Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Asiatic black bears, also called moon bears, are the most common species of bear farmed for their bile in Southeast Asia.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
AnimalsReference

Bear bile, explained

Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine, but it comes at a cost to individual bears’ welfare and their survival in the wild.

Bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, with the first reference appearing in an eighth century medical text prescribing bear bile for maladies like epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and heart pain. In the early 1900s, scientists discovered that bear bile, a fluid that’s secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, contains a significant amount of ursodeoxycholic acid—more than other animals like pigs or cows. This acid is medically proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease.

Bear bile, however, is also marketed as a cure for cancer, colds, hangovers, and more, though there is no scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness for these ailments. It’s also sometimes used an ingredient in household products like toothpaste, acne treatment, tea, and shampoo as a way to expand the market for bear bile beyond traditional medicine, according to Animals Asia.

Farming

China began farming bears to extract their bile in the 1980s. While farming was intended as a way to take pressure off wild bears being poached for their gall bladders, many consumers prefer bile from wild bears, believing it to have more medicinal strength. Nonetheless, today thousands of bears are kept in cages for this purpose, primarily in China but also in Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, sun bears, and brown bears are some of the most common species farmed for bile. They have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years in the wild, but they can survive up to 35 years in captivity, meaning they can spend decades at a farm. Bear-bile farming has been widely condemned for being inhumane. The bears are often kept in cages so small they cannot turn around or stand up. Neglect and disease are common.

The extraction of bile is invasive and often painful. Bile can be drained via a catheter, syringe, or pipe inserted into the gallbladder. Or captors can create an open duct from the bear’s gallbladder to its abdomen, allowing the bile to drip freely. This is considered somewhat more humane, but catheters may be left in indefinitely, causing irritation and infection. Metal catheters may begin to rust or decompose within the bear’s body.

The animals are often sedated with ketamine or restrained with ropes, cages, or metal jackets during the extraction process. Bears may suffer infections, starvation, dehydration, diseases, and malignant tumors, and they often die from these ailments. Consumers of bear bile run the risk of ingesting bile from sick bears, which can be contaminated with blood, feces, pus, urine, and bacteria. If the animals stop producing bile, they may be left to starve or be slaughtered, their parts sold on the black market.

Asian countries, including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, primarily drive demand, but bear-bile products can also be found in Australia, Singapore, Canada, and the United States. While bear bile farming is illegal in South Korea and Vietnam, it remains legal in China. The international commercial trade in bear bile is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the treaty that regulates cross-border wildlife trade.

Use in Western medicine

There are cruelty-free alternatives. Ursodeoxycholic acid, also known as ursodiol, is one of the acids found in bear bile that is truly medically effective for treating certain liver diseases and gallstones. It has been produced synthetically since the 1950s and is manufactured by major pharmaceutical companies.

However, that is just one element of bear bile. Pharmaceutical companies and scientists are still working to understand the full chemical makeup of bear bile and create a synthetic alternative that matches it completely. One of the biggest producers of bear bile in China, Kai Bao Pharmaceuticals, announced in 2015 it had developed a synthetic alternative by transforming poultry bile into a substance closer to bear bile. Some researchers believe bear bile (or synthetic substitutes) have more untapped potential, including in treatments for muscular dystrophy and for bedridden patients who lose muscle mass rapidly.

The Fight to Stop Illegal Bear Trafficking in Southeast Asia

The population of captive animals on "bear farms" in Laos has been increasing significantly in recent years, despite laws to protect the bears. An organization called Free the Bears is trying to stem the crisis. Read more about bear farms in Laos on National Geographic's Wildlife Watch