Starved, deprived of water and kept alive with antibiotics. The challenging story behind Boo the Bear’s continued captivity in Vietnam’s Illegal Wildlife Trade.
By Kate Fox – Conservation Photojournalist, Environmental Writer and Founder of Verify Humanity
Kate Fox is an environmental writer, conservation photographer and recently founder of an animal advocacy organisation called Verify Humanity. With a mission to combat speciesism and unite disparate animal loving groups behind a common goal.
It might surprise you to know that animal lovers don’t always unite behind shared goals. In a world where unique selling points make your voice heard, differences are often seen as more important than concurrence, but illegal wildlife farming cases often transgress the divide that keeps conservationists, animal rights, animal welfarists, vegans and anti-speciesists in opposition.
Despite this support, authorities have yet to resolve one case nearly four years on. Boo the bear and friends have now become the unfortunate figurehead for Vietnam’s illegal bear bile trade. Rather unusually, it’s possible that animal-loving Catholics could be the solution to their plight.
The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is home to the murkier underbelly of humanity. A world where violence flourishes and compassion for animals is in short supply. With up to $23 billion a year incentive, according to UN estimates, it’s now the fourth most lucrative trade after drugs, human-trafficking and weapons.
Going undercover is a high-risk strategy essential for exposing such criminal networks. Capturing a photographic insight into what happens behind the scenes is vital to plug the gaps that allow crimes to persist but also to save animal lives. This was my job.
It used to be legal to farm bears for their bile in Vietnam. It contains ursodeoxycholic acid, an ingredient that has long been prized in Traditional Medicine for curing a multitude of unrelated ailments including seizures, gallstones and now COVID-19.
Although it’s legal to keep registered microchipped bears in Vietnam, it’s now illegal to extract bile or source wild bears. Surveys reveal these laws are flouted with shocking regularity. So, unless the farmer hands bears over to sanctuaries or they are confiscated, they are doomed to die in these very same cages.
Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, I made contact with a bear bile dealer in Hanoi. After laying an elaborate undercover story, I was deemed an acceptable risk. Bundled into the back of a car, I was driven for several hours to Quỳnh Lưu, District in Nghe An Province. The next day I found myself seated around an extravagant dining room table sharing a ceremonial tea with the senior patriarchal members of this criminal network.
With these wordless introductions over, less important members tentatively began emerging. This now unnervingly large group corralled me into a dark and breathtakingly sweaty room at the back of their house. Once acclimatised to the gloom, a room full of desperate eyes appeared. There were nine Asiatic Black Bears.
With nothing to stimulate these naturally intelligent animals, a life behind bars had sent them into a near catatonic state. They had given up hope of rescue from their unimaginable mental torture. Despite their thick fur coats and unbearable heat, bears are not given water to drink. They rely on sloppy daily gruel for hydration. But a 2018 report by Free the Bears reveals ‘expenditure on food has dropped by 87%’. With bears relying on food for water, this is life-threatening.
The first thing I noticed about these bears was how small they were. ‘He got bears from Laos when 1kg. Now three years old…apart from seven-month cub’ said my translator in stilted English. The cub desperately stretched out her paw between the bars for contact, still young enough to care. This confirmed my observation that these bears were too young to have been microchipped in 2005. I had stumbled upon a ‘hot’ rearing farm of illegal bears. Something I was led to believe didn’t really exist.
This was a significant discovery. TRAFFIC, a well-respected wildlife trade organisation, did a survey in 2016 that gathered ‘unconfirmed statements’ from farmers. They confessed that for the 272 visible legal bears, there were 162 hidden illegal bears. With evidence that they now exist, this meant government figures on legally owned microchipped bears could be the tip of the iceberg. An unwelcome but vital discovery.
Of course, the illegal nature of bile extraction means there are no training courses so farmers learn on the job. If bears survive, they are pumped with antibiotics after each crude and unhygienic extraction. The bears on Farm 1 were too young for this procedure, so I was taken to Farm 2 where another 4 bears were held captive. The bears paced their cages furiously and began roaring in fear as the blow-dart sedative was prepped.
A corroborating translation of the undercover videos by an Oxford academic revealed these bears used to be microchipped but are not anymore. Although it was unclear whether this was because they are new bears or someone removed the chips, the wildlife criminal ‘is aware that he is keeping the bears illegally’.
The Catholic Connection
So, what is the Catholic connection? Regrettably Catholics are a long-standing persecuted minority in Vietnam. While treatment has improved in recent decades, the Catholic World Report reveals ‘threats of violence, coercion, and harassment still exist’. This unintentionally plays a significant role in the ongoing inability to confiscate illegal wildlife such as Boo, in pockets of Nghe An Province.
Bordering Laos also makes it a wildlife traffickers’ haven. Nghe An Province is gaining a reputation for being an illegal bear stronghold and hotspot for ivory, rhino horn, tiger and pangolin trafficking. So, understanding the complex interactions between the Vietnamese Communist Party, Catholic citizens and the illegal wildlife trade is vital to shut this avenue of cruelty down.
At present, it is not openly discussed. In large part because the sensitive nature of the issue has made it a taboo subject. It’s clear that this silence is simply prolonging corruption, violence, and cruelty to animals. So, for the sake of the animals, let’s unpick what is happening.
Why Don’t Authorities Act?
Vietnam has certainly developed a reputation abroad for stifling human rights and being a hub for corruption and violence. An embarrassing array of measures like the Corruption Perception Index, Human Freedom Index and the Government Restrictions Index follow them like a bad smell.
Oppressing freedom of religious expression in Vietnam has created tensions between minority Catholic communities and the Communist Party. At times leading to explosive interactions. It’s not surprising therefore that any law enforcement within Catholic communities, even confiscating illegal bears, could be seen as punitive.
However, the Vietnamese Communist Party is becoming more aware of their negative international reputation, but this is creating a conflict of interest. How do they fulfil their commitments to stifle the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and avoid social unrest amongst these communities? Well, it seems likely the authorities now shy away from overt confrontation with such criminals, particularly if it’s likely to lead to rowdy public demonstrations in Catholic communities. After all, who wants to report rioting up the political food-chain when controlling the narrative through propaganda is an expected norm?
But the question is, are these criminals aware that the authorities might be apprehensive of inflaming tensions? And this is important. If criminals know the authorities won’t enforce the law, it certainly gives them serious leverage to carry on committing crimes. After all, if you know there are no consequences, why stop?
Criminals in Nghe An Province have certainly had the opportunity to learn this. In 2007, a case in the same district as Boo’s farm, saw 50 officers chased away while trying to rescue three immature bears. These bears were never rescued. And when three of the nine bears were confiscated from Boo’s farm, Education for Nature – Vietnam’s press release described it as ‘without doubt our riskiest bear mission to date’. The reality is that it was less of a confiscation and more of a negotiation. A negotiation that saw clearly illegal bears left behind.
While the Catholic issue can be the defining reason why bears such as Boo aren’t rescued, there are other reasons.Corruption is the life-force of the illegal wildlife trade. It has allowed this high reward, low consequence crime to thrive.
In an interview Professor David Canter said, about the bear confiscation riot on Farm 1: ‘it would be remarkable if there were not some sort of corruption involved’. So, is there any evidence of corruption in the case of Boo the Bear? Well, the fact that only three of the nine bears were ‘confiscated’ on Farm 1 is the biggest alarm bell. The undercover operation revealed they were visibly too young to have been microchipped in 2005 and therefore illegal.
While it’s not uncommon for criminals to shuffle bears between premises to avoid officials removing them, it is clear that some visibly illegal bears were left in situ right up until confiscation day. Emily Lloyd from Four Paws noted during the rescue that: ‘it was pretty sad to have to leave the others behind, especially seeing that some were also young and therefore illegal bears’.
The Nghe An authorities should have spotted this immediately and automatically confiscated them. This begs the question as to why this did not happen.
Why Are Criminals Supported in Catholic Communities?
However, there remains one important and challenging question. Why do large aggressive crowds gather in Catholic communities to support these criminal minorities?
It is likely that facing persecution, they have developed a strong communal bond. If your way of life feels threatened by everyone outside your faith, it makes sense to stick together. After all, polarising minorities through coercion and violence will undoubtedly create a ‘them and us’ mentality. Canter states that: ‘such communities would act together to support each other against people they thought of as outsiders who didn’t understand, and wanted to disrupt, their way of life’.
It’s not that they are necessarily advocating the illegal wildlife trade but probably that they’re supporting their religious community. Catholics represent up to 7% of Vietnam’s population but in the District of Quỳnh Lưu, where Boo and his friends are held captive, the population is purported to be as high as 57%. This must be relatively empowering to know that you are no longer a minority.
The fact that bear bile farming used to be legal in Vietnam will probably play a part in their angry response. In fact, it was actively encouraged as a means to resolve the conservation concerns over wild bear hunting for bile, but with captive living conditions so barbaric, bears did not breed. Captive bears are still plundered from the wild. According to IUCN’s Red List, Asiatic Black bear numbers have dropped by a breath-taking 60% in Vietnam.
Telling communities that became financially dependent on bear bile sales that they now must stop could be frustrating. It is important to mention however that Boo’s captors also have a network of legal businesses to support themselves.
It is likely that neither the authorities nor the illegal wildlife farmers empathise with the bears’ plight. This makes their welfare and rescue low down on everyone’s priority list. While conservation is an argument that Vietnamese government officials are now prepared to use, animal welfare is considered an anathema, and therefore to be avoided at all costs.
Of course, this is an ongoing world-wide problem that any person keen to combat speciesism will appreciate. The reality is that while supporting issues such as conservation are vital, they do not address the underlying problem: Speciesism. After all, no one would have to fight to save a species, if everyone treated individual animals, and everything they rely on to survive, with respect and compassion.
So, while the illegal wildlife trade in Nghe An Province has nothing to do with the perpetrators being Catholic, it does seem to be inhibiting law enforcement. These criminals are ensuring that Catholic communities will be destined to a future of corruption, violence, and crime. Their ability to operate beyond the rule of law is also allowing unimaginable animal suffering and contributing to impending local extinctions. With Pope Francis paying ‘unprecedented attention to animal rights’ and criticising factory farming, it’s time to break that silence and work together to ensure these criminals are brought to justice and Boo and friends are confiscated.