Moon bears, also known as Asian black bears, have historically been prized throughout Asia for their bile, which is commonly used for traditional medicinal purposes. Their bile has been especially sought after in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has been promoted as a possible coronavirus treatment.
According to National Geographic, moon bears are the most common species of bears farmed for their bile in Southeast Asia. The bile from these bears contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid, which has been shown to be effective in helping treat certain liver and gallbladder conditions in humans.
Beyond its medical value, bear bile has also historically been promoted across Asia as a way to cure hangovers or treat acne, according to Animals Asia, an animal welfare group headquartered in Hong Kong, though these claims remain scientifically unproven.
According to Animals Asia, bears used for extracting bile are held in captivity and are kept in tiny cages. The bile is extracted using invasive methods, like inserting a catheter into the bear’s gallbladder, which can be painful to the animal and lead to infection.
Though the practice has been widely condemned over the years, the farming of bear bile remains in South Korea. According to a June 2020 report from the Korean Animal Welfare Association, over 430 bears used for their bile are currently being held in cages across 30 South Korean farms.
The prevalence of these farms dates back to the early 1980s, when the South Korean government endorsed bear farming as a way to supplement rural farmers’ income. According to World Animal Protection, an international animal welfare organization, thousands of bears have been held captive in bear bile facilities across Asia since the 1980s—including in South Korea, where it remains legal to raise bears and slaughter them for their bile.
South Korea has taken steps in recent years to ban the export of captive bears, including in 1993, when South Korea joined [the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], which made the international trading of endangered species—including moon bears—illegal.
The owner of the biggest moon bear farm in South Korea sparked renewed interest in the controversial practice in June, telling the Korean Broadcasting System, South Korea’s national public broadcaster, that the bear’s bile “cures all diseases, such as the coronavirus.”
South Korean animal rights activists, who have long fought to end bear bile farming, have taken note of enhanced interest in the practice, and have reiterated its cruelty.
Kim Su-jin, an activist at Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA), told VICE News that the conditions of the bears kept for farming are extremely poor and that most cages, which are usually three to six feet in size, are too tiny for the bears. When cases are larger, up to ten bears share the cramped space.
“Many bears lose their body parts or even die because they attack each other in those small cages,” said Kim. “And injured bears never get adequate care.”
And although it is illegal, the farm highlighted in the KBS report slaughtered bears for meat and advertised the false notion that eating bear meat can cure COVID-19.
“That farm was the exception,” said Kim. “It is the only one that makes income by selling bear bile. Other farms are struggling to survive.”
While the issue of bear farming remains heightened during the pandemic, activists say the demand for bear bile has sharply decreased.
Some other bear farms are finding it difficult to sell their products because people nowadays prefer to use modern medicine to cure ailments, rather than consume bear bile.
The owner of a moon bear farm in Gangwon Province, who asked to remain anonymous over concerns that he would be criticized for continuing to engage in the dying practice, told VICE News that poor conditions on farms are “unavoidable” and may only get worse as demand lessens.
“There’s no profit from bears,” he said. “How can we feed them? Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Several South Korean animal rights activist groups, such as KAWA, have urged the government to enact legislation to end the bear farming and place the bears in proper sanctuaries. But activists, including Kim, have acknowledged that freeing the bears may result in a loss for farmers, making it a tough sell.
In 2019, KAWA reported that 85 percent of bear farm owners demanded that the government support them economically in shutting down their business.
Additionally, wildlife experts, including Kim Jeong-Jin, a researcher at the ecological restoration division of Korea National Park Service, say that reintegrating bears raised in captivity will be difficult.
According to Kim, the rescued bears cannot be released among native moon bears at Jirisan National Park in South Korea, known for its moon bear conservation program.
In Jirisan National Park, native moon bears are protected by the government and are considered to be an endangered species.
“Not only are they different from native bears in the national park, but they also need their own place to adjust in wildlife,” he said. “You cannot just release animals to nature when they have spent whole lives in cages.”
Still, rights groups are making headway. This year, KAWA rescued 22 caged bears by closing one farm in the Gangwon Province. These bears are slated to be transferred to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado at the beginning of next year.
Kim Su-jin said that while recent efforts have yielded successes, saving 22 bears “is not enough” and said it was crucial that the government build a sanctuary.
“I’m excited that 22 bears will be sent to a better place,” she said. “But the government needs to do something. One who has tied a knot must untie it.”