Eco Warriors Undercover: Bear bile farming
By Jeanette McDermott
As many as 10,000 Asiatic black bears in China are locked in cages the size of their own bodies, and their bile is drained through an excruciatingly painful procedure and sold for use in traditional medicine. So they can approach the bears without fear of injury, the farmers often mutilate the bears by breaking their teeth and pulling out their claws, sometimes brutally removing whole digits.
Milking and selling the bile is not the farmers' only source of profit from the bears. Some farmers amputate one or two paws from live bears to sell to restaurants. When bears are no longer able to secrete bile, they are left to die from sickness or starvation. Bears perceive terror and despair and feel pain the same as we do, and they endure this torture for up to 25 years. Try to imagine it.
Many of the bears in bile farms are captured illegally in the wild as cubs. Poachers wait until the mother leaves the den in search of food to capture new-born cubs. Sometimes she is killed to get the babies. Other times cubs are born in captivity from pregnant bears that were poached from the wild. In either case, the bear cubs rarely survive the ordeal. Any surviving cubs are removed from their mothers too early and put into cages, where they sometimes grow into the bars as their bodies mature.
The bears show their distress and suffering by banging their heads against the cage bars, gnawing on the bars, and at times tearing the flesh from their paws and arms in a futile attempt to deflect their thoughts from the main source of pain. The sores bleed, resulting in further serious infection. The bears are usually milked twice a day, before feeding, when more bile is produced. They moan and writhe in pain and clutch their stomachs as the bile drains from their bodies. Sometimes the bears try to pull out the catheters. Those that do, are immobilized in an iron corset. Under-nourished and highly stressed from horrific pain and unnatural confinement, the bears lie in agony, in their own filth.
This is Willow. He was 10 years old when he arrived at the Animals Asia sanctuary in 2004. He died last year from a massive liver tumor -- a result of his treatment on the bile farm.
"Bear bile farming is the worst animal welfare scenario I have ever encountered," said Swiss born conservation media activist Karl Ammann.
Amman has been named by Time magazine and CNN as a "Hero of the Environment." He is credited with almost single-handedly raising awareness about the issue of bush meat, the slaughter and consumption of wild -- and often protected -- animals. He has reported on and photographed the likes of hog-tied crocodiles, charbroiled monkeys and severed gorilla heads draining into saucepans, but these don’t compare to bear bile farming he says.
Workers extract bear bile from the gall bladder of a bear in Myanmar.
Bear bile is totally unnecessary, according to countless scientific studies. Chinese use bear bile for their traditional medicines (TCM), claiming it cures a range of ailments – from hemorrhoids to hangovers, to colds and cancer. But research shows there are more than 50 far more effective and affordable herbal alternatives, as well as many synthetic options.
Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM)
Amman says, “Bear bile farming is about making a fast buck, not surviving or feeding the family. These bears and other wildlife species are protected from being traded internationaly by the CITES Convention. China and Myanmar are both signatories to this and other conventions, yet many of their citizens and officials show flagrant disregard for the law and there has been little enforcement by the authorities.”
Global citizens take action
People around the world are taking a strong stand against bear farming and making their voices heard to get China’s attention.
The animal welfare organization One Voice commissioned a report recently on the condition of bears in China, the role played by animal-welfare charities there, and the short- and long-term measures that must be taken to close down all the bear farms.
All 25 member states in the European Union have signed a declaration to support putting an end to bear farming.
World Society of the Protection of Animals is working worldwide to change and enforce laws to prevent commercial trade in bears, bear parts and bile, including western countries like the U.S. and Canada. Their successes are documented online.
Popular Taiwanese rock star Xin and film actor Jackie Chan are using their fame to denounce bear bile farming.
Later this year Animals Asia will open an education village in Chengdu to advance consciousness about living in harmony with nature and animals.
WSPA has created a lifelike mechanical bear that moves and groans in pain inside a tiny cage, as "bile" drips from its wound. WSPA uses the simulation at Earth Day, press conferences and large public events to raise awareness of bear bile farms.
Transported by road on the back of trucks, 46 sick and unduly stressed bears fight for life as they travel to the Animals Asia China Bear Rescue Sanctuary.
Of the eight species of bear in the world, all except the giant panda have seen their numbers reduced as a result of the bear bile industry. Asiatic black bears are most affected by the trade because of the high content of the “magic ingredient” ursodeoxycholic acid in their bile. The bears are also known as “moon bears” because of the yellow crescents on their chests. They are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Appendix I, the category for the most critically endangered species.
Animals Asia Foundation is the only NGO actively rescuing farmed bears in China. Founder and CEO Jill Robinson signed a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities in July 2000 to close down the worst bear farms and rescue the bears. To date, Animals Asia has rescued 247 bears and brought them to its Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Animals Asia is in continuing negotiations with senior Chinese officials in an effort to bring an end to bear farming.
Bear farming began in China in the early 1980s when entrepreneurs adopted a procedure developed in North Korea to extract bile through surgically implanted catheters. It was claimed that this method would satisfy the local demand for bile and reduce the number of bears killed in the wild for their gall bladders and other body parts. Tragically, the situation grew out of control and by the early 1990s, there were over 400 bear farms in operation, containing more that 10,000 bears. Plans were in place to increase the number of bears on farms to 40,000 by 2000.
Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson visited a bear farm in 1993 and exposed the cruel industry through images that shocked the world. International outcry followed. Chinese authorities acknowledged the concerns of the international community and, rather than expanding the number of bear farms, began reducing them.
With increased public awareness, the market for bear bile began to plunge and farmers saw a major impact on their profits. The supply of bear bile on the market rapidly overtook demand. In order to use the surplus, many farmers began making other products from the bile, such as throat lozenges, shampoo, wine, and tea. Today, there are officially 7,000 bears on 68 farms throughout China. As many smaller farms have consolidated, Animals Asia fears the number of bears could still be as high as 10,000.
In Vietnam, fewer than 100 Asiatic black bears remain in the wild, while about 4,000 bears are held in cages on bile farms. Although bile extraction has been technically illegal since 1992, the practice remains widespread. The farms welcome busloads of visiting Koreans, who are among the world’s biggest consumers of bear bile.
Animals Asia has been negotiating with the Vietnamese Government since 1999 on the issues arising from non-enforcement of the law. In 2005, after years of lobbying by a number of international and local NGOs, the authorities promised to act to phase out bear bile farming. In 2006, Animals Asia signed an agreement with the Vietnam Forest Protection Department to build its sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi and to rescue 200 bears from farms.
At this time, the World Society for the Protection of Animals worked with Vietnam’s Forest Protection Unit to microchip all the country’s bears after the government introduced a law stating that any bears found without microchips on farms would be confiscated and placed in Animals Asia’s care.
In early 2009, Animals Asia had rescued 24 bears in Vietnam. Animals Asia investigators have revealed two methods of bile extraction in Vietnam. In both cases, the bears are incarcerated in small cages, the physical and mental suffering that they endure is extreme, and the mortality rate is high.
Veterinarians have described bile leaking from the gall bladders of bile bears as “black sludge.”
Crude surgery: Bears once underwent major abdominal surgery to remove bile from their gall bladders every three months. The surgery was crude and unhygienic and, according to the Vietnam government, the bears usually suffered four such operations before dying from the infection and pain. Animals Asia believes this method was phased out in the early 2000s.
Ultrasound: Another method, introduced around 2002, entails the extraction of bile with the assistance of an ultrasound machine, catheter and medicinal pump. The bears are drugged – usually with ketamine – restrained with ropes and (if the operator is unskilled) have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with four-inch needles until the gall bladder is found. Animals Asia suspects the process leads to dangerous leakage of bile into the body and a slow and agonizing death from peritonitis.
Animals Asia is calling on the authorities to act on growing concerns over the safety to consumers of bile taken from such sick bears. The bears’ livers and gall bladders are often severely diseased, the bile contaminated with pus, blood and feces.
A healthy bear’s bile is as fluid as water and ranges in color from bright yellow-orange to green. However, Animals Asia’s vets have described bile leaking from the gall bladders of the rescued bears as “black sludge.” Eminent Chinese and Vietnamese pathologists have warned users of traditional Chinese medicine not to consume bile taken from such sick bears.
The prized ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is used by TCM practitioners for a myriad of complaints; however, UDCA is synthesized easily under laboratory conditions and is pure, clean and reliable.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong announced in December 2008 that initial findings into their four-year study of the effectiveness of extracts from two species of the herb “coptis” compared with raw bear bile and purified active ingredients from bear bile. The tests showed coptis to be far more effective than bear bile at killing cancer cell lines.
Jasper spent 15 years in a crush cage unable to move before being rescued by Animals Asia. Here he is today at the sanctuary.
We can stop bear bile farming.
There is a lot we can do to restore freedom, dignity and life back to the bears. Most importantly, we can spread the word far and wide about this horrendous practice, and we can support those organizations that are working to stop it – as volunteers, assistants, advocates, donors and grant writers.
We can write letters to governments and politicians, create websites to raise awareness and help undercover eco warriors expose environmental crimes. What we cannot do is sit idle.
Put pressure on your government to add a political voice against bear bile farming. This link provides addresses and a template for a well-crafted letter.
Blow the whistle when you know something is wrong, or suspect that something is wrong. It's because of an astute citizen that three tiny Moon Bear cubs were rescued from a secret compartment under a passenger bus. The cubs were confiscated by Vietnam customs at the Lao/Vietnamese border crossing in Dien Bien Province after a tip-off that the bus might be carrying illegal wildlife. The cubs are now safe at Animals Asia's Vietnam sanctuary.
“The rewards for working with this intelligent, forgiving species, and the rewards for people who give their faith and support to the rescue are seeing animals who awaken each morning with the freedom to simply stretch their limbs - and seeing us one step closer in our journey of a thousand miles towards ending a practice which should never have begun,” said Jill Robinson.
Rupert "Roo" survived an ordeal on a bear farm that left him physically deformed and mentally ill, but today he lives in peace at the Animals Asia sanctuary in China.
Photos courtesy of Animals Asia, World Society for the Protection of Animals and National Geographic. Special thanks to Jill Robinson, Angela Leary and Karl Ammann for their assistance with the story.
Happy rescued bear photos
Animals Asia Foundation
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Humane Society of the U.S.
Ursa Freedom Project