The Dark Truth behind Bear Bile Uses: Hidden Costs of Traditional Medicine

what is bear bile

I personally think that using animals for traditional medicine is one of the most unnecessary and cruel forms of animal abuse.

Now, don’t get me wrong, every single form of animal abuse is unnecessary, but there is something about inflicting pain on innocent animals for medicine with no scientific backing that really gets under my skin.

And even if there is scientific evidence of these medicines working, there are usually cruelty-free methods or other ingredients that work in the exact same way, making the pain and suffering of animals absolutely redundant. 

You’ve probably heard of traditional medicine using the bones of tigers and antelopes or the horns of rhinos, but did you know that bears succumb to invasive surgeries to extract bile from their gallbladders?

The practice in itself is truly disgusting, and it makes my blood boil, but to make it even worse, they keep these bears in inhumane conditions, refining them to tiny cages for the entirety of their lives.

Bear Gallbladder

bear bile

Have you ever heard of a battery bear? Well, you have now because battery bear is the nickname given to bears who are kept in captivity and abused for their digestive fluid, bile. You most likely know them as bile bears, and for centuries traditional Asian medicine has harvested the bile from bears. 

Today over 12,000 bears are farmed for their bile in countries throughout Asia every year, which is incredibly shocking to think about. I mean, could you imagine spending your entire life in a tiny cage, having someone extract your digestive fluid for an unnecessary reason? 

China, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar are the main culprits for the abuse of bile bears; however, Japan and Malaysia are two more countries where bear bile is in high demand. 

Of all the bear species, the Asiatic black bear is the bear Asian countries most commonly farm for bile, but that doesn’t mean all other species are safe. Every species of bear can fall victim to bile farming, except one. Any guesses which? 

The answer is the giant panda, and Asia doesn’t just leave them alone because they’re cute and cuddly, but only because the giant panda doesn’t produce Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is the bile acid other bears do produce.

what is bear gallbladder used for

If giant pandas did produce the bile, they too would be abused at the hands of traditional medicine. 

Asiatic black bears and sun bears (another popular choice for bile farming) are both on the Red List of Threatened Animals as vulnerable as hunters used to hunt and kill them for their bile. Although the ban on hunting bears for bile was put into place in the 1980s, it didn’t mean bears were safe.

Now factory bile farming is more common, and in my opinion, it’s even worse than hunting and killing the bears to extract their gallbladders. Bears today go through years and years of neglect and abuse, with permanent catheters in their gallbladders, high levels of stress, and post-surgery infections, which can all cause death.

For a large percentage of the bile bears, these bile extraction issues do indeed cause death, which is a pretty cruel way to die, isn’t it?

Bile Farming History

what is bear gallbladder used for

The very first recorded use of bear bile dates back to the Tang dynasty in 659 CE, so the abuse of bears has been going on for over a thousand years. But what is so special about bear bile, and does traditional medicine only target bears for it? 

Bears are the only mammal that produces high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) in their gallbladders, and as UDCA is clinically proven to treat liver disease and dissolve gallstones, traditional medicine has sadly targeted bears for the benefit of humans. 

Before the ban on bile bears hunting, hunters would kill wild bears and cut out their gallbladders straight from their bodies. And yes, this act was cruel enough, but then someone in North Korea developed a method to extract bile from live bears, and along with it came bear bile farming. 

The idea of bear farms spread throughout China and other Asian countries, and the owners of these farms actually thought they were doing good in the world. They believed that if they raised and bred populations of bears in captivity, then poachers wouldn’t need or want to kill bears in the wild.

Can you believe them?

Sadly, today the demand for bear bile isn’t just confined to Asian countries, as now there are many Asian communities in the United States and Europe, so even bears living in the U.S. are at risk for bear bile farming.

Extraction Methods

what is a bear gallbladder used for

There are a few different ways that bear bile farmers extract the bile from a bear’s gallbladder, all of which require surgery and come with a whole range of complications. I will warn you that none of these are easy to hear. 

  • Repeated percutaneous biliary drainage is when farmers use an ultrasound machine to locate the bear’s gallbladder so they can puncture it with a needle and extract the bile. 
  • Permanent implantation is where farmers insert a tube through the bear’s abdomen so farmers can extract bile from the gallbladder twice a day.
  • Catheterization is a perspex or steel catheter that they push into the gallbladder through the bear’s abdomen. 
  • Full-jacket method is similar to catheterization; however, the catheter is left in the bear so that the bile drips into a plastic bag in a metal box that the bear wears. 
  • Free drop is a permanent hole in the bear’s abdomen and gallbladder, so the bile from the gallbladder freely drips out. The holes are often kept open with a catheter causing high infection and mortality rates. 
  • Removal of the entire gallbladder is most common for wild bears, who hunters kill for their bile.

Bears Housing and Husbandry

If having your bodily fluids extracted from your body in painful ways wasn’t enough, the conditions that the bears live in and the way bear bile farms treat the bears is truly criminal. 

what is bile used for

Farms often catch bears from the wild as cubs and will keep them until they’re three years old, which is when they can begin extracting their bile. Bear bile farms will extract bear bile from bears for a minimum of five to ten years, with some bears living in cages until the age of 20, having their bile extracted day in and day out. 

In just five years, a single bear can produce 2.2 kilograms of bile, but when they reach the age of 10 and their productive bile-producing years are over, farms will often slaughter the bears and harvest them for their paws, meat, fur, and gallbladders. Would you believe that bear paws are a delicacy in Asian countries?

Mature farmed bears are kept in small cages that typically measure 130 x 70 x 60 cm meaning the bears aren’t able to sit upright, stand, or turn around. Crush cages are also popular throughout bear farms as the sides of the cage can be moved inwards to crush and restrain the bear to ultimately make the bile milking process easier. 

what is bear bile used for

The time that the bears don’t spend in crush cages, they’re housed in cages that are large enough for them to stand and turn around in, but by no means are they of adequate size for a fully grown bear. 

Living in highly restrictive cages causes more problems for the bears, as they can go experience physical injuries, mental stress, muscle atrophy, and severe pain.

And to top it all off, bile bears are also subject to declawing and having their hind teeth removed to prevent injury to workers if a bile bear attacks.

Bear Bile Uses 

Asian countries use bear bile for medicine, and it is estimated that the bear bile industry and the bear part trade is a $2 billion industry.

bile farm

In Medicines

The main reason why bile bear farming exists is for traditional medicine, as bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which can treat the following:

  • Hemorrhoids
  • Sores
  • Sore throats
  • Sprains
  • Epilepsy
  • Fevers
  • Improve eyesight
  • Hangover
  • Act as an anti-inflammatory
  • Break down gallstones
  • Clear the liver

I just want to point out, however, that you can purchase medicines or have surgeries that don’t harm any animal for all of these issues.

Hangover? Drink some water. Sprained your ankle? Rest, elevate it, and use ice. Sore throat? Drink a cup of tea. NO bear needs to be subject to cruel treatment as there are medicines and steps you can take to help with these problems.

Raw Bile, Bile Powder, and Pills

Bear bile products come in the form of entire bear gallbladders, pills, bear bile powder, raw bile, ointment, and flakes, and each year practitioners produce 7,000 kilograms of bile when only 500 kilograms are actually used.

bile bear

So, where do the remaining 6,500 kilograms go? The remaining bear bile then gets used as an ingredient for non-traditional health tonics and for beauty products.

Would you like to take a guess on how much 1 kilogram of raw bile or 1 kilogram of bile power can sell for? The answer will truly shock you. 

Raw bile can sell for $24,000 per kilogram, with bile power in Japan selling for $33,000 per kilogram. Size of a 1-liter bottle of water can sell for over $24,000. Crazy, isn’t it?

Bear bile pills, on the other hand, are considerably cheaper, between $0.38 and $3.83 per pill; however, the pills don’t contain large amounts of bear bile, which is why their price is significantly lower.

Efficacy in Treating Gallstones

Now, although bear bile farming is disgusting, inhumane, and completely redundant, scientific studies have shown that bear bile does have anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective effects meaning it can dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. 

Thankfully, Chinese scientists are working on substitutes for bear bile by creating synthetic sources of ursodeoxycholic acid to hopefully eliminate the cruelty towards bears throughout Asia.

Is Bear Bile Legal

In some countries, the practice of bear bile farming is still legal, and wild-caught bears, along with bears born in captivity, are still suffering at the hands of humans for their digestive fluids.

what is bile used for

In China

Sadly, bear bile farming is legal in China, and the country still uses bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine. Although in 1994, China announced that it wouldn’t be issuing licenses to new bear farms, the bear farms that were already licensed were able to continue as normal.

Two years later, in 1996, China stated that no foreign object, like a catheter, was allowed to be inserted into a bear and that farmers were not allowed to extract bile from bears who were under the age of three or who weighed less than 100 kilograms.

In 2006, the Chinese State Council Information Office further set rules for raising black bears for bile extraction, saying that the entire process needs to be hygienic and painless, but as I’m sure you can imagine, nothing about bile extraction is hygienic or painless.

Because of the ban on no foreign objects being inserted into bears, farmers adopted the method of free dripping, which is unsanitary, painful, prone to infection, and caused the bears to be at risk of liver cancer.

Remember the COVID-19 pandemic that locked all of us in our houses for over three years?

Well, what’s even crazier is that China’s National Health Commission stated that products containing bear bile could treat severe cases of COVID-19, regardless of the fact that there is no evidence to support it.

In South Korea

Bear bile farming has been illegal in South Korea since 1992, but like most illegal things and practices, it still does happen throughout South Korea, as there are over 100 farms with 1,300 bears who are still being tortured for their bile. 

What is legal in South Korea, however, is that bears over the age of 10 can be killed for their gallbladders. Similarly to China, South Korean farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic stated that bear bile could help cure those infected with Coronavirus.

In Vietnam 

Vietnam banned bear bile extraction in 2005 with the hope of phasing out bear bile farming; however, similar to South Korea, there are still thousands of bears on farms suffering because of farmers draining their gallbladders of bile.

Cruelty-Free Alternatives

what is bear bile

Many countries have started creating ursodeoxycholic acid from cow or pig bile, and although this is great news for the bears, it just passes the suffering over to another species.

We can make ursodeoxycholic acid without any animal ingredients, and companies throughout China, Japan, and South Korea produce over 100,000 kilograms of synthetic UDCA each year. 

Regardless of the fact that synthetic UDCA is available, traditional Asian doctors still believe that bear bile is the superior product, which is why the bear bile farming industry continues to be a billion-dollar industry.

Bile Bear Welfare Concerns

The international concern for the welfare of bile bears began in 1993 as bears in bear bile farms have no veterinary attention, they aren’t looked after by skilled workers, and their living conditions are incredibly unethical.

bear bile uses

Physiological Indicators

Bears from bear bile farms show significant amounts of physiological stress, from sores, hair loss, and skin conditions to bone deformities, injuries, and breathing problems.

Behavioral Indicators

Along with physiological signs, the behavior of bears in bile farms is considerably different from what they would be if the bears were wild animals. Bile bears exhibit repetitive functionless movements like swaying, anxiety, lethargy, and in severe cases, self-mutilation.

Longevity and Mortality

To really put into perspective how life-threatening bile bear farms can be, bears in the wild can live between 25 and 30 years, and healthy bears in captivity can live up to 35 years ago. So, what do you think the average life span of a bile bear is?

Bile bears live an average of 5 years which is just 1/7 of the time that other captive bears live.

Bear Bile Statistics

Here are some truly harrowing bear bile statistics:

black bear gallbladder
  • Commercial bear bile farming has been happening in China since the 1980s.
  • The free-drip method, where farmers leave permanent holes through the bear’s abdomen and gallbladder, is what the farmers consider the most humane bile extraction method. I’m not sure what planet they are on, but nothing about free dripping is humane. 
  • Some shampoos and toothpaste include bear bile. 
  • If a bile bear is sick and suffering from infections, their bile often contains blood, urine, feces, pus, cancer cells, and bacteria. Would you really want to be putting that into your body?
  • Today there are still roughly 10,000 bears in China and 400 in Vietnam that are subject to bear bile farming, with the largest farm in China keeping 2,000 bears captive.
  • Asiatic black bears are the most common bears in bear bile farms, and the fact hunters once killed them for their gallbladders has meant they are now an endangered species.

The only bear species that is safe from bear bile farming is the giant panda, meaning grizzly bears, sun bears, and other brown bears are also victims of bear bile farming.

How Can You Help

bear gallbladder use

There are two things we can do as individuals to hopefully put an end to bear bile farming. Firstly, we can spread awareness to family and friends about the inhumane and cruel treatment of bears in bear bile farms.

Get together and organize an event or form a support group to raise money and awareness of the bears. 

And secondly, we can donate to programs that help rescue, rehabilitate, and save bears from bile farms.


How Is Ox Bile Harvested?

Ox bile is a by-product of the meat industry, so when cattle are killed for their meat, farmers remove their gallbladder and its bile contents so it can be made into ox bile products.

What Is a Bear Bile Farm?

A bear bile farm is a farm that inhumanely breeds and captures wild bears, confining them to tiny cages and extracting bile from their gallbladder through painful and unsanitary practices.

What Is the Composition of Bear Bile?

The composition of bear bile is bile acids, bile pigments, fat, phospholipids, and trace metals and amino acids.

What Is the Storage Area of Bile?

Bile is produced by the liver, which is then stored in the gallbladder.


Capturing, breeding, torturing, and forcing unnecessary suffering on bears just for their bile is appalling, and countries throughout Asia should be making it their mission to enforce stricter laws and save the bears who are at the hands of these heartless farmers.

Even just writing this article, the facts, figures, and statistics have made me angry and disappointed in the human race, and I don’t understand how people can go to ‘work’ every day and subject innocent bears to pain and torment, especially when synthetic UDCA is widely available all over the world.

Megan Bryant
Megan owns two very needy but adorable Dachshund pups named Oakley and Cooper, who are the light of her life and the reason she’s awake at 6:30 am - not by choice, but because, according to her dogs, 6:30 is breakfast time, and they’ll stop at nothing until there is food in their bowls. Growing up with pets all her life, Megan has become extremely passionate about animals and found a love for researching and writing about ways to care for and appreciate all species that call this Earth home. During the times she’s not busy working, you’ll typically find her cuddled up between dogs watching various TV series.

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