Illegal Pet Trade – Sun Bears

Illegal pet trade of sun bears in and around South East Asia.

Astronomers are still in search of an exoplanet that is as fertile with rich diversity of flora and fauna as planet Earth. Instead of protecting this planet by understanding its true worth, engaging in activities to plunder the nature and its inhabitants in the form of illegal wildlife trade is certainly a folly. However, given the fact that illegal wildlife trade is worth of nearly $10 billion, morals and ethics of people who plunder the wildlife take a back seat.

Legally, one can obtain permit for import or export of some wildlife species, but, generally, wildlife trade is a matter of conservation of endangered species. Illegal pet trade is active in Europe, Asia, Arabia, and North and South America. The most rampant of all is the illegal pet trade of sun bears in and around Southeast Asia. Sun bears – smallest of the bear species with a crescent on its chest – are on the verge of extinction in tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. Since the past few decades, the population of sun bears in Southeast Asia has gone down drastically with a decrease of 30% of the overall population – an alarming event that needs scrutiny of the situation to prevent extinction of this rare species.

Lola the Sun Bear

The home of sun bears is a typical tropical forest habitat – a home that has abundance of vegetation with amiable climate throughout a year. In Southeast Asia, sun bears inhabit thick rainforests of Islands of Borneo, Thailand, Sumatra, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Peninsular Malaysia. Even though sun bears are omnivores, they feed on large amount of vegetative growth including shoots of palms, flowers and fruits. This shows that sun bears are highly dependent on lush vegetation of thick tropical jungles.

The two major threats that have brought down the population of sun bears are deforestation of tropical forest for timber plantation and illegal pet trade of bears. As sun bears thrive in tropical forest mainly for amiable habitat with the availability of year-round food, loss of forest habitat due to deforestation directly affects the population of sun bears.

The second major threat is illegal trade of sun bears by commercial poaching. Poaching of sun bear for consumption of its parts was highly rampant among the indigenous people of Kalimantan – Indonesian portion of the Islands of Borneo – in the mid 90s. Besides, expatriate workers from Japan and Korea created a huge demand for consumption of sun bear parts. However, the most perilous threat, so far, has been illegal trading of sun bears for their gall bladders and bile for preparation of traditional Chinese medicine, which has a huge demand in the local markets of Southeast Asia. A study conducted by TRAFFIC – a wildlife trade monitoring network that works in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – shows that illegal trade of bears are conducted openly in local markets with wild-caught bears, instead of captive bred ones.


To meet the ever-growing demand of bear bile among Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Malaysian population, illegally traded wild bears go through a horrific procedure of having their gall bladders drained of bile twice a day by using a catheter tube inserted through an incision made on the abdomen and gall bladder. Each extraction of bile from a bear amounts to nearly 10 milligram, which has almost the same price as heroin in the black market. Additionally, sun bear farms in Vietnam, Lao, and Myanmar don’t have proper breeding program – another proof that shows that bear farms have been dealing with sun bears captured from wild.

Major consumers of bear bile are China and Malaysia, who use it to prepare traditional medicine that treats minor ailments like sore throats, epilepsy, and sprains. Even though China remains the major consumer of bear bile, according to Free the Bears Fund of Australia, Malaysia has more traditional medicine shops selling gall bladders of wild bears.


With increasing number of bear farms in Laos, Myanmar and regions around Burma, sun bears have been labeled as vulnerable due to their dwindling population. TRAFFIC and other wildlife conservation groups have initiated a clampdown on traditional medicine shops and restaurants, but the easy availability of wild bear products shows how entrenched bear farming has been in Southeast Asia. Irrespective of bear rescue centers, customs department has to become even more active to effectively stop illegal trading of sun bears. The following are some of the rescue centers in Southeast Asia working round the clock to save sun bears.

BSBCC – Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre :

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is a well-known bear rescue centre in Malaysia. It was founded in the year 2008 in Sabah, Malaysia, with a goal to provide rehabilitation and to release orphaned bears back to the wild life. The conservation centre has few bear house blocks and a fenced forest area with a capacity to accommodate approximately 50 bears. Even though the conservation centre was started recently, the facility is quite well established with viewing platform, offices, visitor centre, and forest boardwalks.

The salient feature of this centre is that sun bears are not just rescued, instead they are cared for with a holistic humane approach. When sun bears are brought to the centre, they undergo a thorough medical checkup. Typically, on arrival at the centre, rescued bears are sedated to undergo blood test and general health checkup. The best part is every bear gets its own bear file with details about its distinguishing features and its health condition. The bears are then quarantined until they are certified as medically fit. The Bornean rescue centre works in tandem with Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wild Life Rescue unit to rescue sun bears and to give them the free life they deserve.

Free the Bear Fund, Australia:

Free the Bear Fund was founded in 1995 by Mary Hutton to put an end to bear farming in Asia. Since its inception, Free The Bear Fund has rescued hundreds of bears in Indonesia, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Apart from saving wild bears, the organization is actively involved in funding conservation and rehabilitation projects with an aim of conserving bio-diversity and preventing illegal wildlife trade by funding and creating wildlife sanctuaries. The organization also provides sponsorship and support for individuals who are actively involved with conservation of sun bears.

In addition to the above-mentioned sun bear rescue organizations, there are few others like Red Endangered Animal Connection Trust (REACT), Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Wildlife Friends Foundation, Thailand, and Laotian sun bear rescue centre.

In 2012, the members of IUCN world conservation congress addressed the issue of bear farming with the following promises: – to conduct research to identify alternative bear bile substitutes, to implement monitoring systems to track wild sun bears, and to encourage Korea and Vietnam in ending illegal trade of sun bears. Additionally, CITES – Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – has promised to implement legislations to prevent illegal trade of sun bears. It should also be noted that trade of bear bile is legal in mainland China and Japan, but illegal in Cambodia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Even though local sun-bear conservation groups have dedicated themselves to creating awareness of illegal bear trade among the public, participation from local medicine practitioners and the public are much needed to put an end to this barbarous trade.

Actually, the flourishing of illegal bear trade and the growing number of rescue centers seem to progress in parallel with no meeting point. The very fact that illegal bear trade is conducted openly is a proof that there are enough loopholes in the local societies of Southeast Asia. So, what do you think can be done to gradually bring down illegal trade of sun bears and other wildlife species? Do you think any of the solutions given below would work?

  1. Complete overhaul of local practices and system: The irony of taking legal actions to clampdown bear trading is that the bear farmers keep relocating to places that have lax rules. However, the bear farmers can’t be blamed as most of them are poor people looking for ways to have a livelihood; so they have eventually become quite immune to the condition of bears in bear farms. However, merely finding ways to improve the economic conditions of farmers won’t help to put an end to such barbarous act. Therefore, a complete overhaul of the system and the society is needed to address such inhuman, cruel practice.
  1. Encourage research to find alternative solutions to traditional medicines: The major consumers of bear products are traditional medicine practitioners. A viable solution is to encourage research to find better, safer alternative to bear bile products. If bear bile extracted in such a barbarous way is what is needed to cure ailments of human beings, then how are the people of other nations meeting their medical needs.
  1. Profitable alternative solution:

Animal poaching has been in practice since the time of ancient Aztecs and Mayans. But, teaching the local population about morals and ethics behind cruel treatment could be effective, provided they are shown a holistic approach to find alternative means to generate income based on the principles of sustainability. Given the fact that most of the Southeast Asian regions have rich soil with amiable climate, finding different social and economical models based on natural resources could put an end to cruel practices.


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