Saving The Broken Bears of Vietnam’s Last Bile Farms

11 mins

Across Vietnam captive bile farm bears are subjected to tortuous extractions to feed a demand for Chinese medicine but one organisation, Animals Asia, is intent on rescuing every last one of them

Dawn wrapped her frail body into itself, trying to curl into the smallest of balls as the sound of the metal grills grinding across the farm floor permeated the damp, dark cage. With barely enough space to turn in the coffin-sized space, the brown bear could only twist her balding head to the wall and await the inevitable. As had been the case ever since she was snatched as a cub from the Vietnamese wild twenty years ago and taken to a bile farm, Dawn would yet again be subject to the puncturing of her gallbladder and harrowing extraction of her digestive juices to feed an insatiable demand for bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine. 

According to international non-profit animal rights organisation, World Animal Protection, as many as 24,000 bears remain in captivity across Asia in China, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar with an estimated 300 of those in Vietnam. The Asiatic black bear – also known as the moon bear for its white crescent marking –  sun bear and brown bear are the most commonly farmed species for bile. Both the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) while the brown bear is listed as of least concern.

Bears have fallen prey to a market that can see their bile worth up to 18 times the price of gold in Asia

As the name suggests, bile bears are kept in captivity on ‘farms’ for their digestive fluid which contains the active compound – UDC Acid – scientifically proven to be beneficial for liver and gall bladder diseases in humans.

bear in cage on a bile farm for bear bile extraction
As many as 24,000 bears remain in bile ‘farms’ across Asia

However, synthetic versions and plant-based alternatives of this compound can easily be manufactured and are recognised by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Despite this, as the only mammals to produce significant amounts of UDCA, bears have fallen prey to a market that can see their bile worth up to 18 times the price of gold in Asia.

Bile Farms

In Vietnam the method used to extract bear bile involves puncturing a hole and draining around 200ml of fluid from the bear’s gall bladder every one to three months. 

The bears will be starved and dehydrated for a few days beforehand, because the gallbladder empties when you eat, so if they have a meal, there will be less bile’

Dr Shaun Thomson, Animals Asia

‘They use either a dart, or a stick with a syringe on the end, to inject them,’ Dr Shaun Thomson of bear rescue group Animals Asia tells The Ethicalist. ‘They usually use something like ketamine to semi-anaesthetise the bear, and then they harvest the bile that way. The bears will be starved and dehydrated for a few days beforehand, because your gallbladder empties when you eat, and so if they had a meal, there would be less bile.’

bear bile being extracted
Bear Bile farmers use either a dart or a stick with a syringe on the end to inject the bears. Credit: Animals Asia

The process of bile extraction and captivity causes bears considerable stress and suffering. They are usually confined in cages so small they are often unable to stand, sit upright or turn and often, if they don’t die from their injuries, are kept in these conditions for decades at a time. A significant number die from continuous rudimentary surgeries for bile extraction and ensuing infections from poor surgical hygiene practices or simply, from the maltreatment. 

Ending The Cruelty

A ban on wild bear hunting in Vietnam in the 1980s led to a substantial increase in factory farming in the following decades with an estimated 4300 bears on bile farms by 2005. This explosion in numbers led to a further law that year making bear farms illegal. However, farmers were allowed to keep pre-existing captive bears provided they were not extracting, selling or possessing bile. This allowance inadvertently created a loophole for bile production to continue.

Bear in a tiny cage on a bear bile farm
Bears are confined in cages so small they are often unabelt o stand or sit upright… for decades. Credit: Animals Asia

‘In 2005, the Vietnamese government issued Regulations on Captive Bear Management, reaffirming that bear bile farming was illegal in the country,’ explains Animals Asia Bear and Vet Department Director Heidi Quine.

‘These regulations explicitly banned bile extraction and the replacement or acquisition of additional bears. However, farmers were permitted to keep microchipped and registered bears under the laws. The method of bile extraction in Vietnam means that unless the authorities catch farmers in the act of extracting bile, it is impossible to prove it happened until we rescue the bears and our expert veterinarians can health check them.’

A World Animal Protection study in 2018 found that up to 70 per cent of bear farmers in Vietnam were regularly extracting and selling bear bile.

In 2017 the Vietnamese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Animals Asia – who have so far rescued 700 bears from bile farms across Asia – agreeing to end bear bile farming and rescue all captive bears across the country by 2022. While this has not yet been attained, Animals Asia are confident their opening of a new rescue centre in the south of Vietnam this summer will allow for the remaining 300 captive bears to be relocated by the end of the year. 

bear in a cage on a bear bile farm
The process of bile extraction and captivity causes bears considerable stress and suffering. Credit: Four Paws

‘In line with the 2017 plan, we have begun rescuing these remaining bears and bile farms are being closed for good one by one in the country’ explains Animals Asia Bear and Vet Department Director Heidi Quine. ‘We have saved over 260 bears in Vietnam but our current sanctuary in Tam Dao is at its full capacity, whilst the most up-to-date surveys show around 300 bears are still on farms.

‘To ensure we can rescue the remaining farmed bears in Vietnam, we are constructing a 300-bear sanctuary in Bach Ma National Park, central Vietnam. This facility will see Animals Asia deliver on one of its founding goals: to end bear bile farming and ensure no bear is left behind.’

A Safe Haven

Comprising of ten large leafy enclosures over 30,000 square metres in the forest, every one of the 204 rescued bears at Animals Asia Tam Dao facility has access to a semi-natural indoor and outdoor space equipped with a range of enrichment tools designed to stimulate the bears’ natural behaviours. 

Bears that once spent decades cramped in cages, but have since undergone expert tailored rehabilitation at the sanctuary, can spend their days in green grass enclosures equipped with climbing frames, caves and swimming pools. 

‘A lot of the bears have been kept in darkness for so long that sunlight is frightening. Touching the grass outside is also very scary because of the new texture, when all they have felt previously is a cage’

 Amy Saunders, Animals Asia Behavioural Psychologist

Here the physically and mentally scarred bears are given the chance to spend their final years simply being bears; foraging for food, climbing trees and nesting with straw and hessian sacks in their buddy-shared dens. With the enclosures and dens open throughout the day, bears can wander inside and out of their own accord, allowing them something they have all been deprived of in the past: the freedom of movement and choice over their environment.  

‘A lot of us get quite teary the first time they step outside,’ explains Animals Asia on-site behavioural psychologist Amy Saunders. ‘It can take a long time for them to do that as for them it’s very scary. It’s very bright. A lot of them have been kept in darkness for so long, and so sunlight is frightening. Touching the grass is also very scary because of the new texture, when all they have felt previously is a cage.

Bears amongst long grass in a sanctuary
Bears get a second chance at life at the Animals Asia sanctuary in Tam Dao

‘Some bears just grab that second chance at life and step on out there. And then other bears, like Tuong Lai, took almost two years  before she fully went out into the enclosure.’

Dawn, who was rescued in April this year, has also exhibited many typical signs of stress and trauma. 

‘Dawn was demonstrating what we call learned helplessness,’ Amy explains. ‘That’s essentially when the bear has pretty much given up. A natural response is fight or flight, but when a bear is on a bile farm for so long and they know they can’t escape, and bad things continue to happen, sometimes they just give up and shut down. It takes a lot to rehabilitate these bears.’

Dawn rescued by Animals Asia in her holding cell
Dawn after her rescue. Creit: Animals Asia

At least two major studies into bears rescued from Vietnamese bile farms have highlighted a range of abnormal behaviours including self-mutilation such as biting their own limbs, and pathological repetitive behaviours which include hitting their heads against cage bars, rocking back and forth continuously, or rubbing their heads along the cage bars until their skin develops wounds. Many are suffering from broken teeth and paws from trying to gnaw and claw their way out of cages. 

‘In the first few days of arriving at our sanctuary, while they are in quarantine, we want to make the bears feel as comfortable and safe as possible,’ explains Animal Asia’s Heidi. 

‘They usually start to respond to the treats, toys and enrichment we give them, or our voices, or the soothing music we play for them. But Dawn wasn’t responding. She was curled in a tight ball, facing away from us, or swaying her head repeatedly.’

Dawn the rescued bear by Animals Asia
Many bears demonstrate signs of repetitive behaviour such as hair pulling from long periods in confinement. Credit: Animals Asia

Some of the most broken bears, including Dawn, are prescribed antidepressants after evidence that the bears’ brains can change through years of chronic stress. Prescribing these forms of medication when needed allows the mind to start healing, which it is hoped will allow staff to start earning her trust.

‘It’s extremely important to build a relationship with the bears,’ explains Amy. ‘They have been exposed to situations we can’t begin to imagine, and they’ve had negative experiences with humans for a very long time. So, when they come to us, we really have to build that trust with them, in order to work alongside and with them.’

A Brighter Future 

Thanks to the tireless work of Animals Asia alongside other international NGOs and animal welfare groups, bear bile farms have dropped 82 per cent since the 2005 regulations came into effect.  Education campaigns aimed at Vietnamese consumers and traditional medicine practitioners has been effective and demand for farmed bile has seen a gradual decline.  

But the misery and suffering caused to bears by the traditional Chinese medicine trade is far from over. China’s legal bear bile market is supporting farms that keep more than 20,000 bears in poor conditions. The demand from the Chinese market is also driving bear farm industries in neighbouring countries such as Laos and Myanmar, and bear poaching in other parts of the world. 

aerial view of Tam Dao facility
Part of the Tam Dao rescue centre. Credit: Animals Asia

For now, Animals Asia while continuing their work to eradicate the cruel industry across Asia, is concentrating efforts on closing the final chapter in Vietnam. With new space to rehome the remaining 300 bears in Bach Ma National park, it’s hoped all of Vietnam’s broken bears will be rescued in time to feel freedom. 

As founder of Animals Asia Jill Robinson says: ‘I’ve made a promise to Dawn that we will piece her back together, and one day we will share the story of how she took her first steps outside, felt the grass beneath her paws, felt the warmth of the sun on her fur, made her first bear friends, and how she finally knows what it means to be a bear.’

You can support the work of Animals Asia by visiting their site here.

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