THE BLOG
10/01/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Bears Rescued From Bile Farms: Why Not Just Release Them?

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Animals Asia has rescued 535 bears from farms in China and Vietnam, where their bile is painfully extracted as a prized ingredient in traditional medicine.

When people visit or hear about these rescued bears living at our sanctuaries they sometimes ask - "why not release them?"

My answer is always, "there's nothing we would like more..."

Tragically, release back into the wild, where they should belong is simply not an option for these poor animals - at least not at the present time.

The most fundamental reason is that there is no known safe area for them to go. While trade is legal and demand exists, poachers will too.

A common argument we hear to excuse bear bile farming is that the farm breeding programmes will reduce the demand for wild caught bears and help conserve wild populations. We've long disagreed with that, and last month Traffic's report backed up our assertions. The trade of wild caught bears continues to supplement farm stocks. Breeding programmes are defective in these dire conditions while many bears continue to die young as a result of the horrific pain and mutilation they endure.

Having suffered at the hands of the bear bile industry, many of the bears we rescue are incapable of surviving in the wild. They suffer from a range of health problems and disabilities such as blindness, missing limbs and mobility problems, and heart conditions. Of our rescued bears, 35% die of liver cancer, while others develop severe spinal, joint and arthritic problems from cage confinement - a horrible way to die in the wild. Many lead pain-free lives thanks only to daily medicated fruit shakes responsibly prescribed by our vets. These long-suffering animals endure medical conditions that have to be carefully managed to ensure their welfare - and that, of course, could not possibly be offered in the wild.

At the other end of the spectrum are the cubs we receive. Increasingly our sanctuaries have become home to very young bears. These cubs and juveniles have been rescued on their way to a life sentence in China's bear bile farms - yet another clear indication that the farms' breeding programmes don't work. Ripped from their family at horrifyingly young ages, the cubs have never learnt the survival and life skills that a mother bear teaches her young.

There are wild release programmes in Russia, the USA, India and even Borneo where cubs are taught to survive, but the programmes are intense, difficult and fraught with danger in terms of the capacity of the land, mortality from other wildlife such as snakes, and friction with local communities.

Perhaps more worrying still, released bears could present a real risk to human life. Having been conditioned to accepting food from humans, these bears would likely think little of approaching villages and towns in search of easy pickings. Communities in this situation would be put into conflict with the bears in defence of their livestock, livelihood and their families.

Even in a country as vast as China, finding a space for these magnificent creatures to live as nature intended would be challenging to say the least. The sheer numbers of bears currently in captivity is dizzying. Take our Peace by Piece project which is turning a bear bile farm into a sanctuary. With over 100 bears on site and the eyes of the nation watching our every move, how could we possibly guarantee their safety by moving these bears to a "protected" area? Their location would be impossible to protect and the significant habit area they'd require impossible to police.

Yet as bleak as all this may sound, we remain hopeful for the future.

Humans have created this problem and, as such, it is our responsibility to set it right.

More than 10,000 bears are believed to be languishing on Chinese bear bile farms. The simple solution of just opening the gates is not an option - the scale of the problem is way beyond that simplistic approach. All involved parties must come together to find a workable and long-lasting solution, drawing on the components of our strategy designed to address the beginning of the end.

The last bear cub to be born on Nanning Bear Farm was beautiful Smudge. At just a few months old, she could have 30 years of life ahead of her. In that time, who knows what changes are possible. We have to believe that Smudge, and thousands of other moon bears like her, may one day taste real freedom and we unwaveringly work towards that day.

Our aim is less bears in captivity, not more. Our priority is no bears in cages - and, eventually, no need for our sanctuaries too.