Moon bears, a sanctuary to save them from bile farms opens in Laos

NGO Free the Bears has opened a mountain sanctuary for moon bears in Laos. With the government’s help, it aims to close all bile farms by 2022.

The life of thousands of Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus), also known as moon bears because of the white patch on their chest, sounds like something out of a horror film. They spend most of their existence caged and exploited in bile farms, found in several Asian countries. Here they’re squeezed to obtain their bile, which contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), used in traditional Chinese medicine.

For many animals, this horrible suffering, which may last for up to thirty years, ends only with death. Some, however, are given a second chance, saved by organisations that are fighting to protect them. These bears are freed and transferred to specialised recovery centres. Free the Bears is one of those organisations: for 25 years it has tried to end these plantigrades’ suffering, with bear sanctuaries in three different countries.

moon bears playing
Bile used to be obtained by killing bears in the wild, but in the 1980s bile farms started emerging. In them, bears are kept throughout their entire lifespan for their bile to be extracted © Wang He/Getty Images

A new sanctuary for moon bears

Free the Bears, in collaboration with the Laos Department of Forestry, recently opened a large new bear sanctuary in Luang Prabang, in a wooded valley in the north of the country.

The Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the same area as the previous one, but it’s 25 times larger and should be fully completed by 2021. The structure includes a wildlife hospital, a “nursery” for cubs, shelters for bears, an education centre and housing for volunteers. Moon bears are also allowed to roam freely inside a large enclosed area, which includes a lake where they can swim and fish.

Not just bears

In addition to bears, the sanctuary is designed to accommodate other species that fall victim to illegal wildlife trafficking, such as leopards, primates and birds of prey. A special structure has even been created to house pangolins that need care before they’re reintroduced into the wild.

“More than 20 different species, many of which are on the IUCN’s Red List, have been provided with a second chance at life thanks to the creation of this much-needed sanctuary,” says Free the Bears communications manager Rod Mabin.

No more bile farms

The organisation, thanks to the support of the Laotian government, set itself the goal of closing down all bile farms in the country by 2022, and of transferring all saved bears to the new sanctuary.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, might put a spanner in the works. China’s National Health Commission has in fact added Tan Re Qing injections to its list of treatments for the virus. This drug’s active ingredient is moon bear bile. “They use bear bile acid to treat gallstones and other liver diseases, but people need to understand there are more than 50 herbal and synthetic alternatives that will do the same job,” explains Free the Bears Technical Advisor Nikki Brow.

The impact of coronavirus on conservation

The effects of the global health emergency are also reflected in other aspects related to the protection of moon bears. Travel restrictions, for example, make it hard for veterinarians and volunteers to travel, and funding for conservation programmes is at risk of being significantly delayed.

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