A Galling Business: The Inhumane Exploitation of Bears for Traditional Asian Medicine

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, October 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Galling Business: The Inhumane Exploitation of Bears for Traditional Asian Medicine


Raloff, Janet, Science News


As a consultant to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Jill Robinson walked onto her first bear farm 12 years ago. At this facility in southern China, she found each bear standing not on a solid floor but on bars in a cage too small for the animal to take even one step. Although the Asiatic black bear is normally a solitary and clean animal, these cages were crowded together in buildings that could only be described as "filthy" Robinson reports.

Worst of all, she says, was the bears' evident suffering. Many had gnawed at the bars of the cages until their teeth cracked. Some repeatedly banged their heads against the bars, and most had open wounds.

The purpose of these farms was to supply bear bile--a prized ingredient in many traditional Chinese-medicine therapies. In powders, pills, and liquids, it's used to treat conditions including eyesight problems and what Chinese practitioners call "liver fire."

Traditional medicine has been driving an active trade in bear bile and gallbladders, which produce it. Sales flourish despite a longstanding, near-global ban administered by the United Nations on international trade in bear parts and products.

In China, wild Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are protected as endangered. However, it's legal there to sell bile from bears on licensed farms.

Animal-protection groups have estimated that about half of the world's Asiatic black bears reside in cages on farms, primarily in China, Vietnam, and Korea. Some farms have just one bear; others--especially in China--can have several thousand. Each bear is milked regularly for bile in a painful and physically harmful procedure, or the bear is killed and bile is extracted from its gallbladder.

On subsequent farm visits, Robinson witnessed the staff extracting bile from bears by unplugging metal catheters that had been permanently inserted into their gallbladders. The bile dripped into collection pans beneath the cages. Seeing such "inhumane" animal treatment, Robinson recalls, "changed the course of my life."

Within 5 years, she had set up the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation. It operates a 25-acre sanctuary at Chengdu in Chinas Sichuan Province that currently houses 168 bears rescued from farms that have shut down. Robinson is also working to find places for additional bears expected to become available in the near future.

Vietnam is a major bear-farming nation, despite laws that forbid the practice. Recently, an animal-welfare group negotiated with that country to enforce its laws and phase out bear farms. New technologies are being developed for policing this agreement and the international-trade ban. These tools are expected to come into use within the next year.

In North America, hunters kill American black bears and sell the gallbladders illegally. Although these bears aren't considered endangered, special agent Allen Hundley of the Fredericksburg, Va., office of the Fish and Wildlife Service notes that any time an unregulated market "puts a price on the head of wildlife,' as it has on bears for their gallbladders, the future of that wildlife is in serious jeopardy.

BEAR FACTS Estimates remain sketchy, but wild populations of Asiatic black bears seem to have dropped to about 15,000 animals throughout all of Asia, says Dave Eastham of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) in London.

Trafficking in bear parts is largely responsible for this decline, according to the Gland, Switzerland-based World Conservation Union. The group concludes that this species faces "a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term."

Heavy poaching prompted China, 25 years ago, to move some bears to licensed facilities. The resulting farms were expected to supply all the bile needed to fulfill traditional medicine's demand--then about 500 kilograms of bile per year--says Eastham.

However, traditional medicine's bile consumption has now reached 4,000 to 5,000 kg per year worldwide, he reports.

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