The End Of Bear Farming In Vietnam
Since the 1970s, Asian black bears have been farmed in China and Vietnam for their gallbladder and bile, used to treat minor ailments in traditional medicine. Herbal and synthetic versions are available, but the demand for natural bear bile continues. The bear population has declined by 30% over the past 30 years.
In 2017, the Vietnamese government committed to closing all bear farms by 2022. Ending commercial bear farming while demand for bile persists could lead to the increased hunting of wild bears. Furthermore, previous research suggests that consumers prefer wild bear bile to farmed. This study examined the current demand for bear bile in Vietnam to determine the potential for consumers to seek out wild bear bile after farms close.
The study population was randomly selected across seven areas that represent unique aspects of Vietnam. It included various ethnic groups in both urban and rural regions. The researchers used multiple survey tools to gain a complete understanding of bear bile use in Vietnam. Participants who reported a history of bear bile use were asked to participate in a more detailed interview. In addition, a series of experiments were used to explore choice preferences about conventional and synthetic bear products. Participants were randomly assigned to consider one of two scenarios regarding bear bile purchase — buying medicine for a family member to treat a bruise or buying medicine to treat their own sprained ankle.
A total of 2,463 adults, predominantly middle-aged men, were included in the quantitative portion of the study. The results showed low use of natural (farmed or wild) bear bile. Participants confirmed that bile is usually purchased for medicinal purposes (bruises, joint pain, stomach aches, postpartum treatment) or social drinking. Despite widespread belief in its effectiveness, the population was generally apathetic about the decline of bear bile use in Vietnam. The choice experiments revealed that most people prefer synthetic bear bile to natural, although actual consumption of synthetic bear bile was low. Specifically, just 4% of respondents said they had consumed it in the past 12 months. Despite being illegal, the researchers found the use of bear bile to be fairly open and normalized.
During the qualitative portion of the study, respondents shared three typical uses for bear bile: to heal minor ailments, for social drinking purposes (e.g., bear bile alcohol), and as gifts for others. Those who participated in the interviews weren’t always sure of where the products came from, although most sought out their purchases from trusted suppliers or friends. It’s important to note that the people who were interviewed were predominantly men, and that they expressed a history of using bear bile.
The highest reported use of any bile source was the bear bile plant. Both the Vietnamese government and bear-focused NGOs have encouraged use of herbal alternatives instead of bear bile. Theoretically, the plant-based product would be an easy replacement for conventional bear bile, but preliminary research has shown that it may be perceived as less effective. This warrants more research and possibly education.
The results suggest that phasing out bear farming in Vietnam is unlikely to increase wild bear bile use, at least for the general population. Bile farming has been declining for 15 years, and a demand for wild bear bile was found only in one area of central Vietnam. In the other study areas, a strong preference for synthetic bear bile was found over any other alternative. Coupled with the finding that participants were indifferent about the government’s goal to eliminate bear farming, it is doubtful that many Vietnamese people are committed to conventional bear bile.
The study also suggests that a decline in farmed bile availability can shift consumers toward products that are believed to have similar benefits, and that are cheaper and easy to acquire, such as synthetic bear bile and bear bile plants. Coupled with a strong preference for using synthetic bear bile over wild and farmed bile, it is reasonable that bear bile consumers in Vietnam will be willing to use non-animal-based products, including the bear bile plant and Western medicine, to treat future ailments. This may present an opportunity for animal advocates to discuss the benefits of plant-based products in general to replace the ongoing use of wild animal products.