Asiatic black bears are farmed for their bile in Vietnam, China, South Korea and Laos. They are kept in small cages, and stuck with long hollow needles in Vietnam to pump out and extract their bile. Most head for a slow death in confinement after capture in traps in the wild. In China the bears are permanently connected to catheters some left with open wounds, for regular bile extraction. The fresh bile is then sold to people who believe it improves their health.
The Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre is operated by international organization Animals Asia in Tam Dao national park, about 70 km north of Hanoi. Currently, 104 sun bears and moon bears live there, with staff working to restore a decent quality of life to the bears after they were confiscated from bile farms by authorities, or given up by owners.
The organization has been rescuing bears from bear farms in Vietnam and China since 1994, and works to convince governments to end the practice. More than 14,000 bears are still kept in cages on farms throughout China and Vietnam. In Vietnam, there are around 2,500 bears in farms across the country, and only a few hundred left in the wild. In southern Vietnam, a trend has developed where bear bile farms are attracting groups of tourists, many from South Korea, to witness the practice and buy their fresh bile.
Bile is a digestive juice, made in the liver and stored in the gall bladder. It is used in traditional medicine to cure ailments ranging from inflammation to headaches to hemorrhoids. Herbal alternatives to bear bile exist.
Many of the bears, once rescued, need their gall bladders removed. Many bears have missing limbs lost in violence during wild capture by smugglers and farmers, and very few teeth left after years of living in small cages. The physical impact on the muscular system from lack of movement after being confined to cages for many years is extreme. It is hard to breed bears in captivity, so 99 percent of the bears used in this industry are caught from the wild.
While bear bile farming and extraction has been declared illegal by the Vietnam government, in reality the industry is still widespread, and bear bile is openly advertised for sale, without retribution. In China bear bile farming is still legal.
Tam Dao Bear sanctuary has been hailed as one of the most successful conservation stories in Vietnam, a country with a rampant trade in animal products and rapid deforestation, but its future has come under threat from attempts by vested interests to reclaim part of the land pledged to the sanctuary. (EPA)