Vietnam's Illegal Backroom Bears

  • Photographer
    Kate Fox
  • Prize
    Honorable Mention
  • Date of Photograph
    August 2018 - October 2018
  • Technical Info
    1/80, ISO 12,800, f/3.2, 28mm, Full Frame, Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm

Vietnam's illegal backroom bears aren't supposed to exist. Yet 14 years after a microchip programme to register existing bears on phoney redundant farms, there are still about 800 bears alive. With an 8-year lifespan, this is somewhat surprising! Cruel conditions deter breeding so it's credible that poached wild bears are still restocking farms. Deeply ingrained traditional medicine beliefs are fuelling this tenacious bear bile industry, despite herbal alternatives. A photographic investigation and interviews uncovered 2 farms of poached bears and the mechanisms allowing them to enter farms.


1. An undercover investigation in Vietnam's illegal wildlife trade revealed this sad bear, individually caged in a dark, airless and breathtakingly sweaty backroom with 8 other visibly young and therefore illegal cellmates. My translator recounted the farmer “got bears from Laos when 1kg, now 3 years old.” With Asiatic Black Bears protected under CITES Appendix I this is a significant offence. Once bears reach 5 years it’s hard to tell their age making it easy to filter these "hot" illegal bears onto registered farms and pass them off as older, chipped and legal.
2. Whisked to a nearby second farm, 3 slightly older bears were prepped for bile extraction. With no training courses, this illegal life-threatening procedure requires antibiotics to stay alive.
3 + 4. Fresh from the gall bladder, the warm bile was then bottled up in a silent, well-trodden production line and shipped to Hanoi to be flagrantly sold on their dealer’s bear-bile internet hotline. Photographed here in a sordid back-street tryst.
5. Charities such as Four Paws are battling to save these bears. Before this voluntary transfer to a sanctuary, vets anaesthetise the bear for emergency treatment.
6. After 13 years incarceration, the owner and officials sign paperwork to legalise the transfer.
7. The intense cruelty of bear bile farming often requires ongoing remedial surgery. An old snaring injury confirms this bears wild origins but after years of poor diet, the vet operates to resolve severe and painful dental problems.
8 + 9. Born wild in Cambodia, this poached Sunbear cub was given to Free the Bears, escaping a similar life of exploitation. Learning to climb a tree in nearby woods and enjoying frolics with her adopted guardian. A far cry from the brutal reality of the bear bile trade.
10. Global political action is finally fighting the illegal wildlife trade; a low-risk, high-reward crime, making it the fourth largest illegal trade after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

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