‘She is a very broken bear’: The cruel bile farms feeding an illegal trade in alternative medicine
Animal rights activists are racing to abolish the cruel practice of bear farming in Vietnam, where around 300 moon bears remain imprisoned behind bars in tiny cages, at risk of having their bile extracted in excruciating pain to feed an illegal trade in medicinal remedies.
Animals Asia, which has rescued over 670 bears from bile farms across Asia – some 260 of them in Vietnam – says that while an end is in sight to the horrific trade, the surviving animals are so traumatised from psychological and physical pain that many will take years to recover.
Among them is Dawn, an Asiatic black bear who was rescued last month but displays signs of “learned helplessness” from 20 years in captivity on a farm, said Heidi Quine, the organisation’s Vietnam Bear and Vet Team Director.
Dawn was among five animals rescued last month from Phung Thuong, a bear farming hotspot in northern Vietnam, and taken to Animal Asia’s Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre for treatment.
“She is a very broken bear,” Ms Quine told the Telegraph.
“Basically, over the course of her life on the farm, she came to understand that it didn’t matter what she did, it didn’t matter how much she resisted, that bad things would continue to happen. As a result, she has withdrawn and retreated inside herself.”
Staff caring for Dawn after her rescue report that she crawls into a corner when they attempt to clean her cage, tucks her head into her abdomen and curls into a ball, visibly flinching at noises.
Ms Quine said she was “very confident” Dawn would recover but that it could take years.
The reason for such trauma, lies in the inhumane and unhygienic conditions on bear farms, where the animals are often kept in cramped cages so small that their bodies must contort to fit the bars, and many have damaged teeth trying to gnaw their way out.
Bears are starved and dehydrated to encourage bile production in their gall bladders, which is extracted using catheters, syringes and spinal needles. At times, catheters are left inside the bear indefinitely, causing infection from decomposition while the animals are restrained with ropes or metal jackets.
The bile is sold illegally as a cure for joint pain, gallstones and liver disease in ancient traditional medicines.
It has also been marketed as a cure for cancer, colds and hangovers even though it there is no evidence to support these claims.
The practice of bear bile farming has been banned in Vietnam since 1992, but possession of bears is not prohibited. Enforcement of existing laws has been hampered by the lack of sanctuaries for bears and the demand, now dwindling, for associated medicinal products.
“The only way the govt authorities can confirm that the bile is being extracted when the bears are on the farm is by catching them in the act,” said Ms Quine, explaining that the bear’s fur often concealed abdomen injuries unless there was closer veterinary examination.
However, Animals Asia, which officially partners with the Vietnamese government to end bear bile farming, says there is reason for optimism.
The organisation has not only been conducting rescue missions, but also partnering with a local traditional medicine association to stop prescribing bear bile and switch to herbal alternatives.
The number of bears in captivity has already declined from a height of 4,500 in 2005 to around 300 today, said Ms Quine.
The rescued bears are given lifelong care in a spacious sanctuary in Tam Dao, some 40 miles north of Hanoi, which mimics natural conditions where they can forage, explore and relax.
The completion of a new enclosure in the centre of the country by 2025 would provide capacity and an escape route for the remaining caged bears, to officially end the practice in 2026, said Ms Quine.
According to Animals Asia, there are still over 10,000 bears in farms across Asia, including North and South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China.
Ms Quine said Vietnam’s efforts to abolish the trade in bear bile would show other governments in the region it was possible to do it in a way that benefited animals and local communities.
“Once Vietnam ends bear bile farming it will be Vietnam that is front and centre on the world stage as really leading the way in addressing an illegal wildlife trade,” she said.
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