Several bears lie on top of each other, as still as teddy bears, as they
gaze out past rusty iron bars. Others pace restlessly. The ground below their
metal cages is littered with faeces, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, dog food and fruit.
They've been kept in these dirty pens since birth, bred for a single purpose:
to be killed for their bile.
But these bears aren't dying. The industry is.
Though their bile has been used as medicine in Asia for thousands of years,
cheaper foreign sources, growing scepticism over bear bile's medicinal value
and worries about international condemnation have led to a huge drop in South
Korean demand. Kim KwangSoo, the owner of this farm in Dangjin, about 120 kilometres
(about 75 miles) south of Seoul, said he hasn't had a bear bile customer in
Farmers want a deal
That, however, doesn't ensure the animals a peaceful future. The government
is offering farmers money and incentives to sterilise or slaughter their bears,
but the farmers are demanding much more.
Kim, secretary general of a bear farmers' association, said farmers are
considering suing or even more drastic measures such as harming their bears if
they can't reach a deal. He said farmers will raise the issue of greater
government compensation during a meeting with government officials and civilian
To highlight their grievances, farmers in November brought caged bears to
downtown Seoul and near a government complex in the city of Sejong. Kim said
farmers are now considering hauling bears, 20 per cage, to the Sejong
government complex in the hope that the fighting, cramped animals will bring
"People talk about animal welfare... but bear farmers aren't getting
any welfare," said Yun Youngdeok, who runs a bear farm near Seoul. "We
feel like we are dying earlier (than our bears)."
Bear bile no longer popular
South Korea is one of the few countries that allow the farming of bears to
extract bile for traditional medicine. About 50 farms are raising about 1 000
bears, mostly Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears. They are the
descendants of bears imported from Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries
when bear farming began here in the early 1980s.
Kim said South Koreans were once willing to pay between 20 million to 30
million won (about R20, 000 to R30, 000) to have a bear slaughtered for its bile. But
farmers ran into trouble about a decade ago, when bear bile from China and
Vietnam became more readily available.
Now the farmers have an even bigger problem: Bear bile just isn't popular.
South Korea imported only 2.8 kilograms of dried forms of bear
gall bladders between 2008 and 2012, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug
Safety. In 2011, about 94% of South Koreans surveyed by the private Hangil
Research Centre said they had never bought bear bile and had no intention of
doing so. The telephone survey of 1 000 people had a margin of sampling error
of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The bear farmers' association says most of its members haven't sold any bile
in five or six years. Meanwhile, huge debts from feeding and maintaining the
bears are mounting. Kim, who has about 270 bears at his farm, said their upkeep
costs him about 300 million won (R300, 000) annually.Read more: Africa's
only polar bear mourns partner's death
(Picture: Bears from Shutterstock)