governments shutting down illegal and unregulated wildlife markets, but this could put even more pressure on animal welfare charities.

"The need for legitimate rescue centres will continue and most probably increase," said Christy Williams, WWF's Asia-Pacific director.

Mabin of Free The Bears fears the shortage of suitable sanctuary facilities to take in confiscated wildlife will have an impact on law enforcement's ability to fully enforce wildlife laws.

The organisation is trying to expand its facilities as quickly as possible through fundraising, notably at their multi-species Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary in Laos where wildlife can be rehabilitated and released to a protected forest.

"All we can do is try to rescue as many animals as possible, one rescue at a time," Mabin said.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.