Bear bile farming has to be near the top of the list of most diabolical practices ever perpetuated by humans. 

As an Earth Touch News producer, I see footage of the illegal wildlife trade on a daily basis. I have spent hours in edit suites watching the same horrific shots over and over again. Rhinos with faces hacked off. Jars of tiger bone wine. Primates, snakes and big-cat kittens stuffed into luggage. The list is endless. But putting together a piece on bear bile farming has affected me more than usual. 

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It is not just the torture – make no mistake, this can only be described as torture – of bears on bile farms that is so abhorrent. It’s the systematic, sustained torture. In some cases, the animals are kept in tiny cages for decades, mutilated by hack-job surgical procedures designed to make it easier for farmers to milk their gall bladders for bile. It is almost impossible to understand: how can any human being believe that inflicting this kind of suffering is acceptable?

In their desperation, some of the animals resort to self-mutilation, hitting their heads against the cages and biting the bars with their teeth. These are, after all, wild animals that have evolved to live in expansive forests, where they play important ecological roles and where stimulation is vast and varied. Instead, they are imprisoned in cages to service an absurd demand for bile, a digestive fluid that is stored in the gall bladder and used as an ingredient in traditional medicines. And this suffering is senseless: bear bile can be cheaply and easily synthesised without any animals being harmed in the process.

Take a look at our Insider episode and see for yourself. Warning: it is very hard to watch. But it needs to be seen. 

Working on this project has made me deeply thankful for the efforts of people like Dr Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of the non-profit organisation Animals Asia. A tireless campaigner for ending the bear bile trade, she was kind enough to be interviewed on camera. If you've watched the Insider episode, you'll have seen her two dogs – both rescued from the meat market (yes, she rescues dogs too!).

One of the questions Robinson addressed was whether any of the captive bears could be rescued and released back into the wild. Keep in mind that there are about ten thousand bears in captivity in China and about four thousand in Vietnam. That is a lot of bears to find homes or sanctuaries for. “In China, where bear bile farming is still legal, it would be reprehensible of us to try because I think that as soon as we released them into the wild, they would be re-caught again for the bile industry.”

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Dr Jill Robinson with her two rescued dogs, Tojai and Muppet.

She adds that many of the rescued bears have severe disabilities from injuries sustained on bear-bile farms, which would put them at risk in the wild. Re-wilding eligible bears is not an option that’s totally off the table, however. In Vietnam, where bile farming is illegal (even though it does go on), there may be more potential for this.

But the issue of what to do with existing bears rescued from farms remains complicated. Despite this, Robinson believes that there is a solution, one that involves working closely with governments. “Before the bear-bile farms get shut down, that’s where all the hard work begins. We’ve already said to the government that we’d like to join them in a research programme, investigating all the bear farms here in China to prioritise their closure – that’s got to be the first step. Then, closing the worst ones, basing this on purely a welfare perspective that those animals are suffering the most.” It might also be possible for some bile farmers to convert their farms to sanctuaries, Robinson adds.

Whatever the solutions might be, the industry cannot be eradicated overnight. And securing sufficient funding to continue the organisation's work remains a challenge. “We rely on the kindness of people across the world to build sanctuaries ... we absolutely need help," Robinson says.

I’ll leave you with some final words from her: “After all these bears have gone through, I think it's our responsibility as compassionate people to know how badly these bears have suffered,  and the onus is on us to try to rescue as many as we can and to close those bear farms down, convert them to sanctuaries, and just end this industry once and for all.”

If you would like to be a part of that mission, go to www.animalsasia.org and donate.