Have you ever heard of bear bile farming? I hadn’t until a chance encounter with an Animals Asia representative at TBEX Bangkok. After that, I was hungry to learn more about the bear bile trade and the work they are doing to stop this abuse. Here are 8 things you didn’t know about bear bile farming, but will never forget.
1. Over 10,000 bears are held on bile farms in China and 1,200 in Vietnam
Animals Asia research has found that there are over 97 farms and illegal facilities in China holding over 10,000 bears. These farms are generally large-scale with some holding up to 2,000 bears and employing hundreds of local workers. The farms are found throughout China but are concentrated in Heilongjiang, Jilin, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Unbelievably, most of these farms are owned by major pharmaceutical companies seeking to extract large quantities of bear bile and are often frequented by Korean tourists looking for cheap products.
The number of bear bile farms in Vietnam has been gradually declining over the last ten years. Unlike in China, bear bile farms in Vietnam are small-scale, family-owned businesses. In some cases, a family may only own one bear which they exploit for its bile. The highest concentration of farms are in Northern Vietnam around Hanoi, and up until last month, Quang Ninh province. Over the last 6 months, Animals Asia has rescued all 33 bears held in Quang Ninh farms, with the last bear, Hercules, rescued in November.
2. The bears are kept in cages for up to 30 years
Many of the bears used in bile farming have been caught from the wild using snare traps, often resulting in the loss of limbs, while others are born into slavery or purchased from previous owners.
These bears spend their whole lives in the same cage – for some this is up to 30 years in a space so small they aren’t able to turn around let alone walk. Often these ‘crush cages’ are deliberately too small and the poor bear’s body contorts to fit the space. The caged bears are starved, dehydrated, drugged and suffering from illnesses and disease without veterinary care.
These conditions cause a multitude of physical ailments including the loss of teeth from chewing their cage bars and malignant tumours and infections. Psychologically they suffer as well. There are reports of bears killing themselves to escape the ongoing abuse. As a result of their treatment, many of the bears stop producing bile after 10-20 years and become useless to their owners and they are left to starve to death.
3. Bear bile is often contaminated with blood, pus, and cancer cells
Once the bears are safely in their cage, the farmers extract the bile from the bear’s gallbladder using large syringes. The animals are often sick and diseased as a result of the bile extraction methods. These methods include full metal jackets with neck spikes, open holes drilled into their bodies, and rusty catheters.
It comes as no surprise that tests on bear bile and have found that bile from sick bears is often contaminated with pus, blood, cancer cells, faeces and urine. Overall there can’t be considered bear bile benefits from a product that is not safe for human consumption.
4. Synthetic alternatives to bear bile are available
Bear bile has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Asian medicine. Bear bile uses include the treatment of liver conditions, muscle pain, haemorrhoids and even sore throats. Due to an excess of bile production, leftover bear bile can also be found in shampoo, toothpaste, eye drops and tea.
There are over 50 synthetic alternatives to bear bile that are currently being promoted by animal rights organisations such as Animals Asia. A key element of their work is reducing the demand for bear bile through the promotion of ethical alternatives. Their Healing without Harm campaign targets the practitioners of traditional medicine and pharmacists, as well as South Korean travel agents and tourists. They also work with medical specialists to gather evidence regarding the dangers of contaminated bear bile on humans.
One of the largest producers of bear bile, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, has announced they have received government funding to develop a synthetic alternative to bear bile. While not using bear bile, this alternative would use a poultry-based bile.
5. Chinese people don’t support bear bile farming
Animals Asia conducted a poll in 2011 which found that 87% of the Chinese people interviewed didn’t support bear bile farming. Since then over 113,000 supporters have signed a petition to the Chinese Ambassador to the US to end the practice.
Through their Healing Without Harm programme, over 1,900 Chinese pharmacies have committed to stopping the sale of bear bile products in their stores.
6. There are legal loopholes for bear bile farmers
While the capture of wild bears is illegal in China, bear bile farming and the use of bear bile is legal. Many of the bears rescued by Animals Asia have been found with missing limbs, suggesting that they have been caught in illegal snares. There are legal requirements for the sizes of cages, however, enforcement of this legislation is lax.
In Vietnam, a legal loophole exists that allows the practice of bear bile farming to continue – bear hunting, farming and the trade of bear products is illegal. However, it is legal to keep a bear as a pet or on display for tourists. As a result, farmers often pretend that the bears are just pets when they are in fact being milked for their bile.
7. Success stories do exist
So far, Animals Asia has rescued more than 500 bears in China and Vietnam. Sadly many of their injuries were so bad from years of cruel treatment that they are no longer alive today. A total of 392 bears now live at their two bear sanctuaries.
At these sanctuaries, the bears live in semi-natural enclosures and comfortable dens. They receive ongoing veterinary care and rehabilitation to help them recover from their experiences. I was lucky enough to visit the Tam Dao sanctuary in Vietnam and see for myself just how happy and changed these bears are – most of the photos used in this article are of the bears that I saw on my visit.
You can read some of the bear profiles here, but my favourite thing…. watching the videos of the rescued bears. Look how happy these two are!!
8. You CAN make a difference
While you can’t personally go and rescue a bear from a bear bile farm, there is plenty that you can do to help end this practice. With Christmas coming up, make this a present to yourself or a loved one:
I became interested in Animals Asia back in 2012 after reading an article in the David Shepherd Wildlife Magazine. I was entering The Wildlife Artist of The Year Competition and painted the bears as the magazine article really affected me emotionally. I wanted to know more about them so searched the internet and that’s when I found Animals Asia. I became a regular donor and follow the news feeds often. Animals Asia are doing a fantastic job in trying to get that message out, but only with the support of donors. – Glenda Maynard
- Donate – There are many ways you can donate, whether it is one-off, monthly, a gift for the bears, befriending a bear, or workplace giving.
- Sponsor a bear – For just $1 USD per day, you can sponsor a bear at one of the Animals Asia sanctuaries in China or Vietnam. Your sponsorship will provide the bears with food and water, veterinary care, as well as their outdoor enclosures and dens.
- Spread the word – Help spread the word and end bear bile farming by holding a fundraising event, sharing Animals Asia information, or wearing an Animals Asia T-shirt.
- Volunteer – Skilled professionals are needed as volunteers. If you are a vet nurse or behaviour volunteer your skills might be needed at the Chinese or Vietnamese shelters. But don’t despair if you don’t have those skills because Animals Asia also needs your help at their local offices or helping at events. Check their site for more information.
If you would like additional information, please see the Animals Asia website or get in touch and I will endeavour to find answers to your questions.
To help raise awareness of this issue, please share this article and encourage your friends and family to donate. Any amount would be appreciated – thank you!
I visited the Animals Asia rescue sanctuary in Vietnam by invitation, however, the opinions expressed in this article are my own or are referenced.