From Farms to Freedom: Abolishing Bear-bile Farming (A Feature on

08 Jun From Farms to Freedom: Abolishing Bear-bile Farming (A Feature on


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Bear-bile farming — keeping bears in tiny cages to ‘milk’ them for bile — is one of the most horrific and unnecessary practices alive in the world today.
Bile is extracted daily from the gall bladders of Moon Bears, usually through a metal catheter stitched into the animals’ abdomens. Starved and dehydrated, the bears are kept in cages so small they are unable to stand. They’re in a sorry state: riddled with tumours and infections, limbs missing from being caught in snares and teeth broken from chewing continuously on the bars of their cage. They might survive in this existence for a decade or longer, before death.
The bile is sought after for its benefits to virility and liver function, as it contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), known for treating cirrhosis of the liver. It is used predominantly as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, but can also be found in anything from wine to shampoo and toothpaste. However, there are readily available herbal alternatives with the same medicinal properties. Traditional medicine practitioners agree — nobody’s health will suffer due to a lack of bear bile.
Since this cruel practice began in the 1980s, activists have been campaigning to put an end to it. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, fewer than 20,000 Asiatic black bears are alive in the wild in China, qualifying them for the highest protection described by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But cultural change takes time, and there are still an estimated 10,000 caged bears in China and around 1,200 in Vietnam.


Animals Asia has been working on the ground in Vietnam and China for 15 years to campaign against bear-bile farming and cruelty to dogs and cats. Set up by Briton Jill Robinson, MBE, after she moved to Hong Kong in the 1980s, Robinson is credited by some with having almost single-handedly alerted the world to bear farming. In its lifetime, the non-governmental organisation has rescued nearly 600 bears (although only two-thirds of these survive as many have to be euthanised) and is running two rescue centres in Chengdu, China, and Tam Dao, Vietnam.

Last year marked a breakthrough. Mainland manufacturer Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, which supplies around half of the bear bile consumed in China, announced it had successfully synthesised a substitute for bear-harvested UDCA as part of a state-subsidised scheme worth US$1.8 million.

Kaibao Pharmaceuticals is the largest buyer of bear bile in the world, taking an estimated 18 tonnes of powdered bile each year (around half the total wholesale supply). Although Kaibao still reportedly buys real bear bile in addition to making its own (it didn’t return our request for a comment on this matter), local state involvement could be a game-changer, according to Jane Gottschalk, Hong Kong-based ambassador for Animals Asia.

“By getting the local authorities to close farms and denounce bear-bile farming, that is the start of unravelling the entire industry,” says Gottschalk. “The grassroots work is so much more powerful than campaigning from afar. It’s the action on the ground that makes this charity so effective,” she adds.

The charity’s efforts are evident. Animals Asia helped make the practice illegal in Vietnam a decade ago. Although pockets persist in small Vietnamese family farms it is only a matter of time — five years according to Robinson — until Vietnam is free of bear farms. At the peak of the industry in Vietnam, there were an estimated 4,300 caged bears. By 2014, officials had revised that figure to 1,245.

China, where bear-bile farming is legal and conducted on an industrial scale, is more challenging. Thanks in part to the work of the charity, 21 of China’s 23 provinces are free of bear farms, but there is a way to go. The non-profit has been lobbying suppliers, ministers and pharmacies (of which 2,000 have now stopped selling bear bile) and last year it hit another milestone. The first state-owned bear farm in Nanning was closed, and turned into a rescue centre for the 130 bears. Existing farm staff are still employed to work alongside Animals Asia employees and learn from their expertise.

“The message is not that China is cruel, it’s to focus on the progress that the government is making to educate its communities,” Gottschalk adds.

The other message is for the public to be aware of the contaminated products that they are consuming. Quite aside from the unethical nature of bear bile, its production methods render it dangerous to human health. “The Medieval-style catheters are rusty and sewn surgically into the bears’ bladders, which means that half of what comes out is pus,” explains Gottschalk. “It is seriously contaminated and unfit for human consumption.”

The end of bear-bile farming is nearly in sight. There are now more than 30 herbal alternatives to bear bile and the industry is becoming less profitable. According to a recent poll conducted by the group, 86 percent of Chinese oppose bear-bile farming, demonstrating the power of education. But the question is: what happens to thousands more bears that need saving?

Rescuing bears isn’t cheap. To give a life-saving gall-bladder operation to a bear costs US$1,000. Annual vet fees are US$5,000 for one bear. To convert the Nanning Farm, for instance, took US$5m of investment, covering the initial rescue of 28 bears followed by the sanctuary conversion, as well as budgeting for just three years of bear care (and they can live to age 30). The bears are almost never released back into the wild because they are too damaged. The charity’s aim is to help them live out the rest of their lives in peace and freedom.

“Seeing them step on the ground for the first time; seeing them eat fresh fruit for the first time in their lives,” says Gottschalk. “It’s an incredible moment.”

Animals Asia has pledged to continue until all bear-bile farms are closed, for good.

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