Bear bile farming - 2022 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 or extracting bile. 

In Cambodia the bear bile industry never managed to gain a foothold whereas in Laos there are an estimated 100 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 recent years of record rescues by Free the Bears provides hope that the industry will not develop further. We're raising funds to build additional bear houses at our Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary 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 bears already held. A nationwide audit found 4,300 bears, all of which were microchipped and 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.

However, changing attitudes and declining demand combined with a concerted push from conservationists is encouraging some farmers to give up the bears and allow them to live their final years in the safety and comfort of a sanctuary.

It is estimated there are around 290 bile bears (mostly moon bears) which remain caged on farms or in private households in Vietnam. A key problem preventing more rescues at this critical time is the limited amount of sanctuary space available throughout Vietnam as well as the unwillingness of owners to voluntarily give up the bears.

In the 17 years since the law came into place it is estimated less than 400 bears were rescued from the bile farms to sanctuaries like ours (with approximately 3,500 perishing in the farms). Bear bile farming in Vietnam is expected to end in the coming years. Sadly, with accelerating death rates of the remaining elderly bears in the farms and the refusal of owners to give them up, many of these bears will never experience sanctuary life. We'll continue to rescue as many bears as we can.

Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary

At our Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary (CTBS) in southern Vietnam we're currently expanding and about to complete our fifth Bear House, allowing us to provide all rescued bears with access to large, natural forest enclosures.

We are also developing 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. Much of this is possible thanks to grants from our key partner, Berlin based animal charity Welttierschutzgesellschaft e.V (WTG).

Our joint project with WTG to end the bear bile trade in Vietnam stretches back to 2014. Between 2014 and 2022, WTG has provided Free the Bears with grants to help construct bear houses and enclosures at the new Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary. Furthermore WTG has 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 initiative.

As we create additional space for bears to be rescued from the dwindling bile trade in Vietnam, 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.

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

    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.