Many people may be unaware of this issue; I for one certainly was before reading an article that appeared in Nature today.
Around 10,000 endangered Asian black bears or ‘moon bears’ as they are known are kept captive in China in rather crude ‘bear farms’.
They are kept so that their bile can be extracted for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This is a painful process that can occur daily.
The issue has come to the press following weeks of public outcry in China since Guizhentang, a prominent pharmaceutical company, recently made its second attempt to go public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The company wants to use its initial public offering to expand the number of bear farms it runs.
Now, I understand the demand for TCM is still very high in China, perhaps even growing (along with middle class growth) and I do not know the exact conditions these bears are kept in, but given the video below and the evidence circulating moon bear charities, the situation looks grim.
Fortunately two alternatives to bear bile already exist. One is simply finding herbal substitutes. The other involves synthetically producing the active ingredient in bile, ursodeoxycholic acid – and this can already be done.
However bear bile has been used in TCM for the past 3,000 years, no legislation currently exists for the wide-scale protection of animals in China.
The pharmaceutical company Guizhentang claims to have developed a surgical technique for extracting bile from the gallbladders of bears without causing the animals any pain. The bile is then used as an anti-inflammatory agent in widely available products, from toothpastes to wine.
But 30 per cent of these bears still die of liver cancer, and activists point out that the living conditions are cruel and the pain is punishing.
“Bile bears are kept in small cages where their teeth are clipped short, their eyes develop cataracts and they face untimely death, claims the charity Animals Asia – http://www.animalsasia.org/index.php?UID=2J0NIOGTVCWA
To facilitate the bile milking process, the bears are commonly kept in extraction cages not much larger than the bears. This allows for easier access to the abdomen, but it also prevents the bears from being able to stand upright or in some cases move at all. It is thought that living for 10–12 years under such circumstances results in severe mental stress and muscle atrophy.
Furthermore The Asiatic black bear is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals. Estimates put the Asia-wide population as low as 25,000. Cleary the captive bears make up a huge proportion of the remaining population. An outright ban could see the black market trading of already captive bears, and the poaching of the scarce wild populations.
To me, it seems the most logical solution, for both the long-term survival of the species, and the short time health of the captive bears, that international pressure is required to force the Chinese government to impose tight regulations on bear farms. Aiming to reduce the pain, and improve the conditions the bears are kept in. If humane methods could indeed be used to extract bile, then perhaps a compromised could be reached – change bear farms into conservation parks, and sell the ‘organic free range’ bile at a much higher price.
But realistically would that work? In an ideal world maybe. But the cages serve a purpose, as the bear is no doubt a dangerous animal. A ban therefore is the only solution. But somehow I don’t believe that will go down too well with Guizhentang and the like.
A final point regards biodiversity in China in general. If there are currently no regulations protecting captive animals, how can we possibly begin to save those we cannot see?