The Asiatic Black Bear is listed as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Animals due to beliefs that its body parts and particularly its bile are effective for medicinal purposes. Bile has been used in traditional medicine for over 3,000 years and is known to be effective in treating a range of liver and eye-related diseases.
It has been illegal to possess or sell Bear Bile products in Vietnam since 2005 but rules are rarely enforced and Bear products are used commonly in society. Bear farming is illegal in Vietnam though it is legal to keep bears in cages as pets, farmers flaunt the law and harvest bile from their pet bears. It is estimated that there are about 2,400 bears imprisoned on farms in Vietnam today, they are kept in cramped metal cages for their entire lives.
In Vietnam bears are milked every few months for their bile. Bears are drugged and an ultrasound machine is used to locate the gall bladder; their abdomens are then jabbed with unsterilized needles until the gall bladder is pierced and up to 400ml of bile can be withdrawn from a bear’s gall. Not all farmers have access to an ultrasound machine and some will stab and taste for the strong bitter taste of the bile to locate the gall. This can lead to contamination by feces, urine & pus. It can also lead to dangerous leakage of bile into the body.
Many bears also suffer severe joint and muscle ailments from their inability to move freely in cramped cages. This pain is compounded with the mental stress that the procedure causes and many bears end up with psychologically issues.
Bear Bile is sold in Traditional Medicine Pharmacies across Vietnam and there are even some restaurants in Hanoi that are known for selling bile. I visited one of these restaurants and I was invited to join a group of young Vietnamese students whom were drinking shots of bile mixed with vodka during a meal. One of the young men told me that he does not eat dog because he likes dogs, he believed that bears were dangerous though and this was his justification for consuming the bile. The same restaurant is also known for serving rice wine infused with the entire body of an Asiatic Black Bear. The large tank containing the bear is in full view of anyone entering the restaurant and it seemed that the owners cared very little about the laws put in place to protect the bears. It is a common myth amongst men that drinking both the bile and the infused rice wine will make them strong and enhance their sexual virility.
Today bear bile is completely unnecessary as there are over 50 herbal alternatives and many widely used synthetic substitutes that are equally effective, easily accessible and inexpensive. It seems like one of the only ways to curb the trade is to educate future generations about the alternatives and to counter outdated and false beliefs.