A sought-after ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine remedies, bear bile has been farmed in China and Vietnam for decades. According to Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson, Asiatic black bears — also known as moon bears — are often illegally caught in the wild, kept in tiny cages, and starved until they are skeletal just for the alleged powers of its bile.
The Appendix 1 endangered species isn’t actually necessary at all, as plant and synthetic bile are widely available as a healthier, more humane alternative, Robinson says.
When Animals Asia started in Hong Kong in 1998, founder Jill Robinson had been working with The International Fund for Animal Welfare for over 10 years. Robinson’s mission to save these Asiatic black bears — also known as Moon Bears for their crescent white stripe — started after seeing a bear farm in southern China for the first time.
Over the years, Animals Asia has rescued over 570 bears and moved them into sanctuaries in China and Vietnam as well as raised awareness about “meat dogs” sold in Asia, and abusive practices at zoos. Robinson has been appointed World Animal Day Ambassador for Asia, named an MBE by Queen Elizabeth and the “Reader’s Digest” Hero for Today recipient. She is also a Council Member of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies.
1. Using bear bile is still common throughout Asia
Bear bile is used as a cold medicine to treat heat-related illnesses, like red and sore eyes, high temperatures, and fevers. In Vietnam it’s used slightly differently, often as a topical product to help bring bruises down if you have had a physical trauma.
In both Vietnam and China, it’s used as a hangover cure, so it’s mixed in with rice wine. But what we’re finding by talking to doctors in China and Vietnam is that it actually does the opposite.
If you have a compromised liver, then you’re going to compromise your liver even more by taking bear bile. About 50 percent of the bears are dying from liver-related disease, which is ironic for animals whose bile is supposed to be curing liver-related diseases.
In 100 percent of cases in China, when bears have had their bile extracted, we are seeing extracted bear gall bladders that are inflamed, thickened, and containing gallstones, foreign bodies, rust flakes, feces, bacteria and urine. So this should be a huge concern for anyone who is taking the contaminated bile or concerned about others.
2. It’s a problem in Hong Kong too
There are many many ethical Traditional Chinese Medicine shops here in Hong Kong, and we know that. But of course there are people who want to circumvent the regulations, so of course you see bear bile coming in from both Vietnam and China.
We know that because you can see it on the packets that are openly available for purchase. We wish that the government would be more proactive and do more research in the traditional medicine shops and identify those that are selling it illegally.
The other loophole here is that traditional medicine shops can sell whole gall bladders from American black bears, for example, with a license. American black bears are CITES Appendix II endangered animals and Asiatic black bears are CITES Appendix I.
Bile is not taken from American black bears, but commercial trade exists in their parts and thus they can ship gall bladders over to Hong Kong with an appropriate export and import license. Bear gall bladders from China are illegal to trade in (both in China or across the world).
But like the ivory trade, unless you do DNA testing, how on earth are you going to be able to tell the difference between a legal American black bear and an illegal gallbladder from an Asiatic black bear?
3. Bear bile doesn’t have to come from bears.
There’s no reason to sell bear bile at all — it can be replaced by 54 different herbal alternatives and an abundance of synthetic products that don’t contain contaminates from the badly diseased bears.
When I walked onto a bear farm for the first time in 1993, everything about my life changed. I started talking eminent medical practitioners and western doctors to find out if bear bile is actually necessary in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And I quickly found out that no one would die for the lack of bear bile.
There is a lot invested in the magical quality of bear bile — and it does actually work. Chinese medicine doctors, western doctors, researchers, and academics have published multiple studies on the efficacy of bear bile. I knew we were dealing with a very potent substance, but we also know it can be replaced by herbal and synthetic alternatives.
4. The number of bear farms have decreased, but conditions haven’t changed
In 1993 there were some reports published by WWF that there were around 480 farms and now there are about 68 farms. However, the number of bears hasn’t decreased very much. Before it was a cottage industry with lots of people, but it’s become more sophisticated and now you have the super farms that are cornering the market.
People were not just keeping them captive, which is in itself bad enough, but they were also de-clawing the bears and cutting the ends of their paw tips to keep claws from growing; they cut back teeth to make them less dangerous; and they were mutilating their bodies by implanting latex and metal catheters to extract the bile.
Decades later the farmers say their methods are more humane, but things haven’t really changed. They have introduced something called a ‘free drip’ which is a hole cut into the gall bladder and abdomen so that the bile can just drip out. But this method is open to bacterial infection.
A lot of the bears have been caught illegally in the wild, so they are missing limbs from being caught in leg-hold traps. We see a lot of three-legged bears, and we have one two-legged bear who walks on two front stumps whose name is Freedom.
5. Governments are takings steps in the right direction
In Vietnam, bear farming is illegal now. We have been working very collaboratively with government partners in both countries. At the height of the industry, there were 4,000 bears kept on farm in Vietnam and now there are 1,200. Just a few months ago we had another province declaring itself as bear-farm free.
In China, bear farming is still legal but we work collaboratively with government departments to protect the bears. We have a sanctuary that brings in bears from farms that have completely closed down.
And looking toward the future?
Great progress is happening already. In Vietnam we are being joined by government officials who are extremely keen to close the industry down and we believe that we are coming to the end game.
The Viet Nam Association of Traditional Medicine, for example, is now talking to its members about not prescribing any bile by the year 2020. We recognize that some of those stores still have a stockpile of bile even though it’s now illegal, and they will sell it illegally. We know that. But this gives us the impetus to continue to work on the last 1,200 bears that are left in the industry and end that once and for all by 2020.
In China, where so many people are pledging not to take bile, a large pharmaceutical company has just publicly stated that they have identified a synthetic alternative to bear bile with the help of government funding.
This company is currently using 18 tons of bear bile every year, which is half the country’s consumption. Once they identify how to produce it in large numbers it will be a pivotal point in saving China’s wild species of bears.