“If infection doesn’t kill these poor beasts, lack of bile will…”
“No please, not here.” I thought. “Not in Japan.”
This was the last place I wanted to see this. I expected excellence and beauty and peace here but this…I looked down into the ghastly stockade. It was a fence. A circular, two-meter high fence made of concrete and logs. There was no shelter of any kind; it was nothing but a hole in the mountain with a platform and a fake tree for the bears to climb on. Some vile prankster had taught the six or eight Grizzly bears in the enclosure to mimic the “money cats” one encounters in every shop in Asia. Like the robotic cats they resembled, they waved a paw in the air trying to entice one of us to throw a snack at them. Some of the Japanese youngsters obliged, winging the golf ball-sized pellets available for ¥100 a piece at the heads of the wretched Moneybears. The laughter of the adolescents made me want to grab one of them by his frosted mane and toss him into the pit.
With a little experience, it is not too difficult to decipher mammalian body language across species. What I mean is that any dog or cat lover would have the ability to see the lethargy and despair in the bears incarcerated in this place. I certainly could and they were pathetic. If they failed to catch a flying pellet they simply let it go. Maybe they were just lazy but more likely they didn’t want to eat something that had touched the snowy, excrement-covered floor of their horrifying little prison. One thing is true across the kingdom of animals: mammals prefer to avoid their own shit.
The Tourist Trap
There are untold hundreds of zoos across the region. That number will certainly jump into the thousands or tens of thousands if we add to that private menageries, game farms, marine mammal tanks, traditional medicine markets, temples dedicated to the worship of exotic species, and pet stores that in SE Asia are often a front for criminal smuggling rings. The incarceration of intelligent animals is not a small problem; it is as pervasive as it is horrific. These Moneybears, sitting in their filthy, overcrowded, privacy-devoid prison yard consuming snacks all day were undoubtedly suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, tooth decay, gastrointestinal distress, and lunacy but at least they weren’t alone. Others across Asia aren’t so lucky. Some live their entire lives in isolation, or worse, in overcrowded conditions.
Tourism, like the Moneybear pit I encountered in Japan, is one of two primary drivers of wildlife crime in Asia. Though on its surface, animal tourism seems benign, even helpful, it can be a vile practice devoid of value other than to satisfy the curiosity or other primal desires of a consumer. I’ve seen monkeys made to perform inane stunts in silly costumes; bears in chains made to roar and beat their chests on command; elephants forced to perform labor or pose for selfies; bulls tricked into fighting. Pain and fear are the tools of choice for their trainers. The saddest cases in the tourism trap are the most intelligent: the dolphins and whales that flip and splash and toss their trainers on command until the crowds go home. At night they descend into the madness of endless circles swam in featureless tanks…for life. Some dolphins have it even worse, held in small, filthy pools to be gawked at until bacteria in the water eats enough of their vital organs to finally overcome them. They die emaciated, heartbroken, and covered in putrid sores.
Cuisine, curiosity, even conservation of the animal victims themselves are presented as legitimizing fronts for cynical money-making purposes. The criminal monks at the “Tiger Temple” in Kanchanaburi, Thailand for example knew they had to cloak their money-making scheme in a veneer of respectability in order to attract western tourists concerned about the wellbeing of tigers. The monks pretended to advocate for tiger conservation by charging tourists to touch and play with sedated cats supposedly rescued from captivity elsewhere. Meanwhile, they were breeding the tigers and selling their body parts on the black market. Very little is sacrosanct in Asia where animals are revered for their mythical properties but treated as little more than commodities in real life. Perhaps it is in this space that the other driver of wildlife crime in Asia thrives.
Traditional medicine is probably the single biggest reason animals are trafficked and/or murdered in the world today. Rhinos are stripped of their horns and elephants of their tusks. The gentle pangolin, a mammalian anteater covered not in fur, but with armor-like scales, has the disadvantage of being prized for both meat and medicine. As a result, it is one of the most trafficked of any commodity in Asia. Death for the pangolins comes quickly at least, but none suffer more perhaps than the bears. Bear bile is reputed to cure hemorrhoids, conjunctivitis, severe hepatitis, high fever, convulsions, delirium, tapeworm, childhood nutritional impairment, hangovers, colds, and even cancer. Kept in tiny cages, some bears have their gall bladders repeatedly aspirated for decades until they run dry from scarification. Others have a shunt installed that continuously drains bile into a basin. If infection doesn’t kill these poor beasts, lack of bile will but at least someone’s hangover will feel better.
Most of these animals do not need to die or suffer to give up their bounty but the scale of demand ensures that they do. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the scale of wildlife crime has risen in direct correlation with the emergence of 800 million Chinese citizens from poverty. Though this is not exclusively a Chinese problem, China is by far the biggest consumer of exotic animal products for ailments ranging from male impotence to “weak spring” – a nonsensical diagnosis for general malaise. Several of the ailments treated by Chinese medicine have artificial remedies that can be mass-produced without ever causing an animal to suffer but with thousands of years of history behind traditional techniques and large swathes of humanity still unable to access modern medicine, the shift will be catastrophically slow. Frustratingly, the Chinese government has the wherewithal to act effectively but lacks the will. Though their work with Panda conservation is admirable to say the least, that benevolence amounts to little if they leave the black bears, and rhinos, and tigers, and pangolins, and elephants, and sharks, and swallows to the greedy impulses of headache sufferers and old men that can no longer maintain erections. Without decisive action by Beijing, the illegal wildlife trade will never be reduced to reasonable limits.
The story is not all bad. The rising Asian middle class is increasing the number of people willing and able to think critically about animal welfare. Organizations that advocate for better treatment of animals, offer education on alternatives to traditional medicine, and expose the worst practices of the industry are proliferating and gaining influence. Asian celebrities are adding their voices to the chorus and international agreements are starting to constrict the legal spaces where this vile trade once resided. News organizations are doing their part to shed light on what’s happening. In this regard, the team from Al Jazeera’s 101 East deserves special praise for their gutsy and repeated coverage of wildlife and other illegal trafficking operations in Asia. So too do the many legitimate and conscientious zoological parks that do the right thing. Among these, the Singapore Night Safari; the Bird and Deer Parks at the Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur; the Panda Research Base in Chengdu, China; and orangutan, monkey, and sea turtle sanctuaries in Malaysian Borneo stand out as world-class venues.
I am certain there are many, many more places that are doing right by the animals but it can be difficult to tell the good from the bad in Asia. Though I choose to just avoid animal parks altogether and under no circumstances will I seek or accept an animal-based cure for any malady, there are ways for the conscientious traveler to enjoy Asia’s fauna without adding to the nightmare. Harness the power of the internet. Talk with some of the great people at the organizations I mentioned, chat with the locals, and read the reviews of other tourists with a critical eye. In short, do your homework. Your patronage can mean the difference between aiding in the conservation of a species or constructing the shackles of their interminable suffering. With a hand in the air, Moneybears everywhere thank you in advance.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He will not willingly set foot in another zoo or animal park on any continent.