Bear bile farming is a common practice involving bears in Asian countries. Particularly, bears are kept in captivity to harvest their bile, which is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. The final destination for this practice is the use in traditional medicine. There are approximately 12 000 bears farmed for bile in such countries as China, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, as well as Japan and Malaysia. Species of bears that are commonly farmed for bile is the Asiatic black bear, the sun bear, the brown bear, and some others. The exception is the Giant panda since this species does not produce UDCA. Both the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are listed in the IUCN Red List and classified as Vulnerable.
Bile farming involves several techniques, all of which require surgery at some point, and may leave a permanent fistula or inserted catheter. Many species of bears die mainly due to the stress of unskilled surgery or the infections which may occur. Bears are kept in small cages, and this prevents them from standing or sitting upright, or from turning around. These highly restrictive cage systems and the low level of skilled husbandry can lead to a wide range of welfare concerns including physical injuries, pain, severe mental stress, and muscle atrophy. Some of the bears are caught as cubs and may be kept in captivity for up to 30 years.
Read more: Pills, Powders, Vials, and Flakes: The Bear Bile Trade in Asia
1. Bear bile does have medicinal uses but there are cruelty-free alternatives
Bear bile has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. It contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) known to be useful for treating liver and gall bladder conditions in humans. However, there are now many readily available herbal and synthetic alternatives with the same medicinal properties. Traditional medicine practitioners agree that nobody’s health will suffer from a lack of bear bile. According to recent official numbers, at least 10,000 bears are currently kept on bile farms in Asia.
2. Extracting bile from bears is as cruel and painful as you would imagine
The extraction of bear bile from live bears causes unimaginable physical and psychological suffering and long-term health problems. A number of extraction techniques exist, all of which are invasive and traumatic. The techniques vary between Vietnam and China and range from the “free drip” method where the bear suffers a hole in their gall bladder which is continuously reopened, to the insertion of permanent catheters, to locating the gall bladder via ultrasound and extracting bile through a four-inch needle.
While extraction methods vary, all bears live in tiny cages for the duration of their time on bile farms. “Crush cages” and “full metal jackets” are now illegal in China, but are still likely to be used on poorer farms. Most farmed bears are starved and dehydrated as this can encourage bile production. Because of the unnatural and unhygienic conditions, they are forced to live in, many also suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumors that ultimately kill them.
3. There are alternatives to bear bile
There are over 50 herbal alternatives and many inexpensive synthetic alternatives to bear bile. Animals Asia engages with the traditional medical community and users of bear bile to promote alternatives and reduce demand through our Healing without Harm campaign.
4. Bear bile farming is legal in China but not in Vietnam
Unfortunately, bear bile farming is still completely legal in China. Although there are regulations in place aimed at curbing the worst cruelty, these are often ignored and so far there have been no prosecutions. In Vietnam, bear bile farming has been illegal since 1992 but has persisted due to legal loopholes and continued demand.