A recent article in the newspaper I read confronted me, again, with unsettling animal cruelty in China. Driven by the needs of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice Asian black bears, aka Moon bears, (Ursus thibetanus) are farmed for their bile production. This type of bear farming started in 1980 when China signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES),after which it was forbidden to hunt and kill Asian black bears in the wild for their bile.
Nowadays bile harvesting is done via draining the gal bladder of bears that are kept alive in small cages for 10 to 20 years. The draining is done via catheter, needle or open wounds. During this period bile is harvested drop by drop every single day. Like grinded tiger bones, bear bile production is very profitable with net proceeds of about 600 US dollar per kilo, and 8-10 kilo bile per year for every bear. This equals the average Chinese annual salary. Offcially there are 68 companies registered which keep a total of 600 bears in captivity. According to Animals Asia Foundation (AA) this figure should be multiplied by a factor of one hundred when accounting for illegal, underground, enterprises.
Journalist and animal rights activist Xiong Junhui has made a video of this disturbing form of animal exploitation. She got access to the illegal farms by impersonating a scientist, a TCM doctor or a concerned grandchild looking for a cure for a sick grandparent. The video shown here and photos on the AA website speak for itself I would say.
But is there a big difference to the situation we exploit animals such as dairy cows, which is well accepted farming, and these bile bears? In fact, both these production animals are kept in confined areas to facilitate harvesting (milking, bile draining). And both their excretions can be replaced by other products.
In the case of milk we have discovered many years ago it is a convenient liquid excretion with high nutritional value. Unfortunately, it led to cattle breeds with enormous milk production and equal udders, kept indoors in huge farms. Unnecessarily, because the same nutritional value can be found in a combination of several plant products. Furthermore, the idea of increasing the cow's milk production by the use of bST (bovine somatotropin) growth hormone is shocking I think, as it impairs the animal's integrity and metabolism. Overall we have created cows that are to be considered top athletes, being top performers on the brink of ill health waiting for the next udder infection.
In the case of bile bears, we haven't had the time yet to breed high bile producing bears. As a matter of fact, wild bears continue to be sourced for the extraction of bile. The term farm is absolutely misleading, while no bears are being bred on such facilities. But with an increasing demand for TCM with bear bile, due to the increasing population size in China and the importance of TCM within Chinese culture, bear farming will increase I am afraid. As with milk, bear bile has got value for humans who use it. Some of the active compounds of bile, especially ursodeoxycholic acid, reduce cholesterol levels and can reduce the size of gallstone non-surgically. But as the active compounds have been identified and can be synthetised artificially, it is absolutely not necessary to use bear bile anymore. Therefore it is disappointing that an increasing amount of 240 TCMs that contain bear bile is used in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, North- and South-Korea, Indonesia and even in Europe and the US. Although the prominent Rector of the Shanghai University for TCM, professor Tao Jian Sheng, pleads for closure of all illegal bear farms he still supports the use of bear bile in TCM. He is convinced of the magic of the effect on health by bear bile. It is an ancient Chinese culture that denies the intake of chemical products as medicine, he says. Moreover, bear bile consists of more than just the two or three active compounds in modern medicines according Tao Jian Sheng.
Although animal welfare is impaired in dairy farming en bile bear farming, I agree it is ridiculous to make the comparison. The permanent infection and pain the bears are suffering from is beyond words. This must stop as very good alternatives for bear bile compounds are available on the market nowadays. Modern medicines that are chemically synthesised.
But we are talking about Chinese culture here, and I expect it will not be easy to change this culture. Forty percent of the Chinese population use TCM, which makes TCM an enormous market potential for industry. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to alleviate the suffering of these bile bears, and convince Chinese government officials that chemically synthetised bile products are as good a medicine as bear bile. This could support a turning point in the way TCM is addressed by Chinese government. Recently, Zhou Jie (a retired TCM-professor) who advocates for research on bear bile alternatives, was given a platform in the Chinese State Press by the Ministry of Health.
So, I call upon you and sign the online “End Bear Farming” petition of AA to further influence Chinese government to do the only proper thing here, forbid bear farming by law and enforce this law forcefully.
(Sources: NRC, 02.06.2012; TRAFFIC, 24.08.2012)