How 101 Moon Bears Were Saved and Moved to a New Home

The bears now are experiencing grass and sunlight for the first time.

Moon Bear Rescue Centre In Chengdu
A rescued moon bear swings at the Animals Asia sanctuary in Chengdu, China. Wang He / Getty Images

Imagine the logistics, stress, and ultimate relief when 101 moon bears were moved from a former bile farm to a sanctuary on a 750-mile trek across China.

Also known as Asiatic black bears, the moon bears were rescued by the wildlife aid group, Animals Asia. A film crew followed the massive undertaking and the group created "Moon Bear Homecoming," a documentary about the operation. The film is narrated by actor and animal rights activist James Cromwell, who says he became a vegan after filming the movie “Babe.”

The story actually started in 2013 when the new owner of a bile farm in Nanning, China, chose not to continue farming the animals and reached out to Animals Asia for help. The bears needed major medical attention after years of bile extraction and invasive surgeries.

Initially, the hope was for the rescue group to convert the farm into another bear sanctuary, but “a series of unpredictable and unfortunate events” forced the organization to abandon that plan and instead make arrangements to transport the bears to their existing refuge in Chengdu.

“Moving 101 Asiatic black bears 750 miles from Nanning to Chengdu, China was the largest operation of its kind. At the Chengdu Bear Rescue Centre (CBRC), the only other time we had rescued such a large quantity of bears was in 2000 where we rescued 63 bears over the course of two months, basically starting the sanctuary," CBRC Bear and Vet Team Director Ryan Marcel Sucaet tells Treehugger.

Originally, the plan was to move just the sickest bears and then bring the other bears as there was room in the sanctuary, Sucaet says. But it took eight years to overcome legislative and proprietorship issues, as well as major challenges due to severe staff shortages because of border restrictions due to the pandemic.

“In a perfect world, this operation would have taken 6 months to achieve in strategically thought-out phases,” Sucaet says.

But it’s hardly been a perfect world.

“Our team never lost hope in the fact that one day we would rescue the bears, but we did have to change our thought processes about how we continued to manage the farm,” he says.

“This meant looking at managing the farm long term and putting more resources (monetary and staff numbers) into caring for the bears. And when that day did come to rescue the bears, we would be ready and confident that we were able to transform a bile farm into a really comfortable and enriching space for the bears.”

The Big Rescue

Finally, the team had confirmation in late March that the rescue would happen and had three weeks to prepare. They had to find trucks, contract with veterinarians, recruit nearly a dozen people to help care for the bears, and move many of the existing sanctuary bears to make sure they had space for the incoming bears.

“Our team was constantly worried the rescue wasn’t going to happen,” Sucaet says. “We were still worried even when the rescue was actually happening. It wasn’t until the last truck on the last phase of the rescue entered the sanctuary that it became real.” 

Fortunately, because they had been working with the bears for eight years, they knew the health conditions and the personalities of the animals and could individualize their care during transit. They were able to tailor their diet preferences, enrichment activities, and medications and place them in transport cages or on the truck with their closest friends for comfort. They had CCTV cameras to watch the bears remotely so they could monitor how they were handling the move.

“The trip itself was amazing! Our team was so organized and everyone knew their roles that I would even say the trip was equal parts stressful as it was fun!” Sucaet says.

Animals Asia
Animals Asia

“We didn’t sleep much (for days) but the bears made the trip so easy. Feeding and medicating them was simple. And if we knew some bears were more stressed (via CCTV footage), we could provide even more enrichment during transit. But the bears were remarkable. Every time the trucks stopped, all the bears would immediately calm down. Something we never were really able to see without the CCTV cameras inside the trucks.”

There was only one harrowing moment, he says, during the first phase of the rescue when a truck holding four bears broke down. They quickly made a plan and were back on the road after about an hour’s delay.

During the second phase of the trek, a landslide caused a 30-minute traffic jam, but otherwise, Sucaet says, “all went mind-boggling smoothly.”

Bliss and Rehabilitation

The bears spent 30 days in quarantine before being integrated with the rest of the sanctuary’s moon bear population. Once they had access to the full enclosure, it was the first time most of the animals ever were outdoors and felt grass or sunshine, the rescuers said.

The bears will experience a colder winter in Chengdu than they ever experienced in Nanning, which is a more tropical climate. Some bears are still acclimating to the new environment, Sucaet says, with all the strange sounds and animals.

Others have made the transition smoothly. 

“We have bears like Bärack, an individual who was clearly damaged by the industry (declawed, de-toothed, non-retractable tongue, broken humerus and a misplaced patella) who when we first gave enclosure access shocked us all with his behavior. I can only really describe it as bliss,” Sucaet says.

“He somersaulted around the enclosure repeatedly (even though he cannot even bend his hind leg). He rubbed logs on his face and grazed on grass. He was saying hello to all his new bear neighbors and just was a totally different bear compared to the one we knew in Nanning.”

Some of the youngest bears have been slow to acclimate to their space. Fortunately, they’ve never experienced bile extraction because they were under a year old when Animals Asia took over their care, but they are wary of the new environment. The first time they are released, they will only walk on the cement perimeter that anchors the fencing around the enclosure.

“They are afraid of the grass and hyper-reactive to every sound. It takes them days or weeks to feel comfortable. And it’s heartbreaking as something like grass should just be normal for them,” Sucaet says. “It’s a constant reminder of how their captive life has molded them. And also makes our team take a step back and appreciate the rehabilitation process these bears are experiencing.”

Moon Bears and Bile Farming

Animals Asia
Animals Asia

DNA results suggest that Asiatic black bears are the oldest of all modern bear species. They are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with their population numbers decreasing.

Moon bears are often kept on farms in small cages in captivity to collect bile, a substance found in many animals, including humans. Bear bile is used in some forms of traditional medicine. 

“Bears continue to be caged and cruelly extracted of their bile in countries across Asia, including China, Vietnam and South Korea,” Animals Asia's Founder and CEO Jill Robinson tells Treehugger. “Thousands of them suffer at the hands of human exploitation and greed as their bile juice is used for a variety of traditional medicines, or is sold in incidental preparations such as teas, tonics, and wines.” 

Bear farming is now illegal in Vietnam and South Korea, although limited enforcement and legal loopholes have allowed the practice to endure in places. Animals Asia now has two sanctuaries in China and Vietnam where nearly 650 previously caged moon bears now live, after having been rescued from bile farms.

The organization has been working with local governments and activist groups to help conserve bears in the wild, create public education campaigns, and spread awareness about herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile.

Robinson says, “Our goal is that other bear farming countries will adopt similar visions and programs until every bear is free of cages, and bear bile farming is no more.”
Watch "Moon Bear Homecoming" on Animals Asia’s website and Youtube channel.

View Article Sources
  1. Chengdu Bear Rescue Centre (CBRC) Bear and Vet Team Director Ryan Marcel Sucaet

  2. Abramovitch, Seth. "Hollywood Flashback: James Cromwell Reflects on ‘Babe’ 25 Years Later." The Hollywood Reporter, 2020.

  3. Kumar, Vikas, et al. "The Evolutionary History of Bears is Characterized by Gene Flow Across Species." Scientific Reports, vol. 7, no. 1, 2017, doi:10.1038/srep46487

  4. Garshelis, D. & Steinmetz, R. "Asiatic Black Bear." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22824A166528664.en

  5. Animals Asia's Founder and CEO Jill Robinson