Bears are a truly iconic group of animals, from Jungle Book to Paddington we all know a story about a bear. Unfortunately, what is perhaps less known, is the real story of our planets bears. Once distributed almost worldwide, bear species have been over-hunted and pushed out of many habitats throughout history. We now have 8 different bear species. All of them are facing a variety of conservation issues. We all hear about the losing battle Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are facing against climate change, and the Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) fight against habitat destruction. What is less well known is perhaps one of the most disturbing conservation issues worldwide. In Asia, bears are being kept in torture chambers in order to fuel an ever-growing industry for their bile.
Five bear species are found in Asia, these include the Asiatic black bear (moon bear, Ursus thibetanus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) and the giant panda. All of these bear species are thought to be in decline due to habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by timber harvest, agriculture and human settlement. Increasingly populations are being more directly harmed and reduced for hunting, mainly for the bile industry.
A major threat to the vast majority of our planets species survival is habitat loss and fragmentation, and this is especially true for bears. This fragmentation results in isolated populations leaving them more vulnerable to extinction. Significant amounts of forests have been lost throughout the range of Asia’s bear species. As of 1986, tropical Asian countries with bear populations had lost an average of 64% of their wildlife habitat, and this number is thought to have risen greatly since.
Currently listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, sun bears and moon bears populations are in serious trouble. Sun bear global populations have declined by more than 30% over the past three decades. Some estimates put this rate of decline much higher for both species, unfortunately accurate estimates on wild populations are hard to come by.
Although habitat destruction is of course a major issue for Asia’s bear species, perhaps a more alarming problem is that of direct human exploitation. Bears natural ability to stand on their hind legs is often cruelly exploited for entertainment, such as dancing bears in India, fighting bears in Pakistan and circus bears in Vietnam. As well as entertainment, bears are also been exploited to extract bile from their gallbladders.
The bear bile industry targets mostly sun bears and moon bears. In Asia it is thought that over 12,000 bears are held in captivity on farms and “milked” regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine. Demand for this product comes mainly from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia but is also widespread across other Asian countries.
Despite bear bile being used in traditional medicines for thousands of years, bear farming as an industry first began in China in the early 1980s. The Chinese government claimed that farming the bears would satisfy local demand for products while helping to conserve wild populations by reducing the number of bears killed in the wild for their gall bladders and other body parts.
These good intentions backfired enormously. The growth in the bear farming industry has led to increased commercialisation of, and demand for, bear bile products. This means wild bears continue to be killed illegally to restock farms and due to the perceived higher value of bile extracted from a wild bear. No countries have shown that farms enhance bear conservation. Considered vulnerable by ICUN both moon and sun bears have vanished from much of their former range. Exact population numbers don’t exist, but today there may be no more than 25,000 bears left in Asia’s forests.
The farming of bears is not only destroying the natural populations of bears but is basically torturing thousands of captive bears. Most farmed bears are kept in tiny cages. In China, the cages are sometimes so small that the bears are unable to turn around or stand on all fours. Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never leave them. Never being able to climb a tree, eat some honey or for some, even walk. Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffering from multiple diseases and malignant tumours that not only contaminate their bile but ultimately kill them.
Following on, if the living conditions were not bad enough, the extraction methods for bile are somewhat medieval. Different farms have different methods, each as bad as the other. Some use a catheter that is attached to the bear where the farmer can extract every couple of days. Others fit the bears with metal jackets which hold a bag and pipe into the bear collecting bile over 2 weeks. These jackets can weigh around 10kg causing many health issues for the bears. Some farmers use major surgery to extract the bile from bears. This can only be done every 3 months, bears generally survive only 4 of these surgeries before dying from infections.
So why are these people torturing bears to get to a liquid produced in their gallbladder? The bear’s gallbladders contain a yellow liquid- bile- that helps them digest fat. Asian medicine uses bile to treat some liver conditions, cancer and even hangovers. Although no research shows the positive effects of such medicine. To add insult to injury, over-production of bear bile means that people have now turned to producing non-essential products in order to utilise the surplus, such as bear bile throat lozengers, shampoo, toothpastes, wine and even tea. All these products have absolutely no benefit to the health of humans but have a disastrous effect on the health of the bears of which they came from.
Conservation awareness has been growing worldwide and pressure is always on developing countries to follow suit. In fact in China all species of wild bear are protected by law but bear farming and the use of bear bile is ,somehow, still legal. Many farms claim to breed their own bears, however many of the bears arriving in sanctuaries are missing limbs, probably the result of been caught in wild snares or other traps.
In Vietnam bear farming, hunting and trade is illegal but it is permitted to keep bears as “pets” and to display them to tourists. This loophole has allowed many farmers to still exploit bears, claiming not to extract bile, but doing it still behind the scenes. Due to lack of law enforcement resources bears continue to be captured for the bile industry across Asia.
Efforts must be improved and pressure must be put onto these countries to better regulate and enforce their laws in order to protect bear species. The continuing exploitation of bears and destruction of their natural habitat leaves the future of bear populations looking very bleak.
Fortunately, some international organisations such as Four Paws and Animal Asia have set up sanctuaries across Asia where bears are taken from the industry when possible, rehabilitated and cared for. However, due to the destructive practices of the industry the bears are left in such a poor mental and physical condition that it is impossible to release them back into the wild.
The best way to stop this destructive industry, is to stop the demand for its products. Animal Asia has a “healing without harm” campaign which is working with pathologists to proof that bile is not necessary for human health and that consuming contaminated bile from bear farms is actually detrimental to human health. Pressure from such organisations has also lead to the industry that profits from the bile industry to start changing their ideas. Last year, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, which supplies around half of the bear bile consumed in China, said it plans to develop a synthetic alternative to the popular substance. If the largest producer of bear bile is now looking into a synthetic alternative to their product, this can only be a good thing.
The changing of traditional practices is always a hard one, and the challenge must be fought on many fronts. Consumers need to be taught about the effects their choices are having on animals. The farmers need to know just how terrible their practise is and need to be taught that bears deserve the right to be cared for. Hunters need to be directed towards more sustainable sources of income.
I feel as though this industry is one of the saddest and devastating conservation stories there are, and yet the general public are not made aware of it. If in the adventures of Paddington Bear, he was taken and put into a small cage while bile was extracted from inside of him until he eventually died, then there would be outrage. Yet this exact thing is happening to real bears and we do not know about it. It is only through global awareness and pressure that we can start to reverse the detrimental industries that developing countries practise. Extracting bile from bears must stop, and we most do as much as possible to protect what remains of their natural habitat.