For thousands of years, cultures in southern and eastern Asia have reached for bear bile to combat a whole range of aliments. Today, science has shown this wasn’t just superstition: bears are the only mammal to churn out large qualities of an acid shown to help the treatment of liver and kidney disease, as well as severe eye problems.
But in the modern age, the potential medicinal effects of bear bile have led to a rapacious underground of “bear farms” where the animals are basically squeezed like lemons for juice — only here, the process involves invasive, unregulated surgeries where bears are repeatedly tapped for their bile while captive in terrible conditions.
On Wednesday, however, opponents of the bear bile industry notched a significant win in Vietnam, one of the current centers for farming. In Hanoi, representatives of the country’s Administration of Forestry signed a memorandum of understanding with Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization (NGO). Per the fine print, the government and organization agreed to work together to rescue and relocate the 1,000 bears believed to be living on bear farms across the country. The agreement comes after years of campaigning by Animals Asia.
“Crucially, the government has agreed to close the loophole that has allowed bile farming to persist for the last decade,” Tuan Bendixsen, the group’s Vietnam director, said in a statement. With the accord, “they have agreed that there can be no bears kept on farms, because as long as they are there, they will suffer extraction.”
But problems remain, including how a cash-poor country like Vietnam can enforce regulation and also care for the rescued bears. This, coupled with a legal and profitable bear bile industry just over the border in China, could upset any full-court press to eradicate the industry.
Two species, the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear, are indigenous to the region. According to 2002’s The Bear Bile Business: The Global Trade in Bear Products from China to Asia and Beyond, medical texts reaching back 3,000 years to the Chinese Ming Dynasty first mention Asiatic black bears as a species with curative properties. Studies would later tie these medicinal effects to the bear liver’s unique amount of ursodeoxycholic acid, a metabolic byproduct of bacteria in the intestine. In traditional medicine, however, the bile — which is sold both pure in small vials as well as an ingredient in other products — has been labeled a cure-all for everything from cancer to hangovers, National Geographic reports.
Traditional medical beliefs haven’t disappeared from the region due to a helping hand from the state. For the last 30 years, the governments in both China and Vietnam have invested in and encouraged traditional medicine as a parallel health system to the modern approach. The trend continues: “The number of traditional medicine hospitals at provincial level in Viet Nam has expanded from 53 in 2010 to 58 in 2015,” noted a 2016 study on the bear industry conducted by animal rights group Traffic. “In 2015, 92.7% general hospitals in the country has traditional medicine department which has increased 3.2% in comparison with 2010.”
Bear farms reportedly first cropped up in the mid-1980s in China and quickly hopped the Red River south into Vietnam. The practice technically became illegal in the latter country in 1992, according to Animals Asia, when the government passed a law requiring state approval to keep bears. A loophole, however, allowed people to have bears as household pets.
The legal gray area, coupled with the state’s inability to enforce the laws, led to a proliferation of bears in captivity on farms. Animals Asia determined that between 1999 and 2005 the number of bears on farms in Vietnam jumped from 400 to 4,000. In 2005, the government again passed legislation, this time outlawing bile extraction. But the agreement again allowed farmers to keep the bears they already had, and the industry continued.
The 2016 Traffic report estimated there were still 13,000 bears in farms across Asia, with 10,000 in China, where the trade is legal. Around 1,000 bears are believed to be still on farms in Vietnam. Anti-bear-bile activists cite the conditions and treatment of animals as ammunition for their arguments. The bile extraction process is ugly stuff. Farmers conduct surgery on the animals to extract the bile, draining the liquid with a catheter or cutting passageways to the gallbladder.
In 2015, when Vice News visited a bear farm in the northern Vietnam “bears sat hunched over in cramped, rusty cages, panting from the heat and humidity. Their excrement sat in piles below each of their cages. The bears were thin and some were missing patches of hair.” A year earlier, Animals Asia toured a facility in Halong City, they found 20 percent of the bears emaciated, many severely malnourished, 20 percent missing a limb, 100 percent suffering from paw injuries from standing on bars.
Wednesday’s agreement between Animals Asia and Vietnam is the second major score for the group in as many years. In 2015, the Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Association promised to stop prescribing bear bile products by 2020. This week’s agreement with the government outlaws the private ownership of bears and calls for the confiscation and resettlement of the 1,000 animals living on farms.
The parties next must move forward on securing funding for sanctuaries for the rescued bears. Animals Asia does have a location in Vietnam, but the relocation will take more space for the bears. Meanwhile, expert worry the bile market will simply move to nearby Laos or continue to flourish in China.
“This, of course, doesn’t end the work,” Animals Asia Founder and chief executive Jill Robinson said in a statement. “Quite the opposite, but it now means we work together with a common goal — to end this cruelty.