UPDATED at 9:53 A.M. EST on 2018-04-03
The capture of endangered Asiatic blacks bears, which are typically exported and sold so their parts can be used for medicinal purposes, continues to occur in Laos, despite efforts to reduce wildlife poaching and trafficking in the Southeast Asian nation and pledges by authorities to crack down on those who engage in them.
In the latest incident in early March, authorities in northern Laos’ Bokeo province confiscated three endangered Asiatic black bears, estimated to be between five to seven years old, from villagers who caught the animals in a forest when they were cubs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
They gave the animals to the Free the Bears Fund, an Australian wildlife-protection organization that operates in Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, during a handover ceremony in Bokeo’s capital Houayxay.
The capture and trafficking of protected bear species continues to be big business in Laos, despite efforts to reduce them.
On Jan. 12, Lao customs officers at the Boten border crossing between China and northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province found five endangered red pandas in crates in the back of a van during a random vehicle inspection.
One sick panda died before being transported to the Free the Bears Fund rescue center in Luang Prabang province, and two of the remaining four, who were also sick, died en route.
In July 2017, two Asiatic black bear cubs that were a few weeks old were put up for sale for 15 million Lao kip (U.S. $1,800) each in a market in Luang Prabang city. Authorities seized the animals and donated them to the Free the Bears Fund.
Police said a villager in northern Laos caught the bears in a forest after their mother was killed by poachers.
“We received a call and moved fast,” Luke Nicholson, a wildlife expert at Free the Bears Fund in Laos, told the South China Morning Post at the time. “They were the smallest cubs we’ve ever rescued in this country.”
Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears because of the white or cream-colored crescent pattern on their chests, are found across Asia from Iran to Japan, but their numbers are dwindling due to overhunting and to loss of habitat as forests are felled.
Poachers can demand exorbitant sums for their gallbladders and bile, which are used in powders, capsules, and ointments in traditional medicines believed to cure a variety of ailments ranging from cancer to hangovers to libido impediments.
The bile, which helps protect the bears’ livers and prevents gallstones and illness during long hibernations, is extracted in a painful process during which the animals are subdued and randomly jabbed in the abdomen with needles in an attempt to pierce their gallbladders.
A second rescue center
During the past several years, many rescued bears have been sent to the Free the Bears Fund center in Tat Kuangxi, a tourist region with scenic waterfalls about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Luang Prabang city.
In August, a British volunteer from the center told RFA that the center housed too many bears.
“It’s overcrowded [and] in need of either expansion or a new center,” he said.
To reduce overcrowding and control the population, the center’s management decided to sterilize the bears and requested permission from provincial officials to expand the center, said the volunteer, who declined to be named. At the time, Luang Prabang denied the request, but later agreed to let Free the Bears Fund build a center in a new location.
Sengaloune Vongxay, manager of the center’s Lao Bear Conservation Project, told RFA’s Lao Service in late March that the center sterilized only five of the facility’s 52 bears at first, but now is only separating the males from the female right after they reach reproduction age.
He also said that Free the Bears Fund is building a new center 17 kilometers (11 miles) from Luang Prabang city.
“This center will be larger — more than 26 hectares (64.2 acres),” he said, adding that the facility would be completed late this year or in early 2019.
The new center will be able to hold up to 150 rescued bears, according to Free the Bears Fund.
Despite the continued capture and poaching of Asiatic black bears in Laos, forest rangers believe there are still a significant number of wild bears in the country’s 24 national protected forests, though they do not know the exact number.
One ranger who declined to be named told RFA that more than 200 domesticated bears are currently held in captivity, with 52 in the Free The Bears Fund rescue center, 100 in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo province, 30 on a bear farm near the Lao capital Vientiane, and about 30 kept in various provinces by villagers who own them.
Thousands of Asiatic black bears have been held captive in bear bile facilities in Laos, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Myanmar since the 1980s, according to a report issued in March 2017 by World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit animal welfare organization.
Today approximately 25,000 bears are held captive in the bear bile industry across Asia, it said.
Bear farming for bile or gallbladder extraction is legal in both South Korea and China, the report said. Though Vietnam banned bile extraction 13 years ago, more than 1,000 bears are still held captive there, where the illegal trade in bile and gallbladders continues.
Most crucial category
Asiatic black bears are listed in the most crucial category of endangerment of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.
Laos became a member of CITES in May 2004, which means it must abide by the treaty’s prohibition on the international trade of live Asiatic bears or bear parts.
Asiatic black bears also are classified as “vulnerable” on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species.
Laos is also a major hub for wildlife trafficking for the exotic pet trade, despite international and national bans on the activity under CITES.
Other illegal wildlife trafficking incidents in Laos in recent years have involved tigers, long-tailed macaques, elephant tusks and ivory, turtles, snakes, tigers, and pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters.
A memo sent on Jan. 5 by the Lao prime minister’s office to various government departments has called for better protection of the country’s wildlife and improved cooperation with CITES agreements aimed at blocking trafficking in endangered species.
On March 30, Lao and Chinese officials met with Chinese tourists and businesspeople in Vientiane and warned them that buying or selling wildlife and ivory is illegal in Laos.
Linthong Douangphachanh, director general of the Department of Forest Inspection under the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry warned that authorities will strictly penalize wildlife traffickers according to Lao law, while a Chinese embassy official pledged that his government would increase efforts to protect wildlife.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.