Market for Bear Bile Threatens Asian Population

New York

January 28, 2013

The six bears that arrived this month at Animals Asia, an animal rescue center in China, had the grisly symptoms of inhumane bile milking. Greenish bile dripped from open fistulas used to drain gall bladders; teeth were broken and rotted from gnawing on the bars of tiny cages.

Four of the bears have since had surgery to remove gall bladders damaged by years of unhygenic procedures to extract their bile, which is coveted for its purported medicinal properties. One bear’s swollen gall bladder was the size of a watermelon.The latest batch of bears was rescued from an illegal farm by the Sichuan Forestry Department and joins 145 other bears at the center, near Chengdu in southwestern China. Over all, 285 bears have been rescued since the center opened in 2000.


With luck, the six bears will recover at the sanctuary. But thousands on farms, both legal and illegal, continue to suffer in wretched conditions, and countless others living in the wild across Asia are threatened by poaching and their illegal capture.

Bear bile contains a chemical called ursedeoxycholic acid, long used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat gallstones, liver problems and other ailments. There are an estimated 10,000 farmed bears in China, 3,000 in Vietnam, at least 1,000 in South Korea and others in Laos and Myanmar.

Tigers, rhinos and elephants are notoriously poached to satisfy high demand in Asia for their parts, which are falsely assumed to have medicinal properties. Experts warn that sun bears and Asiatic black bears, known colloquially as ‘moon bears, are on a similar route to endangerment, although their plight draws less media attention. ”No bears are extinct, but all Asian ones are threatened,” said Chris Shepherd, a conservation biologist and deputy regional director of the wildlife trade group Traffic who is based in Malaysia.

To address the threat, the demand for bear bile must be sharply reduced, Dr. Shepherd told hundreds of researchers at the International Conference on Bear Research and Management, an annual event held recently in New Delhi.

Reducing demand would require a multipronged effort, experts say. That would mean enforcing existing laws, arresting and prosecuting violators, promoting synthetic and herbal alternatives, and closing illegal farms.

Chinese celebrities like the actor Jackie Chan and the athlete Yao Ming have both spoken out against the bear bile industry to raise public awareness about poaching and the inhumane conditions typically found on farms. Bears often live for years in coffin-like cages in which they are unable to stand or turn around.

The bile is extracted through catheters inserted into the abdomen, with needles or by bringing the gall bladder to the skin’s surface, where it will leak bile if prodded.

Legal farming was conceived as a way of increasing the supply of bile to reduce the motivation for poaching wild bears, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But there is no evidence that it has done so, it noted in a resolution passed last September, and there is concern among conservationists that it may be detrimental.

The resolution also called on countries with legal bear farms to close down the illegal ones, to ensure that no wild bears are added to farms; to conduct research into bear bile substitutes (there are dozens of synthetic and herbal alternatives) and to conduct an independent peer-reviewed scientific analysis on whether farming protects wild bears.

Some groups argue that the increased supply of farmed bile has only exacerbated demand. ”Because a surplus of bear bile is being produced, bile is used in many nonmedical products, like bear bile wine, shampoo, toothpaste and face masks,” Animals Asia says. Since bear farming began in China in the early 1980’s, bear bile has been aggressively promoted as a cure-all remedy for problems like hangovers, the group added.

In mainland China and Japan, domestic sales of bear bile are legal and theoretically under strict regulation as prescription products. But such sales are illegal in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and the international trade is illegal as well.

Yet a 2011 report from Traffic indicated that bear bile products were on sale in traditional medicine outlets in 12 Asian countries and territories.

Nonprescription bear bile products like shampoo or toothpaste are illegal in China yet are readily available for purchase, conservationists say. Tourists from South Korea, a country that has decimated its own wild bear population, are major buyers in China and Vietnam even though taking bear bile products across borders is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

”Farms have drawn in bile consumers by creating a huge market — farmed bile is cheap,” said David Garshelis, a research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who is co-chairman of the conservation group’s bear specialist group.

In Vietnam, a milliliter of bile might sell for $3 to $10; about 100 milliliters can be extracted from a bear each time, according to Annemarie Weegenaar, the bear and veterinarian team director at Animals Asia’s Vietnam center.

In four years, the conservation group is to issue a report on whether bear farms threaten wild populations. Meanwhile, demand appears to be spreading further afield in Asia and is now growing in Indonesia, largely as a result of demand from the Chinese and Koreans doing business there, said Gabriella Fredriksson, a conservation biologist based in Sumatra. A low-level poacher can sell a gall bladder from a bear caught in a simple snare and then killed for about $10.

So far the biggest threat to bears in Indonesia is loss of habitat from forest fires and the conversion of land to palm oil plantations. But in the last few years, poaching has increased, said Dr. Fredriksson, who has been there 15 years.

She cautioned that bears in Indonesia could also become highly threatened. ”Fifty years ago, bears were doing well in Cambodia and Laos,” she said. ”Now there’s hardly any left.”


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