Wesley Grover takes a trip to a bear sanctuary north of Hanoi.

Admittedly, when I arrive at the Vietnam Bear Sanctuary, 70 kilometers north of Hanoi at the Tam Dao National Park, I’m prepared for the worst. It’s the home of 176 moon bears that have been rescued from bile farming and, having seen images depicting the upsetting effects that the practice has on a bear, the expectation is that this trip is going to be a downer.

Passing through the gates into the 11-hectare sanctuary, however, the ambience could not be more different. The air is crisp and the sound of a small stream can be heard running down the forested mountainside – a welcomed contrast from the bustle of Hanoi, where I’ve just come from on a two-hour motorbike ride.

Led down a lush pathway by a tour guide, what looks to be an enclosed playground soon comes into view and within its confines ten large balls of fur are lazing about under the morning sun. These are the Asian black bears, also known as moon bears due to the white, crescent-shaped marking across their chests, and the sight of them is anything but depressing.

With pools to swim in and jungle gyms to climb, they spend their days moseying about the park, often looking for food that the staff has hidden in an effort to encourage the bears’ foraging instincts. They are curious of visitors and unafraid to wander right up to the fence with a docile expression that leaves one surprisingly at ease while being approached by a 130-kilogram bear. From a close distance, their contentment is readily noticeable, suggesting that these gentle giants are well-aware of how far they have come.

Before being rescued by Animals Asia, the Hong Kong-based animal welfare organisation that runs the sanctuary, life on a bear bile farm meant 24 hours a day in cramped cages undergoing invasive bile extraction techniques that cause extreme physical and psychological damage. All of this is done in the name of an industry that’s largely fueled by urban myth.

“Bear bile has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years,” says Tuan Bendixsen, the Vietnam Director for Animals Asia, explaining that it can be applied to an external injury to reduce heat and swelling. “But there are many Western and Eastern alternatives,” he goes on, “and the problem presently is that because bear farms produce so much bile, they don’t know what to do with it so they began to market it as a wonder-drug that will cure anything from cancer to hangovers and increase virility in men.”

While there is no scientific evidence to suggest that bear bile does in fact cure any of these latter conditions, part of the organisation’s mission is to raise awareness of alternative remedies for reducing heat and swelling, as Bendixsen explains: “We’re working with the Vietnam Traditional Medicine Association to promote herbal alternatives to bear bile. There are 32 herbal alternatives that the association recognises and promotes.”

Despite the practice being illegal since 1992, an estimated 1,000 bears are still being used for bile extraction in Vietnam. Enforcing the ban has proven difficult, though the recent passing of a Memorandum of Understanding last July is a hopeful sign. This agreement marks a partnership between Animals Asia and the government to work together to finally make bear bile farming a thing of the past.

“The memorandum is a very big milestone for us,” Bendixsen says. “With it, the government took the first real commitment to end bear bile farming. They finally agreed to work with us and come up with a detailed plan on how we can rescue the 1,000 bears on farms and put them in sanctuaries like ours. It’s a really big commitment and we’re going to hold them to it because I think it’s the only way that we can save the bear species in Vietnam.”

Bendixsen admits that it’s almost impossible to know just how many moon bears remain in the wild in Vietnam, though he says local scientists estimate the number to be around 200 to 300.

“In many places, they are now extinct. For example, here in Tam Dao National Park, there used to be bears and tigers [in the wild], but there are none now. A lot of national parks in Vietnam no longer have bears.”

Listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, this classification takes into account the moon bear population across all of Asia, though the situation in Vietnam specifically could be more dire. Without the survival skills to be reintroduced into the wild, sanctuaries such as this essentially stand as the last line of defense to extinction in Vietnam, making each rescue effort all the more critical.

“We just rescued six more bears yesterday and brought them to the sanctuary. It’s a great feeling for all of us every time we rescue a bear,” says Bendixsen, describing the latest small victory for Animals Asia and how the sanctuary’s newest residents will be acclimated. “The bears will go into quarantine for 45 days to make sure they are not carrying any diseases that could be transferred to another bear. Also, during the quarantine period, it gives our vets a chance to observe their behaviour and characteristics more closely to see how they will integrate into a group of bears.”

With each rescue, however, the sanctuary in Tam Dao comes closer to its capacity of 200 bears, meaning that new sanctuaries will have to be built in order to finish their mission of relocating the remaining bears, a daunting task that will require great collaboration between Animals Asia and the government.

To learn more about Animals Asia and how you can help, or to schedule a visit to the Vietnam Bear Sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, visit animalsasia.org.