Vietnam's caged bears dying off as bile prices plummet

August 17, 2018 by Quy Le Bui
A bear being rescued from a facility in Vietnam where their bile is extracted for use in traditional medicine

Two moon bears are gently removed from the cramped cages where they have been held for 13 years, rescuers carefully checking their rotten teeth and matted paws before sending them to their new home in a grassy sanctuary in northern Vietnam.

The animals are among the lucky few to be rescued in a country where hundreds of bears are feared to have been killed or starved to death as the cost of once-valuable farmed bile has plummeted.

Bear bile is extracted—often continuously and painfully—from the animals' gallbladders and used in traditional medicine in Vietnam, where the illegal practice remains widespread.

But consumers are shunning the farmed version in favour of bile taken from the nearly extinct wild bear population, which can cost 12 times more, and farmers can no longer earn what they used to from the illicit trade.

If consumer demand for wild bear gallbladders catches on, it could spell the end for , which are killed for the sought-after organ.

The trend is also bad news for caged bears, whose owners can no longer afford to keep them alive.

"Farmers said it wasn't profitable to keep the bears any more so they started feeding them less and let them die off," Brian Crudge, research programme manager at Free The Bears, told AFP this week.

Veterinary staff from Four Paws, an animal conservation group in Vietnam, check the condition of a sedated bear during a rescue operation

The number of captive bears has dropped dramatically since 2005 from about 4,500 to less than 800 today, according to official data and Crudge, who recently co-authored a study on the issue.

With about 200 bears in Vietnam's rescue centres, he said many likely starved to death or were killed off and sold for their body parts.

Bear paws are popularly used as a delicacy in soup or liquor, while bones are used for cooking and teeth and claws for decoration or jewellery.

Race against time

Now it's a race against time to rescue Vietnam's remaining caged bears.

"It's quite urgent, we want to get as many of them as we can before it's too late," Crudge said.

After being rescued, the bears spend a few weeks in quarantine before being allowed to frolic in the grass with their fellow rescuees—which can require courage after so many years in a cage

Some farmers—who can legally keep bears as pets but are not allowed to extract bile—have started handing over their bears voluntarily.

One told AFP he used to earn $10 for one millilitre (0.03 fluid ounces) of farmed bile, but now only makes about $2, as some consumers prefer to shell out for a supposedly higher quality product from wild bears.

"People don't seem to like the bile anymore so it's harder to find customers," said the farmer, speaking anonymously.

He used to keep about a dozen bears in cages at his home and now has none, but just smiled when asked when happened to them, refusing to elaborate.

Vietnam has come under fire for failing to crack down on the illegal trade, but in a landmark decision last year said it would abolish all bear farms by 2022.

It is likely to meet that goal, but not all will make it into sanctuaries with death rates likely to remain steady.

Bear bile is extracted—often continuously and painfully—from the animals' gallbladders and used in traditional medicine in Vietnam, where the illegal practice remains widespread

But a fortunate few will, like moon Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra who were sent to a rescue centre in Ninh Binh province this week.

After being rescued from the farm where they have lived since 2005, they will spend a few weeks in quarantine before being allowed to frolic in the grass with their fellow rescuees—which will require some courage after so many years in a cage.

"It's pretty scary for them at first. It can take several weeks until they're brave enough to go around the enclosure," said Emily Lloyd, animal manager at Four Paws Vietnam, which runs the sanctuary.

Explore further: Vietnam to rescue 1,000 bears in bid to end bile trade

Related Stories

Pet bears to be returned to wild in Vietnam

March 5, 2012

Seven Asiatic black bears kept as pets in small cages will be prepared for a return to the wild in Vietnam after their owner decided they were too big for captivity, an official said Monday.

Moon bears rescued from bile farms in Vietnam

June 25, 2015

Freed from captivity in tiny metal cages, seven long-suffering Asiatic moon bears have been rescued on bile farms in northern Vietnam, as efforts to end the illegal trade are boosted.

Chinese scientists call for ban on bear farming

April 26, 2012

( -- Three Chinese scientists, Xia Sheng, Haolin Zhang and Qiang Weng, all from Beijing Forest University, have published a correspondence paper in the science journal Nature, calling for a ban on the practice of ...

Study examines salmon poisoning disease in grizzly bears

July 5, 2018

Salmon in the northwestern continental US often carry a fluke containing bacteria that can produce a deadly disease in bears called salmon poisoning disease (SPD). Current recovery plans for grizzly bears in the North Cascades ...

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Ultra-sharp images make old stars look absolutely marvelous

March 21, 2019

Using high-resolution adaptive optics imaging from the Gemini Observatory, astronomers have uncovered one of the oldest star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy. The remarkably sharp image looks back into the early history of ...

When more women make decisions, the environment wins

March 21, 2019

When more women are involved in group decisions about land management, the group conserves more—particularly when offered financial incentives to do so, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study published ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.