This month I spent some time volunteering at the Free The Bears Sanctuary in Cambodia, an organisation that supports bear conservation and rescue in Asia – specifically targeting bears directly affected by the bile and pet trade.
As I walked around the sanctuary I noticed a number of bears with missing feet. As they hobbled around I couldn’t help but picture them, wild in Cambodia’s highlands, their natural habitat, walking around scavenging for food when all of a sudden a metal claw grabbed hold of their paws, ripping into their flesh and breaking the surrounding bone as they screamed in agony.
This is a standard practice for poachers. Once captured, the bears will either be sold for its body parts or sent to a bear bile farm where the torture will never end.
Based on the notion that bear bile can help treat a wide range of conditions, it has been used in Asian medicine for centuries (as far back as the Tang Dynasty in 659 AD).
Targeting mostly Sun bears and Moon bears, the bears’ gallbladders contain a yellow liquid-bile-that helps them digest fat. Catheters are attached to their gallbladders for hours to drain this fluid, a process that is extremely invasive and painful for the bears.
To make matters worse the bears are locked into a tiny cage that only allows them enough room to lay on their backs. They can’t even turn over or stand up, causing them so much stress they are often found banging their heads against the cage or chewing on their paws (or what remains of them).
The situation today is improving somewhat but there is still a long way to go. In South Korea, bears are kept until they are 10 years old and then legally slaughtered to obtain their gallbladders. The number of wild Moon bears has dropped dramatically and the species is now on the edge of extinction.
In Vietnam, the number of bears in bile farms grew from 500 bears in 1997 to 4,500 in 2006. The government then banned the extraction of bile, issuing penalties for anyone caught advertising, buying or selling bear bile products. Ten years later, the number of bears in bile farms has dropped by 75%. It is thought that around 1200 bears still remain in farms today. Several sanctuaries and rescue centres working closely with the Vietnamese authorities have led to around 350 bear rescues to date.
In the early 2000s, the first bear bile farm was established in Laos, relatively late considering the industry’s long history. At the moment there seems to be around 150 bears being held in at least seven bile farms. The farms poached cubs from the wild which attracted widespread attention internationally. With the help of a CITES trade ban, the government is looking for ways to stop the industry before it flourishes.
“To date no evidence exists to prove that the establishment of bear bile farms has benefitted wild bear populations and it is more likely that these farms have led to an increase in demand for bear bile.” This has been quoted from ‘FOCUS – Bringing Home The Bile Farm Bears’, an article handed over to me whilst at the Cambodia Free The Bears Sanctuary.
It also comments on the status of the bears – the Moon bear remains listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the global conservation community. Through the World Conservation Congress, a situation analysis has been called upon to look into the situation regarding bear bile farming in Asia. Meanwhile, thousands of bears still remain trapped on bile farms, trapped in their tiny cages, provoked by the farmers and with catheters attached to their gallbladders for hours of painful extraction each day.
If you are wondering how you can help, supporting an organisation like Free The Bears is the best way forward.
They work to end bile farming by building safe homes for rescued bears, creating sanctuaries and providing ongoing technical and financial support to care for bears that are rescued.
Working closely with the government, they help enforce wildlife laws though advocacy, intelligence gathering and providing direct support towards rescue missions. Undercover investigations are undertaken to document infringements of national and international laws.
They also work with respected organisations such as the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, conducting surveys of the wild bear populations in order to identify population trends and spotlight threats to the species.
Lastly, they work with local communities to increase understanding of bears through education programmes and alternative livelihoods for communities most vulnerable to committing wildlife crimes.
They are currently working towards building and improving world-class sanctuaries, each housing over 100+ bears each. This means more materials and more mouths to feed. If you look on their website there are a number of ways you can support them – membership, sponsorship and donations are some of the many methods available. Alternatively, if you visit Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam you can also volunteer at their sanctuaries or visit them for a day.