The ‘bear bile industry’ involves the cruel exploitation of captive bears to harvest their bile. The practice stems from ancient Chinese medicinal beliefs. Bear bile is used in many traditional remedies; however, the substance can be replaced by herbal and synthetic alternatives. Bear bile was first known to be used in 659 A.D. The Asiatic black bear (moon bear) is the species most commonly farmed, but the sun bear and the brown bear are also used. The Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are listed as Vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) ‘Red List of Threatened Animals’. Bear Bile farming is legal in China, but bear and bile trade across the borders is illegal.
Toby Zhang is the External Relations Director of Animals Asia’s End Bear Bile Farming Campaign. He joined Animals Asia in 2003 and now works in their Beijing office. Toby is responsible for the implementation of a strategic programme which aims to end bear bile farming in China.
The bile is extracted through extremely cruel methods. For thousands of years the way to obtain bear bile was to kill a wild animal and remove its gall bladder. Zhang says, however, that today “the bile […] is collected by means of various extraction methods, all of which in China are carried out through surgical mutilation and cause massive infections, resulting in gross suffering and even death for the bears. Very few receive appropriate medication or any type of veterinary care [and often] old or very sick bears – those who fail to produce bile – [are] simply left to starve to death in their cages.”
This cruel practice can have negative effects on human health. Zhang stated how “pathology reports have shown that bile from sick bears is often contaminated with blood, pus, faeces, urine, bacteria and cancer cells.”
The fundamental reason behind the practice is because of ancient medicinal beliefs. Zhang explains that “bear bile is used in traditional medicine as a…“cold” drug to treat diseases caused by “heat” [such as sore throats and red eyes]”. In traditional Chinese medicine, treatments and diseases have hot or cold characteristics, and are used to manipulate the yin/yang equilibrium. Bear bile is an extremely cold drug, playing a role in restoring and balancing parts of the body.
“It has been used for around 2,000 years,” Zhang says, “but was never a popular drug as it is difficult to obtain and very rare. [It is important to respect] traditional medicine, however […] diseases that can be cured by bear bile can also be cured easily and cheaply by many other herbal medicines. Many practitioners also criticize that extracting bear bile from live bears is cruel and opposes the harmonious theory of traditional Chinese medicine. […Also, farmers] market their products to the general public, claiming it can cure hangover problems.”
The bears are kept in awful conditions. Zhang says that “most farmed bears are kept in tiny cages. In China, the cages are sometimes so small that the bears are unable to turn around or stand on all fours. Some bears are caged as cubs and never released. Bears may be kept caged for up to 30 years. Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumours that ultimately kill them.” In the long run bears suffer from “wounds, infection, mobility, bone and joint problems, eye and teeth problems, liver cancer, poor nutrition, and psychological problems.”
There is evidence for there being more appreciation for the bear’s endangered status. Zhang comments on how “the Chinese government does have regulations to limit the use of bear bile to only core medicines. However, such regulations are always ignored.” There is a lack of respect for the animal among many as, “according to the regulations in China, bears can only be kept for bear bile extraction, and only bile can be traded legally. However, we have evidence that the farms are selling bear paws, bear fat, etc., illegally. [Also,] most bears are bred on farms […] but we know the industry took wild bears in its early stages. We also have a lot of evidence that the farms are still taking wild bears illegally.”
Animals Asia is trying, through various means, to reduce the demand, and hopefully one day stop the bear bile trade. They have a ‘Healing without Harm’ campaign which targets practitioners of traditional medicine and independent pharmacists and pharmacy chains. They also work with pathologists and liver specialists, in China and Vietnam, to gather evidence on why bear bile has negative implications for human health.
Communication within the medical field is vital. Animals Asia goes to conferences to engage with doctors and encourage them to sign a pledge not to prescribe bear bile, and to look at alternative drugs. “We also work with dozens of animal welfare groups and over 20 university student groups around China to help us bring the message to the public” Zhang said.
With the medical field continually advancing, the bear bile industry appears more futile than ever. A balance between tradition and development needs to be established. It is up to Animals Asia, and organisations like it, to spread awareness of the bear’s plight, and strive towards the difficult but certainly not unachievable goal of a cultural and environmental balance.