Southeast Asia Bears Facing Extinction : Wildlife: Their meat is prized as an elixir for good health and virility in the region. But that doesn't do much for the endangered animals' well-being.


Bears that used to roam the forests of Thailand, Burma and Cambodia are now caged for their own protection. Life is bleak inside the steel bars, but the alternative is to be tortured and eaten.

Their enemy is not another wild animal, but man.

In many Asian countries, bear meat is prized as an elixir for good health and virility.

That means big profits for traders and smugglers--and increasing threat of extinction for Southeast Asia's two main types of bears, the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear.

Because of its closeness to the wildlife supply and its role as a tourist destination, Thailand is a major transit route and consumption point for the illegal trade in endangered animals, which also involves tigers, gibbons, crocodiles and lemurs. There are no good estimates of how many bears remain.

The situation is worse in Cambodia and Burma, where there is little chance that smugglers will be caught and punished. The countries are desperately poor and guerrilla insurrections have made the jungles and forests lawless.

At the Central Market in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, reporters saw a shop that openly sold bear paws and bear skins stretched and nailed onto a wall for display. Nearby, a creature that appeared to be a monkey hung as if crucified.

In a compound in Bangkok, officials of Thailand's Forestry Department are caring for 30 bears seized from smugglers.

During a recent visit by a reporter, the bears relished an afternoon shower from a hose, but officials said the creatures are suffering from the trauma of confinement.

Four of the Asiatic black bears in the compound were seized from a Taiwanese restaurant owner in Bangkok. He fled the country to avoid prosecution.

South Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese tourists frequent such illegal restaurants in Thailand, said Leonie Vejjajiva of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand.

"The bear is tortured to death in front of the diners. They say it makes the meat taste better," she said. "The cost of a bear banquet is now about $9,000 U.S."

A menu of a set dinner was among items seized last year by Thai police who raided a game restaurant, Thai newspapers reported. Appetizer was bile of cobra in rice whiskey, mixed with crushed tiger bone and herbal medicine. Then came a bowl of snake soup. The main course was steamed bear paws.

Merchants have even established illegal bear farms, but the problem is not just the meat trade, Vejjajiva said.

"Wild cubs are sometimes given to Buddhist temples as gifts," she said. "Many grow up in cramped cages and are cursed by worshipers, who believe the creatures are paying for bad previous lives."

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