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The Unbearable Trade in Bear Parts and Bile
The Humane Society of the United States
There are about 7,000 bears on bear-bile farms in China. The captive animals are used to supply the voracious Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) market. Bear bile has been an ingredient in TCM for thousands of years, but intensive bear farming only came into existence in the 1980s when China's supply of wild bears began running low. The farms, however, have created a new set of problems.
Usually bile is extracted from the bears' gallbladders twice a day through a surgically implanted tube. The process, called "milking," produces from .338 to .676 oz. (10–20 ml.) of bile each time. Milking is clearly painful for the bears, who are often seen moaning and chewing their paws during the process.
Sometimes the farmers just push a hollow steel stick through a bear's abdomen, and the bile runs into a basin under the cage. Surgery to insert the tube or stick is seldom performed by veterinarians (very few bear farms employ them). Roughly half of the bears die from infections or other complications.
The catheter has been banned as a method for bile extraction (although bears have still been seen with catheters in them). In recent years, the government has been promoting the so-called humane "free dripping" method, which sees a permanent hole or fistula carved into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile "freely drips" out. The damage caused by bile leaking back into the abdomen, together with infection from the permanently open hole is as bad, if not worse, than the older style methods and causes a high mortality on the farms. Because the body's natural instinct is to repair itself, farmers' have had a difficult time keeping the hole in the abdomen open. This has led to illegal use of a small Perspex catheter which keeps the hole permanently open and infected, inflicting severe pain on the bears.
It's important to note that the herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile are 100% equal to bear bile in effectiveness. Additionally, veterinary evidence suggests that bile from farmed bears is often contaminated with pus and other detritus as a result of the conditions in which it is extracted.
On most bear bile farms, the bears are housed in a cage that is about 2.6 feet x 4.2 feet x 6.5 feet—so small that these 110- to 260-pound animals can barely sit up or turn around. The bars pressing against their bodies leave scars, some as long as four feet. Some bears have head wounds from banging them against the bars. Many of the bears have broken and worn teeth from biting the bars.
Cubs and Older Bears
Captive-bred cubs are taken from their mothers at three months. (In the wild, they have been observed staying with their mothers for up to 18 months.) Infant mortality is high. Captive mothers often eat their young, a behavior attributed to the stress of captivity because it seldom occurs in the wild. Some farms train cubs to perform in circuses (riding a bicycle, boxing, or walking a tightrope) until they are about 18 months old. Milking of the gallbladder begins at three years. Bears can produce bile longer than 5-10 years. Some bears arriving at the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Center have been in cages for 20 years or more, still producing bile at the time of their surrender.
Gallbladders can be worth much more than $150 USD depending on where they are sold. We have no fixed figures for the price of gallbladders in China, but many investigations have put it at much higher than $150 USD. Once smuggled to Japan and Korea, they can fetch several thousand dollars
Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), bears are either allowed to die from starvation or illness, or they are killed so the farm can sell their paws (one quoted price was $250 USD each) and gallbladders ($150 USD each).
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) sent investigators to 11 bear farms in China. At two model Chinese government farms, WSPA investigators were told that a smaller cage was used for the twice daily milking, but a cage large enough to allow the bear to stand and turn around was used the rest of the time. Still, practically all the bears had injuries from rubbing against bars.
Bear Bile—the Wonder Drug
Bile acid—ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA)—has been popular in TCM for about 3,000 years. Unfortunately for them, bears produce more of it than any other mammal. Bile is excreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, from which it is released into the stomach to help digest food. Bear bile is marketed as a treatment for a staggering array of human maladies, from cardiac illness to impotence to sore eyes. You can buy it in almost any form: pills and powders, ointments, lozenges, wines, and shampoos. But some practitioners of TCM use herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile that are less expensive and more readily available.
In 1999, a Chinese official reported that 7,002 Asiatic black bears were being held on 247 farms in China. (China is the major source of farmed bear bile. Sources indicate that there are 4,012 captive bears in Vietnam, a steep increase from the 1,059 reported in 1992 when the captive bear issue first emerged there. Over 90% of captive bears in Vietnam are Asiatic Black Bears. 85% of bear farms keep bears for bile tapping, while another 15% are for display only.
In Korea, the South Korean government may have made bile extraction illegal, but another method of bear farming is now gaining steam. WSPA and Green Korea United estimate that 1800 bears are being kept on farms. It is legal for farmers to slaughter them when they reach 10 years of age and extract their gallbladders.
Species at Risk
There are eight species of bear in the world. All but the giant panda are threatened by the trade in gallbladders and bile products. The species most targeted is the Asiatic black bear, classified as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Because Asiatic black bears are listed on CITES Appendix I, it is illegal for China to engage in international trade in their parts. But it's impossible to tell whether a gallbladder or bile has been taken from an Asiatic black bear or from an American black bear, a species that can be internationally traded. So Asiatic black bear parts are slipping into the international market disguised as parts from their American relatives.
The Threat to Wild Bear Populations
It's no secret that products from wild bears are sold in China. Although the Chinese government claims that captive breeding is successful, bear farms regularly restock with wild bears. The farms pay the equivalent of $280 to $400 for a wild-caught cub—as much as ten times the monthly wage of a restaurant worker.
It's hard to get a fix on how many bears are living in the wild in China. In 1997, the Ministry of Forestry reported the number was 46,530. By 1999, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated there were fewer than 20,000. The decline of Asiatic black bear populations in China has endangered other bear species: wild bears are being killed for parts and viscera throughout Asia, North America, and South America.
Despite international laws protecting bears, the illegal trade in bear bile and gallbladder thrives. There's no lack of smugglers willing to move the products across national borders. Smugglers have been caught with whole gallbladders dipped in chocolate (attempting to pass them off as chocolate figs) or packed in coffee to obscure the smell. WSPA investigators tell of bile farm owners admitting to illegally exporting products to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore.
All bear species are listed under CITES Appendices, either on Appendix I (no international trade is allowed) or Appendix II (regulated international trade is allowed with proper permits). The differing international legal statuses for bear parts in trade, combined with the impossibility of distinguishing between species parts, make it difficult to enforce national or international bear-protection laws.
Despite the prevalence of illegal trade in bear gallbladders and bile products, China promotes the idea that it can maintain a bear farming industry that is both sustainable and humane. To that end, the CITES Management Authority in China created a list of standards for bear farms. The idea is that farms meeting the standards could be registered with CITES and allowed to trade bear products internationally.
Five Hundred Bears to Sanctuary
In July 2000, the Chinese government signed an agreement to deliver (over five years) 500 bears to the Animals Asia Foundation, which would provide them with veterinary care, rehabilitation, and sanctuary. The bears would be taken from the most primitive farms in the Sichuan province, which the government would then shut down. In the following ten years, the program would be expanded into other provinces. The estimated cost for building a sanctuary and caring for the first 500 bears for the first year is more than $3 million.
Some consider the agreement with Animals Asia to be nothing more than a public relations maneuver, intended to mitigate the fact that the Chinese government is clearly committed to bear-bile farming and is, in fact, pushing to legitimize the industry. Critics point out that the farms from which the bears would be taken are merely the worst of the hundreds operating in the country. Furthermore, they say, the bears being turned over to Animals Asia are old bears who are no longer profitable.
The director of Animals Asia Jill Robinson, MBE, agrees that the animals being released into her custody are but "a small percentage" of the thousands suffering on bear farms in China. But she points out that, "They are also animals which have spent anywhere up to 22 years behind bars and desperately need help in the form of extensive veterinary care, physiotherapy and integration. For the first time, large numbers of farmed bears are, at last, seeing their freedom. This, and our work with the Chinese government and related authorities, is keeping bear farming in the public eye, while working continuously towards the goal of ending the practice once and for all."
The Moon Bear Rescue Center has confiscated 187 bears, and are set to reach their goal of rescuing 500 bears by the 2008 Olympics. While 500 bears may represent a small percentage of the total number of bears on farms in China, the Moon Bear Rescue Center is a focal point for education and awareness on the issue, attracting a tremendous amount of local and international interest. People all over China have been shocked by reports in the media on the bear farming industry. The bears surrendered to the rescue center come in all ages and condition. Perhaps one of the most important (and often overlooked) roles of the sanctuary is the compilation of veterinary and scientific evidence which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that bear farming is inhumane and hurts wild bear populations as well. Through our Education Village at the Moon Bear Rescue Center, Animals Asia is advancing the concept not only of bear welfare, but animal welfare as a whole, on a grand-scale.
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