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, without a floor – just bars – not to mention any bedding or toys for enrichment. Some 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. Some bears just sit lethargically in their cages.
Most bile bears have been living in these cages since they were cubs. The capture of such young bears is usually achieved relatively easily, by killing the mother bear first.
During their first months of life, the cubs are often kept as pets or used toys. Once they become older, bigger and more dangerous, they end up in bear farms or in cages and conditions, which resemble those found on bear farms, to be kept as pets.
What is bear bile and what is it used for?
Bear bile is a substrate extracted from the gallbladders of Asiatic Black Bears, Sun Bears and brown bears. In Vietnam, the bear species most farmed for bile extraction is the Asiatic black bear, also known as a moon bear.
Bear bile has been used in Traditional 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.
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 Medicines.
How is the bile harvested from the bears?
There are a few different ways that bear farmers will attempt to extract bile from the gallbladder – all performed without proper pain relief causing the bears immense stress and agony.
In Vietnam, where the extraction of bile is forbidden, an 'inconspicuous' method is often used: The gallbladder is located using an ultrasound so the bile can then be extracted with a catheter and pump or a syringe. The bears are anaesthetised, although quite often this procedure is not done correctly and, therefore, ineffective. This has been documented in video footage where bears can be seen and heard in distress when extraction takes place.
What affect do bile extractions have on the health of the bears?
Sadly, Asiatic black bears that are kept on bile farms are permanently caged. 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 deprivation contributes to mobility problems, muscle atrophy 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 Manager 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?
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 from happening altogether, FOUR PAWS is working to rescue the remaining bears on bile farms, and supports 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?
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 94 per cent reduction in the number of bile bears in Vietnam, from 4,300 bears recorded in 2005 to 228 bears on bear farms by end of May 2023. 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 115 bears on 22 farms accounting for 54 per cent of the total bile bears in Vietnam! Of the 115 bears being kept at 22 Hanoi farms, 92 per cent are kept in the rural district Phuc Tho alone, with 106 bears being kept there on 17 farms (all figures refer to end of May 2023).
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 and bears that fell victim of the illegal wildlife trade 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. BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh is currently home to 45 bears who are now able to live in safety with grass under their paws, with 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. 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. BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh is open to visitors on a daily basis. Sanctuary guided tours are offered and from the 300-meter-long skywalk, visitors can observe the bears living peacefully in their natural outdoor enclosures. From here, people can also experience the first bear exhibition in Vietnam and learn about the characteristics of the bear species as well as the problems they are facing in our current times.
What are the next steps in our plan to contribute to an end of bear farming in Vietnam?
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 organizations, 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.