Vietnam’s bear bile farms are collapsing — but it may not be good news

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  • Consumer interest in farmed bear bile seems to be declining in Vietnam, according to a new study, but this raises concerns for both captive and wild bears.
  • Farmers are now spending very little on food for the bears, for instance, and often kill the bears after seven to eight years of extensive bile extraction.
  • Moreover, bear farming appears to be less lucrative than illegal hunting of wild bears because of both high consumer demand for wild-sourced products and underresourced law enforcement, the authors write.

Consumer interest in farmed bear bile seems to be declining in Vietnam, according to a new study. But this isn’t necessarily good news, researchers say, because it raises concerns for both captive and wild bears.

In Vietnam, more than 1,000 bears — mostly the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) — live on farms across the country. They’re held in cages for their bile, a brownish-yellow liquid stored in their gall bladders, which is extracted using catheters for use as a common ingredient in Asian traditional medicine to treat liver and kidney disease.

In the 1990s, bear farms mushroomed across Vietnam in response to the growing demand for bear bile. These farms in theory were meant to reduce pressure on wild bears. In 2005, bile extraction was made illegal, but bear farms continue to persist in the country, mainly due to a loophole allowing people to keep the bears they already had.

Farmed bear bile, however, has failed to satisfy consumer demand, the recent study published in Oryx found, adding to the growing evidence that Vietnam’s bear farming industry is in decline. The number of bears in Vietnam’s bear farms has also fallen from around 4,500 in 2005 to about 1,200 in 2015.

This decline in consumer interest is leading to a decline in care for the captive bears, researchers found. Farmers are now spending very little on food for the bears, for instance.

“Farmers are now spending just $4 a month on food for the bears,” study co-author Brian Crudge, a researcher with the nonprofit Free the Bears, told Mongabay. “This is far below what is required for a healthy diet and raises serious concerns about the welfare of the 1,000 bears still being kept on farms in Vietnam.”

Bears in bile farms often spend their entire lives in a tiny cage. Image courtesy of Free the Bears.

The team interviewed 66 bear bile farmers in Vietnam, and found that consumers continue to favor bile from wild bears over farmed ones. This is because both the farmers and consumers consider farmed bear bile to be of poorer quality, which they attribute to high extraction rates of bile from farmed bears and the poor quality of food the animals eat in captivity. This perception is reflected in the price that consumers are willing to pay: bile from wild-caught bears fetches up to 12 times higher prices than that from farmed ones.

Consequently, farmers turn to illegally hunted wild bears to meet consumer demand.

“The farmers interviewed reported that the consumers were not satisfied with the quality of farmed bear bile,” Crudge said. “The question remains, what proportion of those consumers will now seek out wild bear bile. This means that farms not only create a direct demand for wild bears with which to stock farms, but may also result in increased consumer demand.”

Excessive bile extraction and poor living conditions for the bears has also meant that most captive bears survive only four to five years, the researchers found. Some farmers even admitted to killing captive bears after they reached 8 years of age. In the wild, Asiatic black bears and sun bears are known to live to an average of 25 years.

“The decline in demand means that the profitability of bear bile farming has dropped and, since they no longer provide any benefit to the farmers, bears are being starved to death or killed in order to sell their body parts — all clear violations of national legislation,” Crudge said.

Rescued Asiatic black bears in their forest enclosure at Free the Bears’ Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary. Image courtesy of Free the Bears.

Moreover, nearly 95 percent of the farmers who were interviewed said that breeding bears in captivity was difficult and usually unsuccessful. So they tended to rely on restocking their farms with bears from the wild, which were cheaper to acquire through hunting methods like snaring. Snaring does not require much skill on the part of the hunter, the researchers write, and is fairly inexpensive because snares can be made easily at home or purchased cheaply.

“Captive bears are suffering from poor husbandry, poor diet and cruelty. These bears are suffering from diseases, abnormal behaviours and starvation,” said study co-author Trang Nguyen, founder and director of WildAct Vietnam and a research student at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, U.K. “In the mean time, wild bears are still being threatened by hunters, poachers and habitat loss.”

Overall, illegal hunting of wild bears seems to be more lucrative than bear farming, not just due to high consumer demand for wild-sourced products, but also because of underresourced law enforcement, the authors write.

For example, when the government outlawed bile extraction in 2005, it required that all captive bears be registered and microchipped. Keeping unregistered bears was made illegal, as was extracting bile from bears. However, Vietnam law enforcement lacks the resources and capacity to monitor bear farms using microchip scanners, the authors write.

“The microchip is inserted under the skin and using a microchip scanner you can pick up the unique code of that microchip. It is easiest to do this when the bear is anesthetized which requires money and expertise,” Crudge said. “This means that it is difficult for the authorities to confirm whether a particular bear in a farm is the individual recorded on the registration documents or a different bear taken from the wild. This has enabled farmers to restock their farms with wild-caught bears and compensate for the lack of captive breeding.”

Nguyen said farmers sometimes killed their bears before authorities visited their farms, to avoid having to microchip and register the animals.

Elizabeth, a bear kept in captivity for bile extraction in Huizhou Farm, Vietnam. She has since been removed from the farm. Image by the Asian Animal Protection Network via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

“This research gives us solid evidence to show that farming is not a tool for conservation — or at least, in the case of the bear,” Nguyen said.

Crudge said the study was done to increase understanding of bear bile farming and wildlife farming in general, and “not to assign credit or blame.”

Last year, the Vietnamese government agreed to end bear bile farming across the country and rescue all the captive bears. The government also agreed to close the legal loophole that allows people to keep bears despite the illegality of the bile trade.

“The government of Vietnam now acknowledges that bear bile farming has had a negative impact on wild populations and is working with several organisations, including Free the Bears, with the support of the international community, to end bear bile farming,” Crudge said.

Citation:

Crudge, B., Nguyen, T., & Cao, T. T. (2018). The challenges and conservation implications of bear bile farming in Viet NamOryx, 1-8. doi:10.1017/S0030605317001752

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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