It is a case of good news, bad news for Vietnam’s decimated population of captive bears.

The good news is local residents no longer legally purchase bear bile; the bad news is bear farmers no longer have a financial incentive to feed the animals, which have been used in products from medicine to soup to necklaces.

The decimation has left only 800 sun bears and Asiatic black bears in a country that had 4,300 around 2006, according to sanctuary operator Four Paws.

Earlier this month, Four Paws traversed the country to transport five black bears to its rescue center in Ninh Binh, a northern province of evergreen islands and goat-speckled hills. The center is open to visitors and can house as many as 100 bears taken from private owners, who are now barred from trafficking in bear parts and bodily fluids for traditional medicine.

“Owners can still keep the bears in cages,” Four Paws Vietnam director Ngo Huong told Bloomberg Environment. “But the condition for the bear is still terrible. So we now encourage the bear owners to voluntarily give their bear up.”

Bear Markets

Vietnam has long been a node in the illicit networks that trade Asia’s rhinos, pangolins, and elephants to the brink of extinction, often funneling animal parts to the much larger market next door in China.

Bile is a liquid found in the gallbladder, and can be extracted from bears repeatedly using a catheter. It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries.

In recent years, Vietnam met with relative success in quashing domestic demand for bear bile, having criminalized the industry and raised public awareness about the endangered species.

But more than 250 owners are still allowed to pen up the bears that have survived, as long as they don’t sell any parts of the mammals. The question now turns to what to do about the bears, which activists say are languishing in cruel conditions, some of them starving.

Four Paws is collaborating with nonprofits Education for Nature–Vietnam and World Animal Protection on the rescues, while two other groups, Animals Asia Foundation and Free the Bears Fund, also have shelters in southern Vietnam.

From Animal Trade to Tourism?

In February, Education for Nature–Vietnam collected 5,000 signatures for a petition asking owners to surrender 170 bears in the Hanoi district of Phuc Tho, which the group calls the country’s hotspot of bear farming.

“More than ever, we need to make bear owners buy into the reality that bear bile farming in Vietnam is on its last legs,” said Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung, vice director of Education for Nature–Vietnam.

She sent the petition to district authorities, calling on them to ensure “bear farms are regularly monitored, owners closely managed, and all violations strictly addressed.”

Some hope the recovered bears will become part of a different business than animal trade: tourism. The 10 hectare (25 acre) Four Paws sanctuary is free to visitors who want to observe the mammals. The provincial government granted the center a Certificate of Biodiversity Conservation Facility, including it in a national protected area.

“The sanctuary is a pilot model of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, which Ninh Binh province wants to expand into the National Wildlife Park project,” the province’s deputy chairman Nguyen Ngoc Thach said.