Animal rights

Asia for Animals: bringing about change through education and engagement

The 2023 Asia for Animals conference began yesterday (Wednesday) in Kuching on the island of Borneo with a packed programme of presentations that covered a wide range of issues.

A total 82 speakers from 23 countries are making presentations over three days.

The presentations on the first day included one about the emotional, cognitive, and moral capabilities of animals; one about animal photojournalism; one about animal welfare in Pakistan; and one about an innovative project in which detainees in a prison in Romania are involved in caring for animals. There was also a presentation about using species victim impact statements to effectively address wildlife crime and one about the welfare of elephants in India.

This year’s conference is being held under the banner ‘Education and Engagement Bring Change’ and the organisers are the Asia for Animals Coalition and the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).

The welcome remarks by the president of the SSPCA, Dona Drury Wee, included a moving tribute to the former SSPCA chairwoman Rebecca D’Cruz, who died in May this year, aged 59.

The keynote speech was delivered by the founder and CEO of Animals Asia, Jill Robinson, who spoke about the horrors of bear bile farms in Vietnam.

Robinson talked about a rescue that was carried out earlier this year in Vietnam.

“There were five bears who had been caged on a bear bile farm for twenty years of their life; that’s 7,300 days. When we arrived at that farm, none of those bears had names or an identity. When we left the farm, they had both,” she said.

“The farm was an absolute disgrace. These bears had no access to food or water, ever. They had no access to natural light, they had no access to the sun on their bodies, or the rain running through their fur. They had no access to medications when they were sick and suffering and diseased. They had no access to toys, or straw, or even banana leaves to lie on against those unrelenting cages. They had no friends to play with.”

Robinson talked about the cruelty of bile extraction and told the story of one of the five rescued bears, Dawn.

“Like every other bear, Dawn will have been knocked flat to the ground with illegal ketamine in Vietnam. She would have been anaesthetised, maybe not fully. So, to mitigate that, she would have been restrained by ropes that would have immobilised her body,” Robinson said.

An ultrasound machine would have been used to try and locate the position of Dawn’s gallbladder, she explained.

“In the meantime, the farmer, or whoever is using this machine, is using a six-inch needle to locate this organ. So they’re stabbing down into organs like the pancreas, the liver, the kidneys, the spleen, the intestine, etc., etc. until they’re finally quite sure that they’ve found the gallbladder,” Robinson told delegates.

“And when they are sure, they’ll take the needle out and they’ll lick it because then they will determine if they’ve reached the bitter tasting bile. They’ll put the needle back in when they are sure and they’ll extract about 100 ml of bile.”

When Dawn arrived at the Animals Asia sanctuary she was physically and emotionally broken. “She literally just pressed her head against the bars of the cage or she swayed backwards and forwards,” Robinson said.

Dawn was suffering from what the rescuers refer to as “learned helplessness”.

As the weeks went on, and Robinson went back to see Dawn in quarantine, she could see glimmers of improvement. “She’d had her pain taken away; she was now getting the most amazing enrichment, the most fantastic food; she was beginning to maybe just have a little bit of hope in her heart,” Robinson told AfA delegates.

The Vietnamese government has pledged to end bear bile farming in the country by 2026. The next step, Robinson says, is to build more sanctuaries for rescued bears.

The Animals Asia teams have already rescued more than 680 bears in China and Vietnam.

A coalition of about 70,000 doctors in Vietnam have agreed never to prescribe or sell bear bile ever again. There are also now free clinics for the elderly who can go along to have health checks and get free samples of herbal alternatives to bear bile.

Sons and daughters of bear bile farmers are growing alternatives to bear bile in 34 gardens in Vietnam and the goal is to have a hundred such gardens set up by 2027.

Putting people at the centre of conservation

The executive director of Planet Indonesia, Adam Miller, talked yesterday about partnering with local communities, “the power of putting people at the centre of conservation”.

Miller said: “We will not solve the global biodiversity crisis, the global climate crisis, without proper ways of engaging in partnering with indigenous people.”

In 2013, Miller and three close Indonesian friends set out to build an organisation “to really shift the needle on these global problems”.

They started by sitting around with communities, listening to their stories and the challenges they were facing, and the solutions they had to those problems. They spoke with smallholder farmers, poachers, miners, illegal loggers, and people doing small-scale fishing.

What they learned, Miller says, is that whether they were in the mountains of Borneo or the coastal islands of Indonesia, people had the same sort of solutions to the problems they cited.

Communities said that, in order to adequately protect nature, animals and wildlife, they needed four main things: secured rights over their ancestral territories, systems to manage and protect these ecosystems, good governance systems for sovereignty, and simple ways to make a viable living off of the land.

It became clear to Miller and the other founding members of Planet Indonesia that they needed replicable and scalable models that worked to identify challenges in an inclusive way at a local level. And they needed, hand in hand with local communities, to turn those challenges into a positive vision for the future.

Looking at data over a five-year period the team has found that, in the community-managed areas they studied, illegal poaching detections have been reduced by 80%, illegal logging detections have dropped by 70%, and illegal land clearing has been reduced by 66%.

They also found that in community-managed areas, over a four-year period, there wasn’t just a slow-down of the decline in the populations of some of the world’s rarest species, such as the critically endangered helmeted hornbill – whose casque is worth five times the price of elephant ivory on Asian black markets – their numbers were often increasing.

In 2016 the Planet Indonesia team opened the Wak Gatak conservation centre, Indonesia’s first centre that is wholly dedicated to rescuing Indonesian songbirds.

“Thriving places isn’t just about reducing deforestation, it’s about bringing wildlife back to places,” Miller said.

The emotional, cognitive, and moral capabilities of animals

The animal welfare director for the Animals Asia foundation, Dave Neale, gave a fascinating presentation about the emotional, cognitive, and moral capabilities of animals.

Neale talked not only about such animals as pigs and hens, but also about insects and fish. Researchers were beginning to see evidence of positive emotional experiences and potential play behaviour in bees, he said. He said that invertebrates such as bees had been found to have problem-solving and social learning skills and social bonds were evident among fish species.

Optimism and pessimism had been seen among the invertebrate community, Neale told delegates. Behavioural research had shown that bees displayed “a pessimistic judgment bias”, he said.

When the bees underwent stress before being presented with a novel stimulus, they were found to be less likely to approach a novel stimulus. If they received a positive reward before being presented with a novel stimulus, then they were found to be much more optimistic.

Talking about fish, Neale said: “If you start to identify them by individuals, then they’re not just randomly swimming around in a large shoal, they are actually associating themselves with other individuals within that shoal.”

Hens, Neale said, have been found to develop expectations, anticipate the future, and be able to exert self-control.

Engagement with prisoners

Liliana Pacheco and Gregg Tully from the Save the Dogs and Other Animals association told delegates about a community engagement project at the Poarta Alba penitentiary and hospital in Constanta, Romania.

The Save the Dogs team has set up a pilot educational programme for detainees in the prison’s psychiatric wing. There are cats and dogs in the prison and the detainees who take part in the programme do craft work, making things like toys for the dogs and play boxes for the cats.

The ‘Roots and Shoots’ programme, which has been running for seven months, has been organised in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute.

In the ‘Roots and Shoots’ programme, the detainees don’t interact directly with the animals. The Save the Dogs team is also running a second programme in which prisoners who are on pre-release go to the Save the Dogs shelter and help to take care of animals there. “They do jobs like cleaning the donkey paddocks,” Pacheco said.

“The prisoners are able to understand more about the environment, the welfare and needs of the animals, and the community into which they needed to be reintegrated.”

Pacheco (pictured left) says the programme for the prisoners on semi-release has helped the detainees to feel more empathy, firstly towards themselves, and then compassion and empathy towards the animals they work with.

The programme had helped the prisoners to manage their emotions and gave them a sense of self-worth and self-control, Pacheco said. There was a benefit for the animals in that they received social enrichment and there was a calming influence that went both ways.

So far the Save the Dogs team has worked with 117 inmates who are, or have been, in the prison’s psychiatric wing. Many of the detainees have a background of drug abuse and/or alcoholism. The prisoners are only permitted to be in the hospital for two months at a time. There are more than 1,000 detainees in the prison, but only 25 hospital beds. There is only one psychiatrist, and no psychologist.

The sessions with the patients in the psychiatric wing usually take place every two weeks and there are a maximum of ten patients at each session.

“The good thing is that, for a short period of time, the detainees are able to interact with each other in a positive, friendly way. I put them in groups so they have to work together to figure out how to do the craft work,” Liliana told Changing Times.

The Asia for Animals conferences are held every two years. The last on-the-ground conference was held in Dalian, China, in 2019. In 2017, the conference was in Kathmandu, Nepal, and in 2015 it was hosted in Kuching. Because of Covid restrictions the 2021 conference was online.

More to follow about the work of We Animals Media, and about the positive effects of using species victim impact statements to address wildlife crime. Coverage to come about conference days 2 and 3.


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