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Vietnam Commits to Shut Down Bear Bile Farms

Though the new agreement is promising, the practice remains prevalent throughout China and southeast Asia

Bile bears on a farm in Vietnam (Animals Asia)
smithsonian.com

The Vietnam Administration of Forestry and the non-profit group Animals Asia signed a memorandum of understanding this week, agreeing to shut down the bear-bile extraction industry in that country and move about 1,000 bears into sanctuaries, reports Jani Actman for National Geographic

Bile is an alkaline solution secreted by the liver and held in the gallbladder. The yellowish or greenish substance aids in digestion, and is particularly in the breakdown of fats. Bear bile is commonly prescribed in traditional medicine as a treatment for liver and kidney disease. But there are other synthetic or herbal options that are just as effective and not derived from animals, according to Animal Asia's website.

To collect the bile, the farmers either perform surgery on the bears or insert catheters into their gall bladders, letting the substance slowly drip out. The bears, mainly Asiatic black bears and sun bears native the region, are often kept in wretched conditions and suffer a wide range of health problems.

As Kyle Swenson at The Washington Post reports, bile farming began in China in the mid-1980s and soon spread to Vietnam. The practice was technically outlawed in the country in 1992. But lax enforcement and a loophole that allows people keep bears as pets led to a boom in bile farming. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of bears on these farms exploded, increasing from 400 to 4,000. But in 2005, a law was passed that closes the legal loophole and makes bile extraction illegal. Now, the number of farmed bears sits at roughly 1,200 bears held at over 400 bear farms across the country, reports Agence France-Presse.

In 2015, reports Swenson, the Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Association and Animals Asia signed a memorandum of understanding in which practitioners agreed to stop prescribing bear bile by 2020 with the hope of reducing demand for the substance. But the new agreement essentially outlaws the private ownership of bears in Vietnam. Animals Asia and the government will work to rescue and relocate the captive bears.

Animals Asia’s founder Jill Robinson hopes this will be the final nail in the coffin of the bear bile industry in Vietnam. “With all parties pulling in the right direction and in agreement about our goals we can make real progress,” she says. “For the animals who have suffered for more than a decade in awful conditions the move to sanctuaries cannot come soon enough and that is the next issue—how to fund, build and manage the new sanctuaries which are necessary to rescue all bears.”

According to the AFP, it will cost about $20 million to build and maintain enough sanctuaries to take care of 1,000 bears, and Animals Asia is asking for companies, NGOs and the governments to help fund the project. Animals Asia set up a sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park in 2008 where they take care of 186 former bile bears.

But the new memorandum is not a guarantee for the currently farmed bears. As Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia, tells the AFP, instead of shuttering their business bear bile extractors could move to Cambodia or Laos if international bans against bear bile are not enforced. According to Swenson, Vietnam is not the epicenter of bear bile collection. It’s estimated that 10,000 bears are currently farmed in China, where the practice is legal. 

And farmed bears are not the only problem. As Actman reports, many traditional adherents believe that the bile from wild bears is more potent, which concerns conservationists. Both the Sun bear and Asiatic black bear are considered vulnerable to extinction, and the bile trade is  putting pressure on them. “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,” Richard Thomas spokesman for the group Traffic, which monitors the wild animal trade, tells Actman.

There are some signs the bile trade could be on the wane in China. In 2015, a Chinese pharmaceutical company announced that it had developed a synthetic version of bear bile. But getting practitioners to adopt the alternative may prove difficult.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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