As times and tastes change, Vietnam’s bear bile industry is fading away

For what was once considered an essential medicine, farmers spent decades extracting bile from captive bears. Now, farms are closing down—and consumers have mostly moved on.

Published 19 Nov 2021, 14:16 GMT
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As bear farms close in Vietnam, many consumers of bear bile for traditional medicine say they’re “apathetic” about the product’s continued availability, according to a new study.
Photograph by MARK LEONG, Nat Geo Image Collection

As bear bile farms close throughout Vietnam, consumers say they’re “apathetic” about continued use of the substance in traditional medicine, according to a new study published in Conservation and Society.

In Vietnam, bile traditionally was obtained from the gallbladders of wild bears. The practice of farming Asiatic black bears and sun bears—both considered vulnerable to extinction—started in the 1990s to meet a growing demand for bile. Used to treat ailments including colds and bruises, bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which is medically proven to help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease.

 

In the bear bile farms, neglect, disease, and cramped, inhumane conditions are common, according to the nonprofit Animals Asia. The bile is drained through catheters or needles inserted into the animals’ gallbladders, a painful procedure sometimes repeated daily. Consumers themselves risk ingesting contaminated bile from sick bears.

In 2005, Vietnam outlawed the sale and extraction of bear bile, and the government since has announced its intention to close bear farms by 2025. Despite the ban, farmers were allowed to keep their bears, as long as they were microchipped and had been registered before 2005. A decade and a half after the ban went into effect, more than 300 bears are still privately owned on more than a hundred farms. More than 150 of the animals are kept in the capital, Hanoi.

Some farmers starved or killed their bears because caring for them was too costly, according to the animal welfare group Free the Bears. Others keep their bears because they’re illegally supplying the bile market, says Barbara van Genne, head of wild animal rescue and advocacy at the international nonprofit Four Paws. Lax enforcement in the past by Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department has allowed bear bile to remain readily available, she says. Farmers also may have personal attachments to their bears.

The Forest Protection Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Farmed bile has been getting scarcer in Vietnam. Government officials have been checking farms for unregistered bears, reduced demand has driven down the price of farmed bile, and many bears on farms have died from neglect or ill health.

Bears are poached or farmed for bile in other countries too, including Myanmar, Laos, and South Korea. China is by far the largest legal market, supplied by thousands of farmed bears, according to Animals Asia. In March 2020, the Chinese government promoted the use of an injection containing bear bile as a treatment for serious cases of COVID-19. (The Chinese government did not respond to requests for comment last year.)

Surveying Vietnamese consumers 

The authors of the new study surveyed more than 2,400 participants in seven regions of Vietnam. About 31 percent said they’d used bear bile in their lifetime. The most commonly reported uses were for bruises, joint pain, stomachaches, and postpartum issues. Bear bile alcohol is sometimes drunk socially. Less than one percent of users—just 22 individuals—reported consuming wild bear bile during the previous year.

The low usage rate has much to do with lack of interest, says study co-author Brian Crudge, an ecologist and the regional director of Free the Bears. When asked what they would do after bear farms closed in Vietnam, many participants seemed unconcerned: “[I] won’t use bear bile anymore,” and “I don’t use much bile anyway,” some respondents said. This trend aligns with recent closures of farms around the country. According to Four Paws, 34 of the 58 provinces have announced that they have no farmed bears.

When asked what they would do after bear bile farms closed, some study respondents said, “[I] won’t use bear bile anymore,” and “I don’t use much bile anyway.”
Photograph by Free the Bears

Crudge wondered what consumers would “do when there was no more farmed bear bile available?” He worried that people would turn to bile from wild Asiatic black bears or sun bears, leading to increased poaching. That appears not to have happened, in part because habitat loss and illegal killings have reduced wild populations drastically in recent decades—and because demand for bile appears to be falling off.

Bile from wild bears has become “increasingly niche.” Only participants from the central province of Nghe An reported using it during the past year. The decreasing popularity of wild bile came as a surprise, Crudge says, because Vietnamese consumers have demonstrated a strong preference for it in the past.

Synthetic and natural alternatives

Many respondents said they believed in the effectiveness of bear bile but also indicated “strong preference” for synthetic bile, which has been manufactured since the 1950s.

“Considering how long these bears have suffered on bear bile farms, it could have ended a long time ago, considering how apathetic people are about it,” Crudge says. “It’s one less reason to keep bears in farms, if people are willing to use alternatives.”

For more than a decade, Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia, has been leading a campaign to promote herbal treatments instead of bear bile. Bendixsen, who was not involved in the new study, says it was particularly rewarding that 15.7 percent of respondents reported using a herbal alternative called cỏ mật gấu, or “bear bile plant,” for treating bruises and inflammation. Animals Asia learned of this substitute from Vietnam’s Traditional Medicine Association, which had pledged that its practitioners would stop prescribing bear bile by 2020.

Bendixsen’s team has compiled and disseminated a book listing bear bile alternatives (including cinnamon, Japanese thistle, and rhubarb) for such ailments as colds, flu, and joint pain. They’ve arranged free health clinics and started herb gardens.

The study by Crudge’s team “kind of encouraged that we are on the right track,” he says. “The work we've been doing is starting to bear fruit.”

In light of the findings from Vietnam, where bear bile was “once considered an essential household medicine,” Crudge says, the potential to reduce demand for it should be examined in other countries. Would people in China be willing to accept substitutes? “I think there's potential to expand the research to find out,” he says.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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