In Vietnam it’s often not the written law that’s the problem – it’s the ways it’s perceived or enforced that causes concern. In many ways, the aims are understandable. For all the good intentions of the laws, the system and the resources can’t keep up with the legislation. And when that happens, workarounds are adopted. Sometimes these appear pragmatic, on other occasions the logic is unfathomable. This month, Hanoi’s animal welfare record came under scrutiny when a truck illegally carrying tons of live cats for consumption was discovered in the capital. Having seemingly rescued the felines from a grisly fate, reports soon came to light that the animals were promptly destroyed – buried alive according to some reports. Present quarantine laws excluded any attempt to find them homes. The authorities and newspapers faithfully reported that while regrettable, the authorities were merely following protocol and did everything according to the letter of the law. Barely a week later and a truck full of dead pangolins – a highly endangered animal like an anteater and prized in traditional medicine – was uncovered in Bac Ninh province. As a protected species, the trade of the animal is illegal and the corpses were seized. The media was soon reporting they had been sold to the highest bidder.

Again we were told – no laws were broken.

If Vietnam’s wildlife is to stand any chance of surviving the next century, the law must be strengthened, enforced and fit for purpose. It must serve those it was set up to serve.

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Saving Moon Bears in Halong Bay

In the tourist Mecca of Halong Bay, Animals Asia’s attempts to urgently save the lives of dozens of endangered moon bears is being delayed as crystal clear laws are called into question. Bear farming has been illegal in Vietnam since 2005, when all captive bears were microchipped and registered. But with over 4,000 bears on bile farms around the country at the time, the government had no way of looking after such an incredible number of physically and emotionally damaged animals.

The solution was to allow the farmers to keep the animals on behalf of the government – provided they care for them humanely and agree never to extract their bile.

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The result was that although illegal, bear bile farming continued behind closed doors. In the farmers’ eyes, the bears had to earn their keep. Many even posted “bile for sale” posters outside without action. Last November we made our way to Halong Bay. But unlike the millions of foreign tourists who visit the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Gulf of Tonkin, we weren’t there for a cruise around the archipelago of islands and karst pillars. Flanked by government officials, and a police guard – our veterinary staff were investigating the three remaining bear farms in the region. What we saw was shocking even to those hardened to animal cruelty. We found emaciated bears with open wounds, obviously continuing to have their bile extracted – and in extreme danger of starving to death. We offered there and then to take these bears to our Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, just hours away by car. But the farmers all refused. They would sooner see the animals starve to death unless we pay a large ransom.

And starve they did. Since our visit, 30 of the 49 bears we saw have died.

Our international campaign to force the government into action has seen 100,000 people sign our petition. Diplomatic support has come from a group of 12 ambassadors in Hanoi who wrote a group letter to the country’s Prime Minister while local media have been following the unfolding crisis. Yet for all the calls for action, the obvious urgency and the weight of the law, the authorities have failed to act decisively. Article 6 of Quang Ninh Bear Keeping Regulation 1700/2008/QD-UBND makes it clear that those who cannot care for captive bears must have the animals confiscated: Bear farm owners must guarantee the finance to keep and care for bears, build cages and farm. If the bear farm owner does not have the financial capacity to keep, care for bears or to build and develop farm according to Article 3, 4 and 5 in this regulation then the bears must be handed to government to be dealt with according to current regulation. Despite the clarity of the law, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development released a statement – not telling the provincial authorities to confiscate the bears, but instead telling them to “convince” the farmer to give up the bears. The farmers for their part are utterly unrepentant. One has even publically spoken to the media demanding that he be financially reimbursed for the bears.

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The buying and selling of these endangered animals is not only totally illegal, but the farmers don’t even own the bears.

Bear Keeping regulation 02/2005/QD-BNN stated clearly that the micro-chipping of the animals does not represent legal ownership: The establishment of bear management record and microchipping does not mean the government recognise the legal ownership of bears that do not have legal origin. It’s only for management of the number of bears kept on farms with the aim of ending the situation of poaching bears from the wild to keep on farms.

A Hope for Moon Bears

The government has tolerated criminal bile extraction out of sheer pragmatism and necessity. But now, with an internationally accredited bear rescue center just a few hours away, this criminality doesn’t have to be tolerated for a minute more.

The law as it stands is sufficient for the surviving bears to be retrieved and transferred to the sanctuary which is waiting for them.

Now it is up to the authorities to show they have the will to apply the rule of law evenly and to take seriously the trafficking and slaughter of Vietnam’s natural heritage. To keep updated on the status of the Halong Bay bears, click here.

Image source: Animals Asia