The bile bears situation
The cruel practice of extracting bear bile, and the keeping of bears on farms for this purpose, have been banned in Vietnam since back in 1992. However, the bear farm industry was only truly declared illegal in 2005, when the government announced that it wanted to allow all farms to “wind down” over time. Since then, farmers have been banned from acquiring new bears, and the remaining bears must be either kept and looked after, or given up. This effectively allows bears to be kept as “pets”, and represents a legal loophole that many farmers have been able to exploit. They “milk” the bears illegally and/or continue to trade bear products.
It is estimated that 1200 bears are still living on farms like this in Vietnam. In 2014 and 2015, FOUR PAWS visited some of these farms, and found bears being kept in appalling conditions. They are cooped up in tiny cages, with scarcely any daylight; they are fed an inappropriate diet; they are often diseased; and their faeces and urine fall through the bars/mesh, or lie on top, with the cages simply being hosed down. FOUR PAWS even saw bears missing limbs.
Despite the ban on extracting their bile, bears are still often “milked” behind closed doors. This involves unprofessionally anaesthetising the bear, then using ultrasound or simply a “stab in the dark” to locate its gallbladder. The bile is then pumped out through a catheter, or extracted with a syringe.
Almost all bears on private farms were poached from the wild. At a young age, they will have been torn away from their mother, and initially kept as a pet or a plaything. The reason they are usually poached from the wild is that this species, the Asian black bear, will rarely breed in captivity. Furthermore, bile from wild animals is considered particularly valuable.
Although demand for bear bile and other bear products is declining, it remains fairly strong. The dominant markets are China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, but bear bile products can also be found in Australia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, the USA, and Canada.
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.