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The number of bears being trapped and then tapped for the bile in their gallbladders has tripled in Laos in recent years, according to a new study published in the journal Oryx.
Like operators of similar “farms” in China, Vietnam, and South Korea, the Laotians lock bears in small, rusty cages where their gallbladders are repeatedly tapped—sometimes up to three times a day—and drained of their bile. The bile is then sold as a component of traditional Asian medicine or even as an ingredient in products as wide-ranging as wine and shampoo.
The bears in these facilities are kept in horrendous conditions, according to one of the study’s authors, Chris Shepherd, the regional director for Southeast Asia for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. “Many are malnourished, dehydrated, and in extremely poor health,” he said.
The study—conducted by undercover operatives posing as tourists—found that the number of bears in Laotian bile-extraction facilities increased from 40 in 2008 to 122 in 2012. Most if not all of them appear to have been illegally trapped in the wild, where their populations are in decline. Shepherd said bears in extraction facilities suffer high mortality rates, meaning even more wild bears need to be captured to replace those that die.
Ownership of wild bears is illegal in Laos, as is bear hunting and capture, but the facilities operate without any apparent fear of prosecution. In fact, government sources and official registration documents pointed the investigators toward the facilities they visited. “Some of the farms allow tourists in to see the operations, further illustrating the lack of fear of enforcement efforts and the law,” Shepherd said.
Many of the facilities apparently try to skirt the law against wild bear ownership by saying their animals are captive-bred.
Shepherd discounted that claim. “In any of the farms I have visited—and in any others I have heard of, for that matter—the bears are kept separately in cages, with no opportunity to breed,” he said, noting that even if the animals could interact with one another, they are probably too ill to mate and reproduce. Trapping wild bears, meanwhile, is cheap and “pretty much risk-free,” Shepherd said.
The scale of Laotian bile farms pales in comparison with those in other countries—China alone keeps up to 10,000 bears in extraction facilities—but the study found that they still have an impact. The authors wrote that bear bile products are advertised in Laos on posters, on the radio, and in newspaper articles that promote consumer demand. That has led to rising bile product prices.
There’s a further potential consequence for wild bears. According to the study, some consumers prefer bile that has been extracted from bears killed in the wild, believing it is either more potent or more valuable. During the two-year investigation, the authors observed an increase in the price for wild bile corresponding with the rising availability of farmed bile.
The study calls for these Laotian extraction facilities to be closed and for increased efforts to stop the illegal cross-border bile trade, which is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
“Only when conservation organizations and enforcement agencies start taking this issue seriously, and jointly tackle the illegal trade, will we see the decline in wild bear populations come to an end,” Shepherd said.