I could never quite stomach looking into the issue of bear poaching – the images of bear snouts desperately sniffing out of cages was always more than I could handle.
But while visiting the Kuangsi Waterfall Park near Luang Prabang, Laos, there was a bear sanctuary there that dealt with the very issue, and this time I was ready to learn.
What You Need to Know
In Laos, the Malayan Sun bear and the Asiatic Black bear are illegally poached and traded into China. Poachers go into the jungle where the bears can be found, fencing off wide areas with only a couple of openings where they can then capture the bears.
Occasionally, the bears are killed, especially if they are older, for their organs, fur, or meat, and many are dismembered, with their paws used in whiskeys sold at whiskey farms as a specialty.
Some are taken illegally as pets, and kept in small cages either in homes or restaurants. But most commonly, they are captured and used in bear bile farming.
Bear Bile Farming
Bile is a fluid secreted by the liver that aids digestion. First believed to reduce fever, dissolve gall stones, and improve eyesight, bear bile (containing more ursodeoxycholic acid than that of other mammals) is now sold to China and other parts of Asia as a cure-all traditional medicine for everything from headaches to heart diseases.
The captured bears are confined to “crush” cages in which they can barely move as tubes are stuck into their bodies so that bile can be tapped every day from their gall bladders via drip method.
It is a life of terrible pain and suffering.
Free the Bears
The Free the Bears Fund was started by Australian Mary Hutton in 1995 when she learned about these practices, and now has branches in various countries in Asia including Laos, Indonesia and India. The bears at the Kuang Si sanctuary have all been donated by owners or rescued from poachers by Lao authorities. When they arrive at the sanctuary they are often suffering from neglect, disease and malnourishment, and consequently stunted growth. They are all victims of the illegal wildlife trade.
The (Other) Worst Part
This isn’t actually illegal! Trade laws in Laos dictate that using animals bred in captivity for medicinal purposes is allowed, and so the most that organizations like Free the Bears can actually do is continuously raid bear bile farms in order to regulate them: make sure that the number of bears in a farm doesn’t exceed the number the farm is licensed for as that would mean that additional bears were actually captured in the wild.
And the (next) worst part is that bile is actually potentially harmful to humans (!) and there are both herbal and synthetic alternatives to bile which are cheaper, safer and more effective, so this is all completely unnecessary! A huge part of Free the Bears Fund’s effort is to educate people about exactly this, so that new generations don’t repeat the same atrocities, and so this can stop before it’s too late.
Free the Bears strives to keep their bears safe, happy, and fulfilled, while continuously exploring the possibilities of their reintroduction into the wild.
Want to help?
Everyone can help take a stand against the illegal wildlife trade.
- Never buy or consume bear products.
- Report poachers and illegal wildlife trade.
- Sponsor a bear at the rescue center in Cambodia, India or Laos.
- Support the projects by donating to the Free the Bear Fund.
- Share what you learned with family and friends.