Where the wild things are rescued

(No.8, Vol.2, August 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station in Ho Chi Minh City plays a crucial role in the preservation of Vietnam’s endangered wildlife. Treaties and laws allow police and the Forestry Department to seize protected animals from smugglers. But someone must then take care of these animals if they are to recover from the experience.

A pair of otters at the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station

Visitors may view the station’s numerous rare monkeys, gibbons, lories, turtles, pangolins, otters, and lizards. The station is open Monday to Sunday, 7.30 a.m. – 11.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. – 4.30 p.m. and is located at No.50, Road No.15, Cho Cu Ha Hamlet near the An Nhon Tay crossroad. Although Cu Chi is a rural district and a 90 minute drive from the city centre, it is nonetheless within Ho Chi Minh’s oversized city limits.
The station has accepted over 2,000 animals since 2007, and released 1,100 back into the wild. It was founded in 2006 and is a favourite destination for school field trips.
The station’s bears are the star of show. There are both sun bears and moon bears. Although omnivores, their favourite foods are honey, termites, ants and beetles. Their long, slender tongues allow them to extract honey from inside a beehive. The sun bear is the smallest species of bear and is known for its mild disposition. It is the only kind of bear that is suitable as a pet.

The moon bear, or Asian black bear, has white fur on its chest. It is quite aggressive and may attack humans without provocation. In February, the station received four moon bears who were earlier being milked for bile at a farm in Binh Duong Province. Bear bile is used in traditional medicine. The bears are in poor health and unlikely to ever be released back into the wild. One has lost a paw, perhaps cut off for use in traditional medicine.
Ursodiol, the active ingredient in bile, blocks the human body’s production of cholesterol, and is used in the treatment of cholesterol gallstones and liver disease. However, it is unnecessary to torture bears to produce ursodiol as it is normally manufactured synthetically.
It is estimated that 4,000 bears are kept on bile farms in Vietnam. Most are moon bears smuggled from Laos, but sun bears are kept as well. The owner of a farm in Hanoi recently told the New York Times he planned to buy 10 additional bears from Laos for $6,000 each. The man stuck a seven inch needle into the abdomen of one bear as buyers watched to verify that they were getting the real deal.
The repeated insertion of needles allows the animal to become infected easily. Bears typically live for only four or five years on a bile farm, compared to 30 in the wild. On some farms, the bears are fitted with iron vests to prevent them from trying to kill themselves.
The practice of milking bears for bile has provoked a wave of international indignation in recent months. Former NBA centre Yao Ming and other celebrities have awakened an animal protection movement in China, and have spoke out against the bile farms. Dozens of well-known entertainers signed a petition to prevent a company that sold bile from being listed on the Shanghai exchange. An editorial in the official China Daily criticized the proposed listing.
With the help of rescuers, Vietnam’s bears may yet avoid the fate of its rhinoceros, hunted to extinction for their horns. Rhino horn is described as a thần dược, literally ‘holy medicine’. It is imagined as a more powerful version of stag horn, used in traditional medicine to treat impotence, fever and other aliments.
Poaching rhinos for their horns, a practice successfully suppressed in the 1990s by an international campaign, is back with a vengeance. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared to 333 in 2010. South African officials claim that Vietnam is the top destination for smuggled rhino horn.
The revival of rhino poaching is powered by the claim that the horn can cure cancer. This belief has no basis in science or traditional medicine. Corrupt hospital staff market the horn by approaching desperate cancer patients and telling them that a celebrity, or the relative of a powerful politician, has obtained a cure using the horn. Rhino horn is made of the same material as human fingernails, primarily the protein keratin.

Trophy hunters sent 268 such horns from South Africa to Vietnam in 2006 - 2009, with many more smuggled or otherwise unreported. They sells locally for $25,000 - $40,000 (VND525 million – VND840 million) per kilogram, or 1 billion dong for a small horn.
The craze for horn has led to the extinction of Vietnam’s own tiny rhino herd. The java rhino was long thought to be extinct, but in the 1980s a group of eight was discovered in Cat Tien National Park. Dung samples collected in 2009-2010 established only one was left. The carcass of this last rhino was found in April 2010, its horn cut off by poachers.

Getting there
Tours of the station can be arranged through a travel agent. If you want to go on your own, take bus #4 from Ben Thanh bus station and get off at An Suong. Then take bus #122 and get off at Tan Qui Cross road. Then take bus # 70 to Ben Duoc and get off at the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station (Cu Chi ranger office). Tel: +84 8 37947045.

Text and photos by Peter Kauffner
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