Wild bears in Vietnam driven to the edge of extinction by bear bile farming

Recent surveys in Vietnam have shown that wild bear populations have declined precipitously throughout the country over the past 20 years.

The surveys were carried out in 22 protected areas throughout Vietnam as part of a three-year collaborative project implemented by the Centre for Environment and Rural Development at Vinh University with the support of the conservation and animal welfare organisations Free the Bears and Animals Asia.

Interviews with over 1,000 villagers living in and around the protected areas indicate that bear populations began declining between 1990 and 2005, driven by hunting and trapping. This coincides with the time at which the practice of bear bile farming in Vietnam began to expand rapidly.

Community members identify the locations of bear sightings Community members identify the locations of bear sightings

Between 1999 and 2005 the number of bears kept on bile farms in Vietnam increased tenfold, from approximately 400 to over 4,000. Bears in bile farms, predominantly wild-caught Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, are regularly subjected to painful and often unsanitary procedures to extract bile from the gallbladder for use in traditional medicine.

The report, released this month, notes that none of the protected areas surveyed has a healthy population of wild bears. Despite severe declines, occasional reported sightings continue into recent years. The persistence of bears in some sites has been confirmed by recent camera trap images and is further evidenced by ongoing hunting and capture of wild bears. However, the individual bears detected by camera trap or caught by poachers over the past few years may represent the last remnants of populations with little to no prospect of recovery without immediate investment in conservation interventions such as protection and translocation.

Young Sun bear discovered during invertview surveys in VietnamA Sun bear discovered in a village during the surveys, it was reportedly caught in a wire snare in 2015 near the Laos-Vietnam border. Credit: CERD    

The project leader, Brian Crudge, Research Programme Manager with Free the Bears, commented "The survey results add to the growing body of evidence that the practice of bear bile farming is of little to no conservation value for wild bear populations and is far more likely to increase demand and hunting pressure."

Matt Hunt, Chief Executive of Free the Bears and Co-chair of the Asiatic Black Bear Expert Team within the Bear Specialist Group said "These survey results show clearly - for the first time - just what a misadventure bear bile farming has proven to be. Our only hope now is that wild bears might have a chance to recover in Vietnam and other bear bile farming nations may learn from this folly and begin closing down their own farms before it is too late."

Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director for Animals Asia, said: "For all the cruelty of bear bile farming and all the suffering of the bears trapped in these cages it has only worsened the problem from an animal welfare and conservation point of view. There are now fewer moon bears than ever before. Bear bile farming has failed on all levels and Vietnam and wider Asia needs to learn these lessons and make a commitment to giving these animals a future in the wild.”

A rescued Asiatic black bear safe in Free the Bears sanctuaryRescued Moon bear, in the Free the Bears sanctuary in Luang Prabang, northern Laos  // © Free the Bears


Free the Bears and Animals Asia manage sanctuaries for bears rescued from bear bile farms and the illegal wildlife trade, respectively, in Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam and Tam Dao National Park in northern Vietnam.

Click to download the full report on The Status and Distribution of Bears in Vietnam.

The report is available for download in English and Vietnamese.