Pathologist says bear bile farming unhealthy for humans and bears alike
26 Aug 2008
A Vietnamese pathologist has expressed grave concerns for the health of both humans and bears after conducting clinical examinations of the damaged gall bladders of three moon bears rescued from bile farms by Animals Asia Foundation.
Dr Dang van Duong, Chief Pathologist at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi said he was shocked by the condition of the bears and urged consumers to think twice before taking the bile from such diseased animals; the bile is a popular ingredient in traditional Asian medicine.
Dr Duong made the comments after conducting histo-pathological examinations of the gall bladder specimens of the three bears that recently underwent cholecystectomies (removal of the gall bladder) at Animals Asia’s new Moon Bear Rescue Centre at Tam Dao near Hanoi. He found a substantial thickening of the wall of the gall bladder, a consequence of the bile extraction process.
Animals Asia’s veterinary team has performed the operation on over 200 bears at its first Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Sichuan Province, China, but this was the first time gall bladders had been removed from farmed bears in Vietnam.
“We were not sure what we were going to find when we did the exploratory surgery,” Animals Asia resident veterinary surgeon Dr Jen O’Dwyer said. “In China, all the rescued bears need to have their gall bladders removed because of the severe damage from the bile extraction process, but in Vietnam a different extraction technique is used, so it was all new to us and we did not know how badly the bears’ health had been compromised. Sadly, we now have definite proof that the Vietnam bears also suffer horrific health consequences from being farmed for their bile.”
Bears on farms in China, where bear farming is still legal, are subjected to the so-called “humane” free-dripping method of bile extraction on a daily basis. A permanent hole is cut into the bear’s abdomen through to its gall bladder. To extract the bile, the farmer pokes a tube into the hole and lets the bile drip out. Some farms still use permanently implanted catheters to drain the bile – a method that is now against China’s regulations.
In Vietnam, bile is extracted with the assistance of an ultrasound machine, catheter and medicinal pump. The bears are drugged – usually with ketamine – restrained with ropes and have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with four-inch needles until the gall bladder is found. The bile is then removed with a catheter and pump.
After examining the gall bladder of one of the bears, named Mama, and concluding that she has “severe chronic cholecystitis”, Dr Duong said: “I am wondering how this bear could have survived, because if this was a human sample, the person would have been dead long ago.” Mama arrived at the centre in August 2007; she was missing her right forepaw from being trapped in the wild. The other bears to undergo cholecystectomies – Moggy and Miracle – had similarly degenerative gall bladders.
Bear bile farming is technically illegal in Vietnam though the practice is still widespread. Animals Asia’s Vietnam Director, Tuan Bendixsen, said it was helpful finally to have definitive proof that bears were still being milked for their bile. “Bear bile extraction has been illegal for more than 16 years since the Decree 18/HDBT dated 17/1/1992 banned the exploitation of endangered wildlife (all Group I species). And in 2004, the Prime Minister’s Office issued the legal letter 2822/VPCP-NN dated 07/06/2004, which specifically banned bile extraction from bears.” Mr Bendixsen said the three bears that have been in for surgery to date were all quite young – Mama and Moggy are 5-6 years old and Miracle is 8-9 years old. “Thus the extractions would have been made illegally,” he said.
Mr Bendixsen said that while it was common knowledge that bile extraction was still taking place, a lack of resources and decentralisation of authority meant there was no real enforcement on the farms. He said Dr Duong’s pathology reports would be handed over to the Forest Protection Department. The report on “Mama” states in part:
“Notably, the epithelial cells of mucosal layer are completely degenerative and have become ‘ghost cells’. The sub-mucosal layer is edematous [excessive accumulation of fluid] and infiltrated with some inflammatory cells and associated with the presence of many neo-capillaries. The connective tissue of all other layers are degenerative and associated with the presence of fibrotic tissue.”
Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson said it was time for serious action to counter the farmers’ duplicity and to stop them flouting the country’s laws. “I hope now that the agreement we signed with the Vietnamese Government in 2006 will be implemented, and we will soon see bears confiscated from the farms and handed over to our new sanctuary near Hanoi,” Ms Robinson said. In a positive development during a recent meeting this month with the Government, officials promised to confiscate at least 50 bears and place them into the care of Animals Asia by October 2008. Around 4,000 bears remain trapped on bile farms in Vietnam.
Ms Robinson said Animals Asia would continue to collect evidence of illegal bile extraction in Vietnam. “Just a few months ago in Quang Ninh, we filmed an unconscious bear in a cage, with empty ketamine bottles (a banned drug in Vietnam), four-inch spinal needles, nooses and restraints and bile juice on swabs nearby. Two busloads of Korean tourists were seen fleeing from the farm.”
Ms Robinson said this latest evidence from Vietnam added weight to Animals Asia’s stance that there was simply no humane way to farm a bear for its bile. “This is exactly the sort of evidence we have been collecting in China for years – the bears are subjected to unimaginable torture and their health is severely compromised as a result.” She said contamination from unsterile needles or bile leakage from constant puncturing of the gall bladder was common. “This can lead to infection or peritonitis. In addition, we see thickening and inflammation of the gall bladder – again through interference such as stabbing and irritation. “I hate to think what the bile taken from these bears is doing to the health of humans who take it.”
Dr Duong is collaborating with the Dean of Sydney University's medical faculty in establishing online pathology between Sydney University/Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney and Bach Mai Hospital. His pathology department provides pathology consultancy services to the French International Hospital in Hanoi and is a recognised reference laboratory.