Bear bile farming - 2024 status

Bear bile farming is a despicable practice where bears (mostly moon bears/Asiatic black bears) are kept in coffin-sized cages and regularly mutilated to extract the bile from their gall bladder. The bile is used in 'traditional medicines'. The practice occurs across various Asian countries, including Vietnam and Laos (where we operate).

Most of the bears found in the farms in Vietnam and Laos were taken from the wild as cubs, decimating wild bear populations. The bears in the farms are starved and stressed, with wasted muscles and terrible injuries from years of bile extraction, standing on bars and banging their heads against the bars of the cages. Many are in pain with cracked or broken teeth and paws, go blind, have infections or develop cancers from the injuries. Most die young (a premature death) from the maltreatment.

Almost every traditional medicine made from wild animals (tiger bone, pangolin scales, rhino horns etc) has NO scientifically proven benefit. In contrast, however, there is an an active compound in bear bile (UDC Acid) which has been scientifically proven to benefit certain medical disorders (although those trying to make money from bear bile claim it can do all sorts of things, from darkening hair to curing bruising and hangovers, most of which are unproven).

Importantly, the active compound in bear bile is now easily manufactured in the laboratory - providing a safe, clean and cheap way for it to be available to doctors. There is NO reason to extract bile from bears or keep bears in bile farms.

Free the Bears exists because our founder, Perth grandmother Dr Mary Hutton OAM, learnt of moon bears kept in bile farms and wanted to help. For the past 28 years we've been trying to "Free the Bears" from the bile farms. 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 in farms, as there was nowhere to take the bears - there were no rescue centres and the bears could not be released into the wild. A nationwide audit in 2005 found there were 4,300 bears caged in the farms at this time, almost all of which were suspected to be poached from the wild. They were all microchipped so they could be identified.

Although after 2005 it was illegal to take bile from captive bears, this was difficult to police and the practice continued as there was still a demand for bear bile. In the years since, thanks to education and behaviour change initiatives aimed at Vietnamese consumers and traditional medicine practitioners as well as changing consumer habits, 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.

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.

In the 18 years since the law came into place it is estimated that less than 400 bears have been rescued from the bile farms to sanctuaries like ours. Out of the original 4,300 documented bears, it is estimated that there are currently less than 200 left caged on the farms or in private households in Vietnam. This means that over 3,700 of the original 4,300 bears found in the 2005 audit have perished within the farms, most likely at a relatively young age having lived a horrible confined live full of starvation, pain, stress and trauma.

A key problem preventing more rescues at this critical time is the unwillingness of owners to voluntarily hand over the bears. Owners want to 'monetise' the bears (by selling the bears or bear parts, dead or alive) or they claim to think of the bears as loved 'pets' and refuse to give them up (despite the fact the bears are clearly suffering in small cages and lead miserable lives).

Paying for release of bears is not an option, this creates a market for trade in bears, a protected species. We continue to work with owners to try to convince them to hand over bears, as well as the government, to try to convince them to pressure owners to hand the bears over. 

Bear bile farming in Vietnam will 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 the remaining 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. WTG initially supported the construction of Bear Houses 1 and 2, alleviating overcrowding at the pre-existing Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre (CTBRC). With WTG support Free the Bears (FTB) developed a Welfare Audit that that was implemented immediately; educational materials were created to raise awareness among the visitors of Cat Tien National Park (CTNP); staff exchange opportunities were possible to further train the bear care staff; wild population surveys and a study on welfare indicators were also developed.

Over the recent years, a custom-designed Wildlife Hospital was completed, plus new Animal Kitchen and Staff Utility buildings in the Operations Area. Bear Houses 3 and 4 and the recently completed satellite House 1A have been added as world-class, environmentally-sensitive bear houses comprising a total of 37 dens with 17 large forested enclosures enriched with swimming pools, climbing towers and caves encompassing more than 36,000m2 of authentic bear habitat that provides rescued bears, often physically and psychologically damaged, with the chance to be rehabilitated in as near-natural a lifestyle as possible.  

Our Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary is still undergoing development but it's success is already evident. Bears that spent decades in tiny cages now have the opportunity to perform natural behaviours in their new home in the forest, where they can forage for food, climb trees, relax in a pool, sleep on a tower. These bears have access to a specially designed diet and are provided with daily environmental enrichment to stimulate their body and mind. An experienced team of bear carers monitors their behaviour, and health and veterinary care is available to ensure their optimal wellbeing.

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 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 the increasing awareness of animal cruelty and wildlife conservation issues, coupled with an end to bear bile farming in other countries, will help push these countries towards eradicating bear bile farming forever.