Around 2,400 bears – mainly moon bears, but also sun bears and brown bears – are kept on bile farms in in Vietnam. The bears are milked regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine.
On the farms they are imprisoned in stark metal cages for their entire lives, which could be in excess of 25 years. To extract their bile, the bears are drugged and an ultrasound machine is used to locate the gall bladder; their abdomens are then repeatedly jabbed with 4-inch unsterilised needles until the gall bladder is pierced and the bile is pumped out of the bear’s body.
The bears’ gall bladders are severely damaged from being repeatedly jabbed every few weeks and the process also leads to the dangerous leakage of bile into the body. In some cases, the result of this leakage is a slow, agonising death from peritonitis. The wounds from the unsterilised needles cause massive and painful abscesses and the bears suffer severe joint and muscle ailments from their inability to move freely. Their physical pain is compounded with the mental stress that this horrific situation causes and many bears end up psychologically damaged.
Bile has been used in traditional medicine for over 3,000 years and is known to be effective in treating a range of liver and eye-related diseases. The active ingredient in bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is found to be more abundant in bears than any other mammal and particularly abundant in moon bears.
In the past, bears were hunted and killed in the wild for their whole gall bladders. But in the early 80s, Korea developed farms, soon adopted by China, in an effort to commercialise the production of bile to satisfy the local demand for the tonic. The practice subsequently spread to Vietnam in the early 90s.
Many bears on farms today are caught in the wild either from Vietnam or neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia and China. They are captured using a leg-hold trap – a metal contraption that brutally traps and holds the animal alive in steel jaws. The bear is shocked, painfully gripped and restrained, all while fully conscious. Often the trap severs the bear’s limbs.
More common is the capture of cubs. The mother is killed and her cubs stolen and smuggled onto farms.
A driving force behind the ongoing poaching of bears is the continuing demand for bear bile from within Vietnam and also from South Korean tourists who are encouraged to visit a bear bile farm and buy some freshly extracted bear bile to take home.
Due to a lack of law enforcement resources, bears continue to be hunted across the country for their meat and body parts and they are still captured for the bile farming industry.
Today bear bile is completely unnecessary as there are over 50 herbal alternatives and many widely used synthetic substitutes that are equally effective, easily accessible and inexpensive.
Animals Asia's campaign to end bear bile farming in Vietnam
To achieve our goal of ending bear bile farming in Vietnam, Animals Asia focuses on five key areas:
Our world-class bear rescue centres in Tam Dao, Vietnam and Chengdu, China provide the bears with comfortable dens and semi-natural enclosures where they are able to recover in safety and spend the remaining years of their lives in the company of other bears. To date, around 110 bears have been received into the care of our Vietnam sanctuary.
During their rehabilitation at the rescue centres, the bears’ behaviour and well-being are closely monitored by our bear teams through regular health checks and daily observations. This not only ensures that the bears receive the best care possible, but also enables our staff to gather vital scientific evidence on the physical and psychological effects of bile extraction. Reports and papers published by our teams have helped to raise the profile of the moon bear within the scientific community and to increase public awareness of the terrible cruelty involved in the bear bile farming industry.
Our sanctuaries also provide direct employment for 77 Vietnamese people in areas such as bear care, horticulture, food preparation and security. Several hundred local people are employed indirectly through services and construction.
Our Healing without Harm campaign targets practitioners of traditional medicine, independent pharmacists and pharmacy chains. We also work with pathologists and liver specialists to gather evidence on the implications for human health of consuming contaminated bile from diseased farm bears.
We regularly attend conferences to engage with doctors and encourage them to sign a pledge not to prescribe bear bile, and to advocate the alternatives. We also conduct surveys among doctors to determine attitudes to bear bile and find out how many have prescribed it in the past.
As much demand for bear bile comes from South Korea, we work with travel agencies and animal welfare groups to raise awareness among tourists that taking bear bile bought in Vietnam back to South Korea is illegal. We also work with law enforcement authorities at key tourist sites to inform visitors that it is illegal to pay for bile to be extracted at a bear farm.
The bile trade
We work with government authorities and conservation groups to track the sale of bile and bear parts within China and Vietnam and monitor the illegal export of these products.
Our field officers visit traditional medicine shops, pharmacies and hospitals in both countries, gathering vital information on the distribution of bear products and the fluctuations in demand and price. We work with local and national authorities to run awareness-raising campaigns on the existing laws regarding buying and exporting bear bile, and to encourage and assist with the enforcement of these laws.
We engage with the media in Vietnam, as well as internationally, to ensure wide coverage of the cruelty of the bear bile industry – and committed celebrities help us to bring this message to the public. The internet and social media have become vital means of reaching the public, enabling us to galvanise support.
Government and policy
Our senior staff lobby political, business, legal and cultural leaders in Hanoi, gathering support for the bears’ cause. We also engage support from celebrities, scientific experts and other influential individuals.
We stay aware of the changing dynamics of Vietnam’s political and policy-making environments. This is essential to ensure we pursue the best avenues for building a consensus towards an end to bear bile farming. Our work involves much behind-the-scenes activity to build relationships and establish dialogues with a variety of official departments, groups and individuals who can assist in bringing bear bile farming to an end.
We also work with local and national authorities to run awareness-raising campaigns on the existing laws on buying and exporting bear bile, and to encourage and assist with enforcement of these laws.