bear bile farming
A bear rescued from a bile farm sits in its cage before being transported to a rescue centre Reuters

An Asian black bear got its first taste of freedom this month, after spending ten years in captivity. The animal, named Hai Chan, was rescued from a Vietnamese bile farm in November by the international animal welfare organisation Four Paws.

She was missing her front two paws, which the conservationists believe were amputated and used to produce bear paw wine. After six weeks of treatment at the newly-opened Bear Sanctuary Ninh Binh in north-eastern Vietnam, she was finally able to venture out of her enclosure and walk around for the first time in her life.

"The moment the doors to the enclosure opened and Hai Chan stuck her nose out of the bear house, our entire team was overcome with emotion," Szilvia Kalogeropoulu, veterinarian at Four Paws said.

"This was the first time Hai Chan ever walked on grass. Despite missing her front two paws, she is able to walk on the flats of her front legs and on her stumps. We have always been confident that she would walk and cope with her disability but it's a miracle she built up the strength to do that so fast."

At the time of her rescue, the bear was living in a tiny metal cage in a filthy and poorly-ventilated room on the illegal farm, where she would have had to undergo the painful bile extraction procedure.

Today Hai Chan lives in an enclosure with a special low hammock bed made just for her as she cannot climb into a high one like other bears. Extra straw has been placed on the floor for softer walking. She uses her stumps to hold food and to make her bed.

"From day one we could already see a change in her behaviour. She went from being lethargic and uninterested, lying on the floor of the bile cage, to being curious and bright," Kalgeropoulu said. "She loves enrichment that has food in it, especially water, spinach and apples. She likes her comfort and enjoys making a nest to sleep in during the day. Hai Chan is now very relaxed and happy with the bear keepers."

What is bear bile farming?

Bear bile has been used as a remedy in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The sale and purchase of the product was made illegal but it is still a sought-after product in many Asian countries.

The bile is extracted via a steel catheter which is implanted into their gall bladders.

According to Four Paws, an estimated 1,300 bears are still being kept captive in around 400 bile farms in Vietnam.

Due to the regular, brutal extraction of bile and the lack of veterinary care, the bears suffer from various diseases such as infections, abscesses, blood poisoning and liver cancer. The extremely poor conditions at the bear farms also lead to serious behavioural disorders such as self-mutilation.

What is bear paw wine?

Bear paw wine is sold as a novelty gift item in various parts of South East Asia and is made by placing a bear paw into a jar of wine. Similarly, wine jars with pangolins, cobras, lizards, and other wildlife are also sold and there is a common belief that they have special medicinal value.