The keeping of Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) and Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) in captivity to extract bile from their gallbladders is a relatively new concept in Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos) and is thought to have only begun in the early 21st century. Bear bile farming was first developed in North Korea in the 1970’s in the belief that this would lead to less pressure on wild bear populations and provide a ready and replenishable source of bear bile for use in traditional medicine. The practice of bear bile farming soon spread to the People’s Republic of China, where an estimated 7,000-10,000 bears are currently kept in captivity and Vietnam where approximately 1,200 bears are believed to remain on bile farms. Changes in government legislation in Vietnam enacted in 2006 have explicitly banned the extraction, advertising, sale or purchase of bear bile in Vietnam, possibly leading to an increased pressure on wild bear populations in Laos as bear farmers have attempted to establish bear farming as an industry in this country, exploiting weaker wildlife protection laws and a poor record for wildlife law enforcement.
Close the farms and open sanctuaries
Free the Bears is determined to work closely with the Government of Laos and other international partners to end bear bile farming in the country by 2020. There are currently estimated to be between 152 and 164 bears being held in up to nine bile extraction facilities across Laos, with more than half of these being held in locations bordering China Thailand and Myanmar. Free the Bears is in the process of securing a new site which will serve as a second sanctuary within Luang Prabang province capable of housing up to 150 rescued bears, which will allow the organization to effectively guarantee a safe and secure lifelong sanctuary for all of Laos' bile farm bears.
Rehabilitating captive bears and providing nutritional care
WRS’s support has enabled Free the Bears to construct a 10-den bear house with an outdoor forest enclosure and climbing towers, pools, as well as aerial walkways to accommodate rescued bears. In addition to this, funding also goes towards taking care of their dietary needs and conducting regular veterinary health checks. WRS also provides funding support for the salaries of two keepers charged with caring for rescued bears.
A ground-breaking model for animal management in Southeast Asia
Free the Bears has been working in close cooperation with the Government of Laos for over 13 years already, creating a world-class sanctuary for almost 40 bears at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre and providing unique environmental education opportunities for over 200,000 visitors each year. Their ongoing efforts will serve as a ground-breaking model for wild animal management that other local and regional wildlife protection programmes might learn from and replicate. With many ASEAN nations currently exploring options for either embarking on wildlife farming or endeavoring to close these industries, Free the Bears’ approach will establish Laos as a regional leader and demonstrate the benefits of close cooperation between government agencies and civil society for the benefit of wildlife.