Vietnam has agreed to rescue about a thousand bears from farms across the country in an effort to shut down the longstanding practice of extracting their bile, which critics say is inhumane and bad for the long-term survival of bears in the wild.
The Administration of Forestry signed a memorandum of understanding today with the Hong Kong-based conservation nonprofit Animals Asia, saying that the two would work together to remove the bears to sanctuaries. That agreement follows another made in 2015 between the nonprofit and the Vietnamese Medical Association, which pledged that by 2020 traditional practitioners would stop prescribing bear bile to treat ailments.
Bile, a brownish-yellow liquid found in the gallbladder that helps bears digest fat, has been used in Asian medicine for more than a thousand years. Research has shown that it can help treat some liver conditions (though alternatives exist), but bile has no proven benefit for hangovers, cancer, and other conditions it’s widely sold to remedy.
Taking bile from the bodies of sun bears and Asiatic black bears, also called moon bears—the animals most targeted for the trade—often involves repeated invasive sessions. Some bears even live with a catheter permanently hooked up to their gallbladders. An investigation by VICE News in 2015 found that bears on farms in northern Vietnam were thin, missing patches of hair, and sitting in cramped, rusty cages.
Bear farms sprang up in Vietnam in the 1990s in response to consumer demand for bile. In 2005 the country outlawed bile extraction—but with a caveat: It allowed owners to keep the animals they already had. Though the bears were microchipped, and farmers had to sign a declaration saying they would no longer remove bile, weak enforcement has enabled the industry to persist.
“Crucially, the government has agreed to close the loophole,” said Tuan Bendixsen, who heads Animal Asia’s Vietnam branch, in a press release.
New sanctuaries to house the animals may be built, the release says, but funding details and a transfer plan for the bears haven’t been decided on yet. Since 2008, when Animals Asia set up a sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, the group has rescued 186 bears from farms in Vietnam.
It's not only the welfare of farmed bears that has wildlife advocates concerned. The bile business has also contributed to the animals’ decline in the wild, according to a 2016 report by Traffic, a group that monitors the illegal wildlife trade. That’s because some people prefer bile from wild-sourced bears, believing it to be more potent. Though precise population numbers don't exist for sun bears and Asiatic bears, they are both considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which assesses the status of animals in the wild.
“Wild bears are being sourced and laundered into the bear farms that were still in existence in Vietnam, so that’s obviously a major conservation concern aside from the animal welfare issues,” said Traffic spokesman Richard Thomas.
Last year’s Traffic report also documented another disturbing trend: As demand for bile has declined in Vietnam in recent years, farmers may be killing bears to sell body parts such as paws, considered a delicacy in China.
Vietnam isn’t the only country with bear bile farms. More than 13,000 bears are held on farms in Asia, according to Traffic. The practice persists in Laos and to an even greater extent in China, the main consumer of bear bile. More than 10,000 bears are kept legally on farms there.
Thomas wants that to change: “The next logical step would be to bring about legislation that would ensure they’re phased out over as short a time frame as realistically possible,” he says. “There really is no justification for bear farming to continue.”