A traditional belief that bear bile can cure many human ailments keeps a horrifying industry alive in northern Vietnam.
Gau ngua, the moon bear or Asiatic black bear, can be kept on farms legally in Vietnam. However the extraction and sale of their meat and bile is illegal.
But bear farms regularly harvest the bile of moon bears and sell it to tourists who believe the green fluid has health-giving properties.
Visitors to bear farms in the northern provinces of Quang Ninh, Phu Tho and Hanoi can witness the bile-extracting procedure and buy tiny jars of the fluid.
The price of bear bile ranges from VND20,000 to VND25,000 (US$1.20 – $1.40) to as much as VND200,000 ($11.30) for one cubic centimeter.
Asians – especially Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans – believe bear bile has medicinal benefits that can treat ailments ranging from fever to heart disease.
People also drink bear bile with a shot of rice wine, believing this cocktail can cure eye problems and liver complaints.
Records show bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 3,000 years.
A bear farm in the tourist town of Ha Long in Quang Ninh Province recently received a group of around 30 Chinese tourists.
When they saw the strangers enter, the moon bears in dozens of holding cages stood up, their paws grasping the iron bars. The animals began panting and growling as if to drive the strangers away.
One of the farm’s staff members pointed at a sign saying “no cameras” and asked the visitors to put their cameras away. The group was waved towards one cage containing a 200 kilogram moon bear.
As the tourists approached the cage, the bear began to roar. It seemed to know what would happen next.
The farm employee, wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt, quickly injected an anesthetic into the sole of the bear’s foot, which was pressed against the cage as the animal tried to climb the inside of its enclosure.
Less than five minutes later, the animal was almost unconscious, lying on the floor of its cage, panting with half-closed eyes.
The bear was moved to a wheeled stretcher, its four legs and snout tightly bound and its stomach exposed.
The farm worker used an ultrasound machine to locate the gall bladder in the bear’s abdomen.
The he inserted a long stainless steel needle into the bear's abdomen, using the ultrasound to guide the needle to the gall bladder.
As the needle entered its body, the bear suddenly shuddered.
Green bile was slowly sucked out of the bear until the syringe was filled. The bear shuddered again as the needle was withdrawn.
After the extraction, the animal was taken back to its cage.
Some bears reportedly curl up after an extraction, shivering and holding their paws to their stomach. There are numerous reports of bears twitching, gnashing their teeth, biting bars and uttering distress calls as they wake up from an extraction.
A government official admitted it was difficult to stop the illegal extraction of bear bile.
Although farmed bears must be microchipped and registered with authorities, Tang Xuan Phuong, deputy director of the Quang Ninh forestry management department, said his department did not have the resources to check all microchipped moon bears.
Phuong said there were 300 moon bears registered in Quang Ninh Province. He said nearly all would be used to harvest bile but authorities could not assign officers to permanently watch the animals.
Phuong said a 200 kilogram moon bear consumed VND400,000 ($22.50) of food a day. So a farm with 40 to 60 animals would not be profitable if it relied only on sightseers.