Animal rights activists have been winning battles to save endangered bears in several Asian countries, but much still needs to be done.
Bile extracted from bears has been prized as a traditional medicine in East Asian countries for hundreds of years. It has also served as an additive in Asian wines and tonics. And it’s claimed by some to counter impotence.
The demand for bear bile comes largely from China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. A few bear cubs have been known to have been captured in Myanmar and shipped by traffickers to China, where they are much in demand.
The bears, which are mostly Asiatic black bears, are often called moon bears because of the white fur crescents on their chests.
Many bears are kept in captivity, often on bear farms, to facilitate the extraction of their bile, which is produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. The extraction by catheters can cause permanent damage and lead to infections.
Farmed bears are frequently kept in small cages, sometimes small enough to prevent the bears from turning around or standing upright.
Some who are caught as cubs may live under such conditions during a lifetime lasting 20 to 30 years.
When the bears outlive their most productive years at around 10 years old, some are then killed for body parts considered delicacies, including their paws.
But no one knows with certainty how many of the Asiatic black bears are in captivity or how many are still roaming free in forests.
According to Traffic East Asia, a monitoring organization, there are 25,000 moon bears left in the world.
But the Bear Conservation Action Plan published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the numbers of moon bears in China as fewer than 20,000.
The World Wildlife Foundation says the figure may be as low as 16,000.
Experts agree that China is home to the largest number of moon bears, most of which can be found in forested areas of northern and southern China.
China’s endangered bears
The last official figures for captive bears in China from late 2007 came to 7,002 bears on 68 farms.
But the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), a charity based in Hong Kong, believes that the figure could now be as high 10,000.
Bear farms are supposed to be licensed by the government, but experts suspect there are some smaller, illegal unlicensed farms that go uncounted.
Unlike the American black bear, which is showing an increase in its population in some places, the Asiatic black bear is an endangered species in China. This is partly due to deforestation in northern and southern China, where the bears are most heavily concentrated.
According to Animals Asia, China has introduced some legal improvements.
In 1989, under a wild animal protection law, the Chinese government made it illegal to hunt bears for their parts, such as gall bladders, paws, and claws.
However, Animals Asia said that more than 20 percent of bears coming from bear farms to its rescue center were missing limbs, indicating that bears were still being targeted in the wild in violation of existing laws.
Meanwhile, what is described as a “new method” of extracting bile from bears in China that was introduced several years ago has proved to be as cruel and as damaging as any of the old methods.
On the positive side, Animals Asia is working with its Chinese government partners to close more bear farms and rescue caged and tortured moon bears.
A number of traditional Chinese medicine doctors working with Animals Asia have condemned the prescription and consumption of bear bile.
For the fortunate bears which are able to escape a life of torture and confinement, Animals Asia runs two bear sanctuaries in Asia, one in Chengdu, China, and another in Vietnam, located in a national park in the northern part of the country.
Making progress in Vietnam
In 2013, Animals Asia, which has been working with government officials and local environmentalists in Vietnam, survived a threatened revocation of its lease on its bear sanctuary, located about 30 miles north of Hanoi.
We know the details of how Vietnam’s then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung intervened in 2013 to halt a plan to close the bear rescue center thanks to reporting for the web-based Asia Sentinel by David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat now working as a journalist.
According to Brown, Animals Asia mobilized tens of thousands of petitions to the prime minister, mobilized celebrities and a dozen ambassadors, and attracted thousands of backers on Facebook.
In the end, a plan to allow construction of a commercial ecotourism project to replace the bear sanctuary was defeated in a country where, Brown says, development projects promoted by top government officials all too often “simply steamroll the opposition.”
On July 19, 2017 Animals Asia signed a memorandum with the Vietnamese government aimed at ensuring a complete end to bear bile farming by 2020.
This followed an earlier agreement to rescue the remaining bears still caged on farms across Vietnam, believed to number about 1,000.
The Vietnamese traditional medicine Association had earlier agreed to ensure an end to bear bile prescriptions by 2020.
South Korea’s success story
South Korea was a latecomer to the bear bile business and had to import bears in the early 1980s to meet a growing demand, which was driven partly by a belief that bear bile could cure ailments such as liver disease.
According to Russel McLendon, writing for the Mother Nature Network (mnn) website, after hunters killed many wild moon bears in the last century, scientists in North Korea found a way to extract bile from live ones.
“This was supposed to take the heat off the bears, and it quickly caught on in China—which had thousands of captive bears by the 1990s—as well as South Korea, Vietnam, and other Asian countries,’’ McLendon says.
“Due to deforestation and poaching, however, the … decline didn’t stop, and annual demand for bile in China actually grew,” he says.
But the bile business went into a sharp decline in South Korea some years ago. Many Koreans have opposed the suffering that captive bears endure, and the bears there are now protected by law.
Many Koreans are also said to admire bears for their courage and determination.
As McLendon notes, the official mascot for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games to be held March 8-18 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is a moon bear.
Some of the credit for South Korea’s success in countering the cruel treatment of captive bears should go to the nongovernmental organizations World Animal Protection and Green Korea United, the latter of which has worked with the South Korean bear bile industry since 2003.
In 2014, Green Korea United facilitated an agreement between the South Korean government and the bear bile industry aimed at improving the protection of the bears.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.