It’s difficult to imagine the horror of bile bear farms without seeing them for yourself. Imagine small, rusted metal cages only slightly bigger than the bears they constrain. The cages are either partially or fully exposed to the elements, and do not contain food, bedding or toys for enrichment. The bears spend day-in and day-out pacing back-and-forth (as much as their cage allows) or attempting to gnaw their way through the bars to escape. Most bile bears have been living in these cages since birth. They are bred and traded amongst bile farmers and are seen only as a means of profit. The bears hold no intrinsic value of their own and are viewed as disposable once they are no longer useful for bile extractions.
Sadly, this reality of bear bile farming has been prevalent throughout Vietnam and other regions of Asia for hundreds of years. The suffering these bears experience is immense.
Yet change is happening, and pressure is mounting on Vietnamese authorities to crack down on the bear trade and bile farming. But what is bear bile, why is it traded, and what is FOUR PAWS doing to help put a stop to it?
What is bear bile and what is it used for?
Bear bile is a substrate extracted from the gallbladders of Asiatic Black Bears (also commonly called Moon Bears), Sun Bears and brown bears.
Bear bile has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, with the first reference appearing in an eighth century medical text prescribing bear bile for conditions such as epilepsy, haemorrhoids, and heart pain. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that scientists discovered that bear bile, a fluid that's secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, contains a significant amount of Urso deoxycholic acid which has been medically proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease1.
Sadly, bear bile has also been marketed as a cure for conditions like cancer, colds, and hangovers, even though there is no scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness for these ailments2. In addition to being found in traditional medicinal products, bear bile is also frequently found in Asian cosmetics and food products such as shampoo, eye drops, toothpaste and wine.
Synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile have existed since the 1950s, yet despite these effective alternatives, bear bile is still being used in Traditional Chinese Medicines.
How is the bile harvested from the bears?
There are a few different ways which untrained bear owners will attempt to extract bile from the gallbladder – most of which are performed without proper pain relief causing the bears immense stress and agony.
- “Free drip” method where a hole is pierced through the abdomen and into the gallbladder. The bile then drips through the opening and is collected. These holes will be continuously re-pierced with every bile collection.
- Insertion of a permanent catheter, through which bile is regularly collected. Typically, catheters will be left attached to the bear indefinitely, causing irritation and infection. Occasionally metal catheters are used, which then begin to rust and decompose within the bears body causing extreme pain.
- Using a large four-inch needle to directly penetrate and extract the bile straight from the gallbladder3.
Before performing these extractions, the bears are usually anaesthetised, however it is often administered unprofessionally or is too weak, meaning the bear is subjected to incredible pain in an aware state.
What affect do bile extractions have on the health of the bears?
Sadly, the moon bears and Asiatic black bears that are kept on bile farms are permanently caged. Because they never leave the confinement of their small cages, they have been nicknamed “battery bears”.
Due to frequent extractions, most of the bile bears suffer from chronic liver and gallbladder disease and frequently develop secondary complications like liver cancer. The bile farming and extraction practice puts great stress on the physical and mental health of the bears, which eventually leads to their death. Moreover, inappropriate keeping conditions, poor diet, and exercise depravation contributes to mobility problems, wasted muscles and obesity. In addition to this, the constant mistreatment, unstimulating environment, and confined space leads to behavioural disorders. Due to their immense suffering and boredom, the bears often chew on their cage bars in attempt to escape, which results in broken and damaged teeth.
Our Project Coordinator for bear rescues, Magdalena Scherk-Trettin, who has witnessed bear farms in Vietnam: “The cages are extremely tiny, scarcely larger than the bears themselves and completely devoid of stimuli. The bears lack everything. They are ill and lifeless. I have seen animals that could not even lie down properly in their cage. They had to sleep in a sitting position. Bears kept on these farms usually have no access to water. This is extreme cruelty to animals”.
Why has the practice of extracting bear bile still been allowed to take place in Vietnam? (legalities)
In 2005, Vietnam outlawed the possession, sale and extraction of bear bile, yet despite the ban, farmers were allowed to keep their bears, so long as they were microchipped and had been registered before 2005.
Many of the farmers who were allowed to keep their bears, have continued performing these deadly bile extractions despite it being illegal. In order to stop these extractions happening altogether, FOUR PAWS are working to rescue the bears remaining on bile farms, and working with local authorities to enforce stricter regulations.
How many bile bears are still in captivity on bile farms in Vietnam and what is being done to rescue them?
Fewer than 300 bears remain on about 100 farms across Vietnam. Most of these bears spend a sad existence in tiny metal cages still undergoing painful bile extractions.
For over 15 years, Vietnam’s government, together with NGOs, have been fighting to end the cruel practice of bear bile farming in Vietnam. Collective efforts have resulted in a 93% reduction in the number of bile bears in Vietnam, from 4,300 bears recorded in 2005 to 294 bears on bear farms by end of April 2022. Many bear owners across the country have voluntarily given up their bears thanks to great efforts made by local authorities.
However, while significant progress has been made across the country, Hanoi remains the country’s #1 bear bile farming hotspot, with 149 bears on 27 farms accounting for 51% of the total bile bears in Vietnam! Of the 149 bears being kept at 27 Hanoi farms, 93% are kept in the rural district Phuc Tho alone, with 139 bears being kept there on 21 farms (all figures refer to end of April 2022).
Instead of leading the nation in efforts to end bear bile farming in Vietnam, Hanoi – Vietnam’s capital city – is way behind the rest of the country. While many other provinces have been working hard to end bear bile farming, Hanoi province has shown little improvements in efforts to deal with this industry, reflecting poorly upon overall efforts by the government to phase out bear bile farming throughout the rest of the country.
What is BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh and why is it so important?
FOUR PAWS provides a species-appropriate forever home for former bile bears at BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh. The sanctuary has multiple spacious outdoor enclosures, three bear houses with indoor dens, a quarantine station, a full-equipped veterinary unit, a feeding kitchen and an administrative building. The BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh is currently home to 49 bears who are now able to live in safety with grass under their paws, fellow bears to play with and all the food they can eat. Our sanctuary is a safe haven for former bile bears who we are unable to release back into the wild due to their reliance on humans and lack of instinctual survival skills. Often many of the bears we rescue from bile farms require ongoing medical care for the remainder of their lives due to extensive organ damage and health issues caused by the bile extraction process.
What are the next steps in our plan to end the bear bile trade?
Our future work in Vietnam includes:
- The rescue of more bile bears and their admission to our BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh.
- Close cooperation with local animal welfare organisations, as well as local and national authorities.
- Comprehensive educational work on the topics of wildlife, nature and environmental protection.
- National and international educational work with the goal of reducing the demand for bile products and informing about the suffering of bears on bile farms.
2 National Geographic
3 National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bear-bile-explained, Last accessed 8/7/22