Inside a bear bile farm in Laos
By Fiona MacGregor
A bile farm in Laos
The bears are confined in 15 sq ft cages Photo: Fiona MacGregor
On a post outside a nondescript property on the outskirts of the historic city of Luang Prabang, there is a small, handwritten notice. It declares in simple Laotian: place where bears are kept.
Entering the family home behind the sign, I am greeted by a scene of
comfortable domesticity. A baby crawls on the dark teak floorboards; a
teapot sits on a table in the front room; a dog pants in a shady corner,
sweltering in the exhausting summer heat. Through an open door, down a
short corridor and out through the rear of the house, the scene is
rather different. Trapped in tiny, cramped cages above urine-soaked
floors there are eight large Asiatic black bears.
Bear-farming is a relatively new business in Laos. The practice involves keeping Asiatic black bears in battery-farm conditions where they have their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine, regularly extracted.
This small Vietnamese-run farm, an offshoot of a larger one in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is one of at least eight such farms - one of which holds about 100 bears - known to have opened across the country in the past decade. Welfare organisations believe other smaller farms exist in Laos, although they do not appear on government records.
Bear bile has been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years. The bitter yellow fluid is made in the liver, then stored in the gall bladder until it is released to help break down fats during digestion. Traditionally it is believed to 'relieve internal heat', but its supposed powers are myriad and it is prescribed for everything from hangovers to cancer and is found in products from edible powders to shower gels.
While scientific studies have found a substance contained in bear bile - ursodeoxycholic acid - can help in the treatment of gallstones, it can be produced synthetically or taken from the gall bladders of domesticated animals slaughtered for the meat trade. There is little or no scientific evidence that bear bile is effective in treating other conditions.
Until about 30 years ago, the only way to acquire bear bile was by killing a wild animal and removing its gall bladder (itself a popular ingredient in Chinese medicine). Then, in the early 1980s, bear farms began appearing in North Korea, before spreading to China, where the practice gained popularity, and south into Vietnam.
The Chinese government supported bear farming, claiming that the farms promoted captive breeding and helped to reduce the need to hunt wild bears. But the difficulty of breeding captive bears means hunting has continued, with adult females killed and their cubs taken to farms. There are now some restrictions on how farms operate, but the Chinese government estimates that there are currently between 7,000 and 10,000 bears kept for their bile in China.
In the face of international pressure Vietnam banned bile farming five years ago, since when the number of farms in Laos is said to have grown steadily, many run by Vietnamese bear farmers who have taken their operations across the border.
Politicians in Laos, in response to international pressure, recently reviewed legislation, revoking the licences of all wildlife farms pending inspection by national authorities, but major loopholes remain. While it is illegal to capture a wild bear and keep it in captivity in Laos, bear farmers are allowed to keep bears as long as they claim the animals have been bred from bears born in captivity - and there has been little legal pressure on them to prove where the bears come from.
With a population of only six million and a traditional, impoverished rural lifestyle, Laos provides easy pickings for entrepreneurs and traders from its powerful neighbours. The bear bile industry is highly lucrative. With a seemingly in-satiable demand for the product in China, Korea and beyond, and these countries facing diminished supplies as other nations clamp down on farming and hunting, unless the Lao government tightens its laws it seems inevitable that bear farming there will keep growing.
Mary Hutton, the English-born founder of the Australian animal welfare charity Free the Bears, is one of the most vocal critics of bear farming, and has grown increasingly concerned about the situation in Laos. 'The farming of Asiatic black bears for their bile is an incredibly cruel and unnecessary industry,' she says. 'What's more, it can easily be replaced in traditional Chinese medicine by synthetic and herbal alternatives. Bile farming has no proven conservation benefit for this magnificent, globally threatened species. Bears in bile farms suffer terrible physical and psychological pain and suffering, something that is expressly forbidden under Laos laws for wildlife.'
Statistics on wildlife populations in Laos, one of the world's least developed countries, remain scant. Researchers are only now beginning to study wild black bears there. It is no easy task given the reclusive nature of the species, which spends much of its life high in the trees of shrinking forest regions. Black bears are omnivorous and will eat anything from small mammals to whatever crops farmers plant, a habit that leads to conflicts with villagers that can be fatal for bears and humans. In rural Laos, the ferociousness with which an angry bear will attack is legendary.
Even globally, details on Asiatic black bears are unclear. Also known as moon bears, after the cream-coloured crescents on their chests, they are found in Eastern countries from Afghanistan to Vietnam, yet only a few nations have population estimates, and figures from those that do - particularly China - are questioned by conservationists. Worst-case figures suggest there could be as few as 25,000 left in the world; even the higher estimates put the number below 100,000.
What is known is that a combination of habitat destruction through deforestation and hunting, either for body parts or to quell crop raiding, has led to the Asiatic black bear being categorised as globally vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Mammals, meaning that the population is believed to have declined by more than 30 per cent in the past 30 years.
In the wild an adult black bear would roam across a territory 100 square miles in size, but here, in the Luang Prabang farm, they are confined in barred enclosures measuring 15 sq ft. Some of the animals cannot stand fully upright and some display the repetitive swaying movements of severe stress. Most also have mange, and scratch incessantly at their patchy fur. Despite the 100F heat outside, there is no water in any of the cages.
Disturbing as all this is to witness, these bears are luckier than others. In some bile farms the bears live with a catheter inserted into their gall bladder. To enable farmers to extract the bile without risk of attack, the animals are often confined in 'crush cages' so tight that they can hardly move at all. A bear in a well-run zoo or safari park can live for up to 35 years. Most bile-farm bears are unlikely to survive much beyond eight years, according to Free the Bears.
The manager of the Luang Prabang farm, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who lives here with his wife and baby, and whose family runs the bigger operation in Vientiane, says he started this farm five years ago. Bear protection organisations in the area learnt about it only a year ago when, in a spirit of entrepreneurship, the manager approached Western shopkeepers and restaurateurs in Luang Prabang to see if they might like to offer the bile to tourists. He received a cool reception, and campaigners have been trying to persuade the local authorities to close the farm ever since.
Sitting in his wood-panelled front room, he produces four photocopied pages, written in English, of what appears to be a government licence for the farm, and a 'scientific report' promoting the health benefits of bear bile. (He tells me that bear bile can be good for a lot of things, but I should never take it if I am pregnant.) Then, after preparing the injections that the bear will need for the procedure to extract its bile, he leads me to the back of the house where the bears, aged between three and seven, are kept. I am told to watch out for a small, sharp-toothed monkey in the corner because it 'doesn't like women'.
Near the cages there stands a dirty green operating table and, next to it - incongruously, in the dirty, gloomy surroundings - a Chinese-made ultrasound machine, of the same kind used for pre-natal scans in humans.
Earlier, I had watched as one of the bears allowed the farmer to scratch it playfully on the head through the bars. Now, the animals seem agitated as he approaches the cages, carrying a large stick and a medical box. The farmer pushes the stick into one of the cages and prods the animal head-first towards a lasso-like tether. The bear growls as it is pulled forwards and swiftly injected with an anaesthetic. It throws itself at the bars, snarling. (Poachers recount graphic stories of fellow hunters whose faces have been ripped off by angry black bears, but they say that in captivity the animals are comparatively docile.) Within a few minutes the anaesthetic begins to take effect.
Once the creature is unconscious, the farmer struggles to lift it on to the operating table (male black bears can weigh more than 440lb, and although the undernourished farm bear appears considerably lighter, it is still a large animal). There it is tied to each corner by its paws, exposing its abdomen and chest. Squirting a clear gel on to the bear's belly, the farmer then uses the ultrasound machine to locate its gall bladder. With his wife's assistance he inserts the draining apparatus, a simple set-up involving a needle attached to a narrow plastic tube and a small suction machine.
Soon a dirty brown liquid begins trickling down the clear pipe that snakes across the bear's body and into a glass bottle of the sort you would see in many family larders. A lurid yellow foam forms on top. After about 20 minutes, the procedure is over. The tube is withdrawn, the bear is injected with 'vitamins' to help it recover, and then manhandled back into its cage.
Back in the front room, where the bottle of freshly drained, still-frothy bile sits on the table, the farmer shows us a price list, helpfully laid out in Lao kip and US dollars for the customers who visit his home. It states that 1ml (less than a third of a teaspoon) of bear bile costs $15. But there's a promotional deal on just now: buy 5ml get 1ml free reads a notice on the wall. In Laos, where the average monthly wage is $30, such sums are beyond most people's budgets. The farmer tells us the majority of his customers are private clients from Vietnam, Korea and China.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia and its inhabitants make a living however they can. Over the past 10 years it has modernised significantly, but its improved infrastructure has come at a considerable cost to the nation's wildlife. The country's animals have become easy targets for experienced Vietnamese wildlife traders who, having all but wiped out many of their own nation's species, now smuggle animals dead and alive (anything from lizards to elephant parts) across the border.
A sinewy man in his early forties, Aye Wong Phet is among the growing number of former poachers who have turned gamekeeper in Laos. He was recruited from his village to work for a wildlife protection agency, and the skills he once used to track and kill animals are now used to help conserve them. 'There is much more hunting in Laos than there was 10 years ago,' he says.
Phet is one of three former hunters who has been working with Lorraine Scotson, a biologist from the University of Bristol, to help monitor bear populations in Laos, the first such survey of its kind. Scotson says his knowledge of bears and their habitat is remarkable and invaluable.
'In the past we would go and kill a bear if someone was sick,' Phet recalls. 'It was the only medicine we had. [Even today modern medicine is scarce in rural Laos.] We only killed them for their gall bladder, but we would eat the meat too. Now people from Vietnam want all the different parts for medicine.'
Phet doesn't know what they want the parts for - it is not a Lao tradition, he says - but as long as the hunters are being paid well, they will continue to deliver the goods. 'A few years ago nobody took the paws, but now they want them too,' he says. Bear paw soup is considered a delicacy in Vietnam, Cambodia, China and other parts of Asia.
Phet joins me on a visit to a rescue centre at Tat Kuang Si, just outside Luang Prabang, run by Free the Bears, and he is full of delight seeing the bears there, helping to hide food in the large enclosure where the bears will have to forage for it as they might in the wild.
There are 23 adult bears here, either confiscated by the authorities or handed over by individuals after the sanctuary was set up in 2003. Jude Osbourne, from Hastings, East Sussex, who runs the centre, has just taken delivery of five orphaned cubs, whose mothers are believed to have been killed by poachers and who would otherwise have almost certainly ended up on a bile farm. A bear cub can sell for up to $600 - enough to keep a family in Laos for more than a year.
So far, prosecution against hunters is rare and as there is no pressure for farmers to prove that the bears on their farms did not come from the wild, the risks are low. Osbourne believes this means bear farming will become more widespread.
'We're not yet at the stage it reached in Vietnam,' he says, 'where there are still more than 4,000 bears held in farms' - even five years after the ban on bear bile farming came into force. 'It is illegal to take bile from them, but they can't be released back into the wild either.'
Osbourne and others believe that many farmers defy the law and continue to take bile from these bears. 'The danger is that bile farming will expand to similar levels very rapidly in Laos if a full ban on the farming of bears is not enacted soon.'
At the bile farm in Luang Prabang, the owner is busy sealing lids on
several tiny bottles of the precious liquid that he has just extracted
from the bear. Once that task is completed, he mixes the dregs in the
jar with vodka and, with a toast to the good health he promises it will
deliver, downs the bitter mixture in a single gulp.