Saving Bears in China

Last Thursday, Animals Asia, an organization devoted to the welfare of wild and urban animals in Asia, reported that six bears rescued this past January from an illegal bear bile farm in China have each undergone successful surgery to remove their damaged gall bladders.

Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat gallstones, liver problems and other ailments. To produce this remedy, bears are forced to live on “bile farms”, where they are cramped into confined cages that allow them little or no movement so that their gall bladders can be drained of bile twice a day. According to Animals Asia, some bears are put into cages as cubs and kept there for up to 30 years. Hundreds of thousands of farmed bears throughout Asia are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumors that ultimately kill them. In turn, conservation and wildlife groups warn that populations of sun bears and Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, could be facing extremely dire long-term consequences.

”No bears are extinct, but all Asian ones are threatened,” said Chris Shepherd, a conservation biologist and deputy regional director of the Malaysia-based wildlife trade group TRAFFIC, a joint project of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Worldwide Wildlife Federation. In just the last few years, bear poaching has increased in Indonesia, says Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson, a conservation biologist who has been in the region for 15 years.

”Fifty years ago, bears were doing well in Cambodia and Laos,” Fredriksson said. ”Now there’s hardly any left.”

The 2011 TRAFFIC report Pills, Powders, Vials & Flakes: The Bear Bile Trade in Asia found bear bile products on sale in Chinese traditional medicine outlets in twelve of the thirteen Asian countries surveyed. The study further noted that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam did not have captive breeding programs, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild.

“Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Program Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. “The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed.”

Achieving a future without bear bile products will mean, among other things, promoting synthetic and herbal alternatives – over 54 of which do exist, says Animals Asia. While Animals Asia continues educating the public through numerous campaigns and events, the organization will also ramp up their rescue efforts, which thus far, has removed over 350 bears from bile farms. One bear rescued by the organization last month arrived in one of the smallest cages Animals Asia had ever seen at three feet long, two feet wide and just under two feet high. It’s likely that the bear, named Peter, spent most of his life hardly able to move.

“…It was clear that he really didn’t know what to do with his legs,” Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson described. “His nerves too were in shreds, and he jumped in fright at the slightest movement, huffing at everyone in fear and anxiety, until he was satisfied that nothing was going to cause him harm.”

This June, wildlife campaigner Louis Ng, the co-founder and executive director of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) in Singapore will open a $500,000 rescue center in Laos. Ng’s motivation to build the center stems from first hand observation of bear bile farms.

“One cub took a swipe at the farmer,” Ng recalled of a visit to a bile farm in 2009. “The height of its cage was halved so it could only lie on its back. It soon started gnawing on its own paw which is what happens when bears lose their minds.”

Like the Animals Asia program, Ng’s new rescue center will also put rescued bears through a rehabilitation process to help them adapt to a community after being in solitary confinement for so long.

“These bears have spent years in cages, and we have to be very patient in managing the time from their arrival to their introduction to open spaces and integration with other bears,” Robinson added. “Day by day, life is getting better for these bears who lived with pain and confinement for so long. The best bit is yet to come.”