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The Bear Bile Industry

The bear bile industry – why so many bears are forced to suffer in Vietnam and China

As early as 3000 years ago, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine attributed healing qualities to bear bile. The bile is said to combat eye disorders, bruising, digestive problems, and muscle pain – the active ingredient being ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA).

Although it has been possible since 1955 to produce this element in the laboratory, bear bile is harvested on an industrial scale on so-called bile bear farms, in China, Korea, Laos and Vietnam. This is for commercial reasons, and because people wrongly believe that only bile from bears – in particular from wild bears – has the desired healing properties.

Alongside the sun bear, the brown bear, and the giant panda, the Asian black bear (also known as the moon bear, or white-chested bear) is one of the principal (large) bear species typical to Asia. In part due to its body size, the moon bear produces the largest quantities of UDCA; this is why it is so often used for the production of bile. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the moon bear an endangered species, placing it under worldwide protection since 1979. Although exact data are not available, there are thought to be around 200 wild bears in Vietnam, and between 15,000 and 20,000 in China. Bears have a life expectancy of up to 25 years in the wild, or significantly longer in captivity.

Taken from the wild as cubs

Almost all bears living on bear farms have been illegally captured in the wild. They are torn away from their mothers at a young age, and at first are kept as pets and playthings. The reason they tend to be taken from the wild is that they do not breed well in poor keeping conditions. Furthermore, bile from wild bears is particularly valuable. Bile is usually extracted from bears between two and twelve years of age, but some are productive for over 20 years.

Bile extraction – a painful process

For their bile to be extracted, the bears are shut into a ‘crush cage’, and an ultrasound probe is used to pass a catheter through the peritoneum (abdomen wall) and into the gallbladder. The yellow-brown liquid is then extracted from the living bear. This method of permanent catheter implantation is only used in China, where bear bile production is legal. In Vietnam, it has been banned since 1992, so a less conspicuous method is used there: the bear is tranquilised, the gallbladder is pinpointed using ultrasound, and then the bile is directly extracted by needle. Syringes and needles are sometimes used more than once, which often leads to infection of the peritoneum or gallbladder, liver abscesses, or a combination of these.

Bile bears in Vietnam: the legal position

Vietnam is a member of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The convention forbids the hunting, poaching, killing, or private keeping of endangered wild species, including moon bears and sun bears. Although the Ministry of Forests banned the keeping of bears on farms for the production of bile back in 1992, it was not until 2005 that the decision was taken to finally bring the ‘phasing out’ of the bile bear farm industry to an end. Since then, bear farmers have been forbidden from producing bear bile or taking any new bears. They must also have their remaining bears registered and micro chipped for the purposes of population monitoring. These provisions effectively make it legal to keep bears in Vietnam; CITES gives a figure of 1,800 to 1,900 bears still living on farms there. It is not known how many farms remain in Vietnam, but FOUR PAWS estimates there to be between 500 and 800.

Private bear keeping still permitted

Although bear farms, hunting, and trade in bear body parts or bile are all banned, bears may still be kept as domestic animals (e.g. as tourist attractions). And even though most bear owners claim to have stopped extracting bile, the production and sale of bile on the black market still represent a significant source of income for some bear farmers, especially to satisfy continuing demand from abroad. Violations are difficult to prove; lesions are almost invisible to the naked eye, meaning that offenders must be caught in the act of extracting the bile.

FOUR PAWS is launching a project for bile bears in Vietnam

Although the situation has improved for bile bears in Vietnam, and the number of animals in captivity has fallen, it is estimated that 1,800 to 1,900 bears are still living in appallingly cruel conditions, in cages that are far too small. Since there is still no comprehensive proposal to help these animals, FOUR PAWS will work with other NGOs towards a sustainable solution.

Assistance for bear rescue station in Hanoi

We started our activities in Vietnam when we heard about a young female moon bear, Hy Fong. Her owner handed her over to the Soc Son bear rescue station in Hanoi, as she had outlived her usefulness, and had become a financial burden. No penetration wound can be seen on the bear’s belly, but ultrasound revealed scarring of the liver. This is probable evidence that she was used for her bile.
Helping Hy Fong and her 14 fellow bears in the Hanoi rescue station is the prelude of our activities in Vietnam. We are providing on-the-ground support for the station so that the bears can receive better care and have more space.

FOUR PAWS’ aims in Vietnam

FOUR PAWS intends to develop a comprehensive strategy to rescue the last Vietnamese bile bears, and to promote environmental and species protection in Vietnam. To solve the problem and/or reduce the number of bears on farms, FOUR PAWS plans to:

- Construct a new bear sanctuary in Vietnam, accessible to the public
- Give financial and technical support to existing bear sanctuaries
- Reactivate the so-called “Bear Task Force” (an association of several NGOs against bile bear farms)
- Raise public awareness about the issue of bile bears through intensive educational work (in cooperation with other Asian NGOs such as Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV)

The working group “Bear Task Force” is made up of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), Free the Bears (FTB) and the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF). FOUR PAWS wishes to reactivate this group and fight with them against the cruel abuse of moon bears in Asia.