Millions of Chinese netizens have joined a campaign against bear-farming amid a public outcry over the extraction of bear bile—used in traditional Chinese medicine—from live, caged animals.
A poll on the popular news and chat site QQ.com calling on people to oppose the practice, which involves inserting catheters into the gall bladders of live, captive bears, had garnered more than four million votes by Monday evening local time.
Bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 1,000 years, and is believed to combat fever, protect the liver, and improve eyesight.
In 2003, China stopped exporting bear-bile products, approved no new bile extracting facilities, and prohibited the hunting of wild bears, according to the state forestry administration. However, the authorities stopped short of banning bear bile extraction outright.
Animal rights campaigners and journalists say they have been refused permission to tour the facilities at the Guizhentang bear farm in southeastern Fujian province, while traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have accused the media of staging photographs and distorting the practice.
"They are torturing these bears to death," said a protester identified as Taozi who took part in an exhibition of paintings outside Guizhentang's gates at the weekend. "We eat meat, that is fine, but these acts of slow torture are extremely cruel."
"If we were to kill the animals we eat slowly and in great pain, we would feel that this was unacceptable ... We are no longer in an age where we rip things apart and drink their blood, and yet such primitive and brutal actions are still happen at Guizhentang."
Animal rights groups also staged a protest outside the Shenzhen headquarters of Guizhentang, which failed in an attempt to list on Hong Kong's Growth Enterprise index following a public campaign against bear bile extraction.
Protesters wearing face masks waved banners and placards outside the company, and gathered signatures from passers-by for a petition against the practice.
Campaigners first caught the attention of Chinese netizens in early 2011, with their expose of methods commonly used to draw bear bile for Chinese medicine.
In 1996, Guangdong authorities rescued nine Asiatic black bears from an illegal bear bile farm in Huizhou city where the animals had cuts made in their abdomens and metal catheters connected with rubber tubes inserted to extract the bile while they were alive.
A strong message
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) funded a high-profile rescue project, where five of the bears, also known as moon bears, were cared for at a nursery in Panyu city.
The project has cost the group more than 20 million yuan over the past few years, but sent a very strong message to the Chinese public, according to IFAW's Asia regional director Grace Ge Gabriel.
"Ever since the 1980s and the 1990s, the voices raised against the practice of bear-bile farming have been getting louder and louder," Grace Ge Gabriel said in a recent interview with RFA's Mandarin service.
"Not only have the companies failed to change their practices, but they are even trying to get their products listed on stock markets, so the chorus of protest has been very fierce."
Fang Shuting, head of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine held a press conference on Feb. 16 to tell journalists that reports of cruelty in bear-bile farming were grossly over-exaggerated.
Fang accused "certain organizations" of using graphic photos to mislead the public and malign the industry, calling for "scientific conservation, rational use and sustainable development."
Ge Gabriel said that a large number of companies are now taking advantage of loopholes and gaps in Chinese legislation to ply their trade, and that only three percent of traditional herbal prescriptions have any animal components at all.
"A lot of these companies are trumpeting the ancient benefits of bear bile in order to further their own economic interests," she said.
"Actually, their actions have given traditional Chinese medicine a bad name internationally."
Reported by Xin Yu and Jill Ku for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.