Khoi, an Asiatic black bear, sits with his paws resting on the metal bars of a feeding pen, patiently awaiting treats from his trainer, who runs through a familiar feeding routine that helps to improve the animal’s cognitive functions while allowing time for carrying out basic health checks.
Khoi appears calm, but the visible scar on his head as well as the erratic behaviour of many of the other bears hint at the terrible experiences these animals endured before arriving at the sanctuary, located outside Ninh Binsh, a three-hour drive south-east of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Khoi, one of 45 bears at the sanctuary run by the Four Paws International non-governmental organisation, was rescued from Vietnam’s brutal bear bile industry, which has for decades seen thousands of Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, held in metal cages on farms across the country, where they often suffer both physically and psychologically for their entire lives as their bile is harvested for use in traditional medicines in a painful procedure.
In the sanctuary, bears can access both indoor and outdoor semi-natural enclosures. After spending years stuck inside claustrophobic cages, they can now swim in wading pools, doze in the sun, climb onto high platforms, forage for food, or hide away in their dens when they want to relax.
Conditions on the farms are horrendous. According to Emily Lloyd, Animal Manager at Four Paw’s bear sanctuary in Ninh Binh, neglect and disease are commonplace. Farmers drain the bears’ bile by drugging them and inserting needles into the animals’ gallbladders – a painful procedure that is often repeated daily. The sheer extent of the bears’ psychological suffering also means they are likely unable to raise cubs.
“The bears come with a whole host of health issues, especially gallbladder infections and inflammations that affect them for the rest of their lives,” Lloyd said. “They also suffer from things like liver disease, hypertension and kidney problems – it takes an hour each day for us to prepare their medication for the following day.”
In Vietnam, bear bile was once acquired from the gallbladders of wild bears for use in traditional medicine. Yet as demand grew in the 1990s, bear bile farms began to emerge across the country, on which both Asiatic black bears and, to a lesser extent, smaller sun bears, were held in cramped metal cages. Both species are labelled as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which has been shown to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. Yet many Vietnamese also began to use it for other ailments for which there was no medical link, such as colds, bruises, joint pain and stomachache.
“Usage quickly bled into other areas such as cancer treatments, pain relief and I’ve heard of people recommending it to be rubbed on bruises, for which there is no scientific link,” Harold Browning, Animal Welfare Advisor at animal protection organisation Animals Asia, said.
Huynh Van Trien, a 70-year-old bear farmer in Long An province, is also unsure whether bear bile is beneficial to his health.
“I don’t know how effective bear bile is for other people, but for me, I haven’t seen any effectiveness… I haven’t noticed my health improving after taking bear bile,” he said.
UDCA can also be produced synthetically in laboratories, while there are many effective herbal alternatives that do not contribute to the suffering of bears, according to Four Paws.
As of May this year, 228 bears still lived on bile farms across Vietnam, including 115 in Hanoi, down from around 4,500 recorded in 2005, according to the organisation. Many of those bears perished on farms, yet some were taken to rescue centres, where they can enjoy semi-natural enclosures.
Bear bile farms also exist in Laos and Myanmar, yet the greatest number of bears – more than 10,000 – is estimated to be held in China.
Ultimately, closing Vietnam’s farms will require the effective involvement of law enforcement authorities across the country, including in Hanoi, where the response to the industry has been feeble, according to Four Paws.
Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director of Animals Asia, is convinced that “the end of bear bile farming in Vietnam” is near. “Although it’s a huge undertaking, the end of bear farming in Vietnam will send a clear message to other regions where bear bile farming continues – that this industry can end if we all work together.”