A public market in northern Vietnam — typically messy, crowded, and noisy — is filled with unbelievable amounts of meat, fresh produce, kitchenware, jewelry, and everything one could possibly need. In the middle of the chaos, an unnoticeable passage leads to a filthy and dark basement, where moon bears were held captive for years. Because of their size and strength, they’re locked up in cages, some can’t even lie down; some haven’t seen the sun for 10, 20 years. Some of them have diabetes and are overweight, not because they’ve been fed well but because they’re not getting the right diet and can’t move at all.
But the horror doesn’t end there. Those bears are sedated or restrained with ropes once a month so their captors can harvest the bile directly from their gallbladder. And this process isn't done by licensed veterinarians or animal experts, so it’s not just illegal but utterly unhygienic, dangerous, and extremely painful for the bears.
It’s a tragic scene unfamiliar to many. But in Son La province, about an 8-hour drive from Hanoi, this story isn’t so much of a secret anymore. In March this year, two moon bears, weighing more than 120 kilograms each, were rescued from the northern province. After years of suffering, the two bears are now enjoying a new life in a sanctuary in Ninh Binh. But there are more than 400 bears more that need to be rescued.
Vietcetera reached out to FOUR PAWS Viet, a non-profit organization, supporting animal welfare projects, and talked with Nguyen Le Thuy Linh, the Education, and Communication Manager to spread awareness, educate and hear from her first-hand interactions with the saddest bears in Hanoi.
Why bear bile farming is inhumane
In the early 1900s, scientists discovered that bear bile, a fluid secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, contains a significant amount of ursodeoxycholic acid, more than other animals like pigs or cows produce. This acid is medically proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. It is often used in traditional Chinese medicine. Regrettably, this practice endangers the lives of the bile source.
According to the Bear bile, explained article from National Geographic, China began farming bears to extract their bile in the 1980s. While farming was intended as a way to take pressure off wild bears being poached for their gallbladders, many consumers preferred bile from wild bears, believing it to have more medicinal strength. Today thousands of bears are kept in cages for this purpose, primarily in China but also in Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.
Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, sun bears, and brown bears are some of the most common species farmed for bile. They have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years in the wild, but they can survive up to 35 years in captivity, meaning they can spend decades at a farm. Bear-bile farming has been widely condemned for being inhumane as the bears are often kept in cages so small they cannot turn around or stand up. Not to mention the actual process of harvesting the bile.
“The extraction of bile is invasive and often painful. Bile can be drained via a catheter, syringe, or pipe inserted into the gallbladder. Or captors can create an open duct from the bear’s gallbladder to its abdomen, allowing the bile to drip freely. This is considered somewhat more humane, but catheters may be left in indefinitely, causing irritation and infection. Metal catheters may begin to rust or decompose within the bear’s body,” as explained by the NatGeo article.
Asian countries, including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, primarily drive demand, but bear-bile products can also be found in Australia, Singapore, Canada, and the United States. While bear bile farming is illegal in South Korea and Vietnam, it is, unfortunately, legal in China.
Bear Sanctuary in Ninh Binh
The FOUR PAWS Viet team has established a bear sanctuary in Ninh Binh, a two-hour drive from Hanoi. They had their first-ever rescue in 2017 and since then, over 40 rescued bears have found a home at the sanctuary.
With 3.6 hectares of freedom for mistreated bears, their sanctuary is not only a new home to bears rescued from bile farming and the illegal wildlife trade in the country but also an unforgettable experience for learning and exploring in a natural setting. The average age of the bears in their sanctuary is 10-15 years old, and it can accommodate up to 50 bears. After the COVID-19 restrictions, FOUR PAWS will further expand the sanctuary to accommodate 100 or more bears.
“I think the best thing about the lives of the bears in the sanctuary is they have species-appropriate space and diet, as well as the environmental enrichment and that’s very important for the animals,” Linh shared.
Linh added that they provide the bears with indoor and outdoor environments, with a space that is similar to their natural habitat so they can slowly be introduced back to the environment where they’re supposed to live. At the same time, they provide indoor space for the bears that got too used to being inside the cage.
“We have to slowly reintroduce them to nature which is strange since that’s their natural habitat but also sad, cause that happens with most of the bears we rescue.”
In addition to that, they carefully design the diet for every single bear based on their physical, mental and veterinary characteristics. “Most bears have a lot of problems with their gallbladder, liver, suffer various diseases, everything, literally everything… so we need to design which food they can eat and which is bad to keep them healthy.”
When asked if they’re planning to release the bears in the wild soon, Linh sincerely expressed that it's not possible yet, at least not for the near future.
“Most of them cannot survive in the wild because they’ve lost all their natural behavior, their instincts, but the good thing is they’re slowly getting it back, which is really magical. But to be able to survive in the wild is another story, nature is brutal.”
However, they’re trying and doing what they can to hopefully make it possible. She went on saying “The forests in Vietnam are not safe. In fact, WWF said that just within the forest areas of the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos border, they counted more than two million snare traps and those traps can harm an elephant. So it’s extremely hard to reintroduce them back to the wild when they might be trapped again and come back to the circle.”
Linh also expressed that they lack funding to do extensive programs to be able to help the bears regain their natural behavior quickly enough before they get old since most of them are reaching the end of their lives.
What the Vietnamese government is doing
During that rescue operation in Son La province, it was the local authorities that signaled FOUR PAWS and helped them organize the operation to get the bears and send them to the sanctuary. That’s also the practice in most provinces.
According to Linh, the government is providing massive help because, like us, they also want to end the bear bile farming practice.
“They provide good support when it comes to the rescue. The Forest Protection Department connects us with the farmers, helping us convince them to let us take the bears and stop their inhumane practices.”
Thanks to the efforts of the government, now it’s illegal for anyone to keep a bear without a microchip as well as transporting and extracting bear biles.
“Of course we can always do more but it’s a good start to end this.”
“The hardest thing is, how can we introduce them back to the wild. At the moment, it remains a challenge for us and it’s just impossible to do that. Vietnam’s rate of losing the forest is too fast and we can’t find a place for the bears to live,” Linh shared.
Another challenge Linh mentioned is when they’re doing rescues and taking care of the bear, identifying the specifics of each bear is just hard for their team. Some of the bears are just too psychologically troubled, because of the years of an abusive environment, that they can’t specifically identify what’s causing it and how they’re going to address it.
Sad but true, the tremendous efforts exerted by organizations like FOUR PAWS and the government would seem futile unless the people involved in the illegal practice stop and free their captives.
What her team is doing now is “just sticking a small band-aid to a huge wound,” Linh admitted.
Here’s how you can help
In 2005, the Vietnamese government announced a phase-out of bear farming. While commendable steps have been taken since then and bear farming in the country is slowly coming to an end, Vietnam’s most important and prominent city shows hardly any progress at all. Hanoi remains the country’s number one bear farming hotspot, with 159 bears on 30 farms — accounting for 49% of the total bears in Vietnam as of June 2021.
FOUR PAWS organized a petition for the people, both in Vietnam and outside, to sign in pressuring the government, especially in Hanoi, to completely end bear farming. While you’re reading this, almost 400 bears still live in tiny cages on so-called bear farms and many are still abused for bile extraction. You can sign the petition and help the saddest bears in Hanoi gain freedom.