THEIR proud faces are pressed up against wire bars and their eyes stare out in pain and frustration. Their prisons are agonisingly tiny “crush” cages which hardly encase their bodies.
They can’t move, stand up or even turn around. This is the plight of thousands of Asiatic black bears (also known as moon bears because of the yellow crescent of fur on their chests), victims of the horrific bear bile trade in countries across Asia.
More than 20,000 of these gentle animals are trapped in similar coffin-sized cages throughout China, Vietnam and South Korea, where they are milked for their bile, which is then used in traditional Asian medicine. Methods of extraction – often using crude, filthy catheters thrust into the animals’ abdomens – are sickeningly inhumane.
But, in China at least, the practice appears to be getting worse. “The Chinese government sees it as a legal business and the number of bears on the farms is increasing,” says Victor Watkins, from animal charity World Society For The Protection Of Animals (WSPA). Each farm may have as many as 1,000 bears, kept individually in vast warehouses and never seeing daylight. “The sad irony is that there are more than 50 herbal alternatives to bear bile so it’s completely unnecessary,” he adds.
Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid which is used to treat heat-related illnesses, high temperatures, liver complaints and sore eyes. “It is also proven to assist in breaking down gall stones,” adds Watkins, “but, as well as there being herbal alternatives pharmaceutical companies are now able to make the product synthetically.
The problem is the Chinese have been using bile for thousands of years and see it as a tradition. “Before the Eighties bears would be killed in the wild and their gall bladders would be cut out but because the bears were becoming rarer they came up with the idea of farming them. They could keep the bear alive and keep extracting the bile, sometimes on a daily basis
They are now producing so much bile that they’re marketing it more fluently and finding new products to use it in: shampoo, eye drops, tonics for teas. The majority of the public just don’t see the awful conditions.”
Kung Fu legend Jackie Chan is lending support to WSPA’s Help End Bear Farming campaign, urging the public to sign up to the appeal and stop the plight of these animals. “This is the worst kind of cruelty and I urge the Chinese
government to stop this. Anyone buying anything from alternative medicine establishments must make sure there is no bear bile in any of the products,” he warns.
Chan is a powerful voice in Asia and other celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John have also lent their name to the cause. Newton-John is President of the Animals Asia Foundation, a charity set up in 1993 by welfare campaigner Jill Robinson after she walked into a bear bile farm in China. She described what she saw as “a torture chamber, a
hell-hole for animals”.
Since 2002 bear farming has been illegal in Vietnam but the law is very poorly enforced. Methods of bile extraction vary. In Vietnam the bears’ cages are slightly larger than in China and they use an unsterilised, four-inch needle to jab the animals’ stomach before drawing out the bile with a suction pump.
All the practices are deeply shocking, however. “In China they are milked through permanent open holes in their abdomen. This is the so-called ‘humane’ free-dripping technique and it is the only legal method of bile extraction in China,” says Nicky Vyvyan-Robinson of Animals Asia. “But it still causes constant pain and the slow, agonising death of the bears. They are deliberately kept hungry and denied free access to water because this helps produce more bile.”
Understandably the bears, some of which are caught in the wild while others are bred on these farms, are hardly healthy.
“When you constantly prod a foreign object into a bear they inevitably get infections,” says Watkins. “Tumours, internal abscesses and gallstones are also common. Bears may stop producing bile after only a few years and they are then left to die or are killed for their paws or gall bladder.”
Other bears can spend more than 20 years living this life of torture but the poor health of these animals raises another worrying question. As Vyvyan-Robinson puts it: “What is the bile taken from such shockingly ill bears doing to the health of humans who consume it?
A number of traditional doctors have come out against bear farming claiming that bile from farmed bears is not safe for human consumption.”
Animals Asia says it is making some progress in the fi ght against bear farming. The foundation has set up Moon Bear Rescue Centres in China and Vietnam. In 2000 it signed an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to free 500 suffering bears and bring them to its sanctuary. It is working with governments, local authorities and communities on a number of projects aimed at fi nding long-term solutions.
“The authorities identify the worst farms for closure and Animals Asia compensates the farmers so they can continue to feed their families,” explains Vyvyan- Robinson. Since 2000 more than 260 bears have been released into the rescue centre in Sichuan while the Vietnam sanctuary has taken in 50 bears confiscated from smugglers and an illegal bear farm.
Many of the bears arrive in the most shocking condition: bone-thin, desperately ill and terrifi ed. “But with tender loving care and intensive veterinary attention the vast majority recover,” says Vyvyan- Robinson. “Sadly they cannot be released into the wild as many are defenceless and disabled, bred in captivity or snared in the wild as cubs and so don’t have the necessary survival skills.”
Not every rehabilitation case has a happy ending, either. Just two weeks ago a cub named Tiger died after his mother, who had been rescued from an illegal bear farm in Vietnam, gave birth. After a fierce battle the little cub didn’t have enough strength to survive while another rescued bear had to be put down after its internal organs were
found to be “rotting away”.
Clearly, with more than 12,000 bears incarcerated in bear farms in China, 4,000 in Vietnam and 2,500 in South Korea, this is a problem which is far from being solved.