Bear bile trade is thriving in Laos though the animal is protected under the law, with a foreign-owned bear farm operating with impunity just outside the country’s capital, according to a resident.
The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said local Lao officials have ignored the facility, which is owned by a group of Vietnamese immigrants.
The trafficking of bile-based traditional medicine is a key threat to Asia’s bears, partly because of poaching, environmental groups say.
The foreign-owned bear farm outside Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is believed to be highly connected.
“Sometimes the operations are hidden, but most of the time, the owners will tell neighbors exactly what they are doing if asked. But the neighbors won’t report the farm because they know that the owners are untouchable,” the resident said.
“Police officers don’t have the right to arrest them. It’s the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.”
The farm had previously been raided by authorities when it was owned and operated by a different group of foreigners, the resident said.
“Before, the farm was owned by Chinese, but after the Lao authorities ordered it closed, this group of Vietnamese took it over and reopened it,” he said.
“The people who took it over may be extracting the bile and not selling it, but either way, this is torture to the animals. This practice is against the law.”
A lucrative trade
Bear bile, a liquid produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder to aid in digestion, is used in traditional Chinese medicine to counter “internal heat,” but is prescribed for a variety of ailments and diseases, including cancer.
Bile is usually extracted twice a day from a bear’s gall bladder through an implanted tube or collected via a free flowing drip method in which a wound is kept permanently open in a bear’s abdomen.
To facilitate the extraction process, bears are commonly kept in “crush” cages which are so small that they prevent the bear from being able to stand up, or in some cases to move at all.
While an acid found in bear bile has been proven to aid in the treatment of gall stones, the same substance can be reproduced chemically in a laboratory. Bear bile has no other scientifically proven uses in the field of medicine.
And yet, one milliliter of bear bile, or roughly a third of a teaspoon, can sell for 120,000 kip (U.S. $15)—a hefty price for Laotians who earn an average salary of just 240,000 kip (U.S. $30) per month.
Much of the bear bile extracted in Laos is privately sold to customers from China, Vietnam, and Korea, though bile products have been found in shops throughout Asia, including in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Burma.
Asiatic black bears and sun bears, the two species most frequently farmed for bile, are both listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade in the species, its parts, and derivatives.
Laos is considered an emerging market for bear bile products, largely due to increasing pressure in China and Vietnam to end bear farming.
According to a 2011 report by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, the trade of parts and derivatives from second-generation captive-bred bears is permitted in Laos under the Wildlife and Aquatic Law with proper approval.
This law defines products as “extracted parts of wildlife and aquatic life for producing items like medicine for healing illness, ornamental, and other utilization purposes.”
But TRAFFIC notes that as bears are protected in the country, obtaining parent stock from the wild is illegal.
“As it seems to be highly unlikely that bears are being bred on farms and in the absence of monitoring systems to accurately determine whether the animals derive from wild or captive sources, farms should be closed down to avoid abuse of this loophole,” the report reads.
TRAFFIC also recommends amending current legislation to close these loopholes and to more fully protect wildlife.
According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, more than 12,000 bears are currently estimated to be housed in both illegal and legal bear farms across Asia.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.