Bear bile farming - 2019 status

It may sometimes appear that the fight to end bear bile farming is a never-ending battle with little progress being made. In the countries in which Free the Bears has sanctuaries - Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - this is definitely not the case. Laws have been enacted in all three countries which prohibit taking bears from the wild and/or extracting bile. 

In Cambodia the bear bile industry never managed to gain a foothold whereas in Laos there are an estimated 150 bears which remain caged in largely foreign-owned farms close to the Chinese border. Recent directives by the Laos government to strengthen wildlife protection and law enforcement, as well as consecutive years of record rescues by Free the Bears (13 bear rescues in Laos in 2018), provides hope that the industry will not develop further. At our new Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary, as soon as we can secure funding we'll build additional bear houses in preparation for future bile farm closures.

Of the three countries, it is in Vietnam that the greatest number of bears remain affected. The Vietnamese government made it illegal to take bears from the wild or extract bile from bears in 2005. However farmers were permitted to keep the bears they already had – 4,300 bears, almost all of which were suspected to be poached from the wild.

In the years since, thanks to education and behaviour change campaigns aimed at Vietnamese consumers and traditional medicine practitioners, demand for farmed bile has declined. The price has crashed and many bile farms have closed down.

It’s not all good news however. With declining incomes, farmers are drastically cutting food budgets and/or killing bears to sell into the illegal wildlife trade.

Despite the Vietnamese government not having authority to confiscate bears registered before 2006 (unless a farmer is caught extracting bile), changing attitudes and declining demand combined with a concerted push from conservationists is encouraging some farmers to give up their bears and allow the bears to live out their final years in the safety and comfort of a sanctuary.

There are an estimated 800 bears which remain caged on farms or in private households in Vietnam. A key problem preventing more rescues at this critical time, however, is the limited amount of sanctuary space available throughout Vietnam.

Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary

At our new Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary (CTBS) in southern Vietnam, we're currently expanding infrastructure for the 39 rescued bears we already care for. Enclosures for our new Bear House 3 will soon be complete. The opening of Bear House 3 will finally allow us to provide all of our rescued bears with access to large, natural forest enclosures, a moment we're proudly looking forward to.

Our next challenge is to complete additional infrastructure and develop the sanctuary to ensure it is functioning efficiently, providing the best care possible, educating about bear bile farming and wildlife conservation, and fully prepared for any new rescues. Thanks to a major two year grant from our key partner, Berlin based animal charity Welttierschutzgesellschaft e.V (WTG), we've been able to immediately get started.

Our joint project with WTG to end the bear bile trade in Vietnam stretches back to 2014. Between 2014 and 2018, WTG provided Free the Bears with grants which helped us construct bear houses and enclosures at the new Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary. Furthermore WTG have supported the construction of a Wildlife Hospital, helped us provide ongoing care to our rescued bears including enrichment and veterinary care, provided emergency funding for the rescue of bears, supported research into the welfare of the bears and wild bear populations, and allowed us to initiate an environmental education and enrichment programme.

The new two year commitment from WTG will help us continue to develop the sanctuary, thereby creating additional space for bears to be rescued from the dwindling bile trade in Vietnam. Simultaneously, we aim to build on previous work improving the welfare of captive bears while also providing opportunity to improve understanding of conservation issues of both species of bear in Vietnam among the general public.

The main objectives covered under the WTG grant include:

  • Construction:
    • Furnishing the Wildlife Hospital
    • Design and create four fully-equipped bear enclosures for rescued bears
    • Install mains electricity to the Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary
    • Develop a road network between sanctuary buildings
    • Create Keeper Facilities to improve hygiene
    • Construct an Animal Kitchen and combined Enrichment Facilities
  • Provide nutrition, veterinary care and enrichment for more than 40 rescued bears
  • Retain lead staff for construction, education and husbandry
  • Develop education and awareness materials for visitors

We’re incredibly grateful to WTG. Without their support, our joint project to end the bear bile trade in Vietnam would undoubtedly have been less realistic.

With ample room available for additional bear houses at the Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary, our next fundraising challenge in the fight to end bear bile farming in Vietnam involves securing adequate funds to enable construction of new bear houses in preparation for bile farm rescues.

With other rescue centres in Vietnam on a similar course and with increased commitment from the government, we truly believe that in the near future there is a chance to end the bile farming industry in Vietnam and alleviate the suffering of bears incarcerated on farms. 

Tragically, over 10,000 bears remain in bile farms in countries in which Free the Bears does not operate. We hope that increasing awareness of animal cruelty and wildlife conservation issues coupled with an end to bear bile farming in neighbouring countries will help push these countries towards eradicating the trade.