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Bear bile farming in a changing world: reconciling tradition with China’s role on the world stage

Bear bile farming throughout Southeast Asia is on the verge of major consumer and policy changes. Is this the first major step in China’s new push as a global environmental leader?

Keywords: conservation, wildlife trade, bear bile, China

China’s relationship with animals dates back thousands of years. Evidence of the Four Symbols in which each section of the sky was assigned to a mythological creature (the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South) has been found on Henan tombs from the Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago). Yet more recent news headlines draw a more tenuous link between the country and animal welfare standards. A recent article from the BBC notes that “Yulin dog meat festival begins despite rumors of ban” while a Guardian write-up highlights how the demand for elephant skin and trunk have fueled a dramatic rise in poaching in Myanmar. One issue that has yet to be fully explored by the media and policymakers, however, is the bear bile farming trade. While this trade is valued as high as $2 billion, experts including Chinese physicians have inconclusive scientific evidence of bear bile’s medicinal value.

 

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A worker initiates the process of draining bile from a bear in China. Source: South China Morning Post 

Bile bears is the term used to describe bears in captivity that are used for extracting bile, a digestive fluid stored in the gallbladder that is heavily applied within some traditional Chinese medicine circles. One estimate has put the number of battery bears within South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China to be more than 12,000. While the Asiatic black bear is the most commonly used species in this regard, the brown bear and sun bear are also actively involved within the system, and both the sun and Asiatic are present on the Red List of Threatened Species.

 

The actual harvesting of the bile, despite a range of methods, requires invasive surgery that leaves some sort of permanently inserted catheter or fistula. Critically, a number of bears die from either the stress of the surgery or the resulting infections that may surround the wound. In addition, the enclosure habitats for the bears continue the trend of compromised health standards, with most housed continuously within “crush cages” that restrict even the smallest changes in positioning, and some have been kept in these conditions for over 30 years. Within the industry, however, bear bile farming is viewed as the most humane way of extracting the product, as evidenced by Fang Shuting, the head of the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine: “The process of extracting bear bile is like turning on a tap: natural, easy, and without pain. After they’re done, the bears can even play happily outside. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary! It might even be a very comfortable process!”

 

Yet recent developments and policy initiatives have made the issue of bear bile farming one at the edge of cutting science and potentially new developments in animal welfare. Pressed for decades by international activists, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, supplier of over 50% of the product consumed in China, recently announced plans to develop a lab-produced bear bile alternative through the use of government funding. As Chris Shepherd, regional director of Southeast Asia noted, the shift must come from within the community: “This is an opportunity for practitioners and consumers to make a shift from using threatened species, to legal and sustainable alternatives, illustrating the [Traditional Chinese Medicine’s] community’s commitment to conservation of wildlife and legal trade.”

 

In addition, recent research has concluded that the original intent of bear bile farming, to discourage the seizure of wild bears, has not been successful. Before the rise of these farms in the 1980s, participants in the trade would kill a bear in the woods and remove its gallbladder with the bile inside. Instead of relieving pressure on wild bears, it is now believed that more bear bile on the market has actually increased demand for the substance for use across a variety of ailments and diseases. In addition, bear sanctuaries have noted that up to 30% of their bears have either missing limbs or scarring from snare traps, indicating that wild-caught sources still play a significant role in the industry.

 

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Assembly workers in Kaibao offload synthesized bottles of bear bile. Source: South China Morning Post

These findings have compelled the Chinese government to signal a tidal wave shift in regulating the practice, with the administration first committing to rescue 500 bears in China’s Sichuan province through an agreement with Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation. This partnership will be expanded throughout China over the next 10 years, and demonstrates an overall shift in China’s approach toward environmental policy, coming during a period in which the government has stepped up as a global leader in climate negotiations and recently banned the domestic trade of ivory. How much these new developments will affect the bear bile industry, and how long it will take to do so, will have the whole world watching.