Bile bears, sometimes called battery bears, are bears kept in captivity to harvest their bile, a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. The bear species most commonly farmed for bile is the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), although the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) are also used to collect bile. Both the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Animals published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- 1 History
- 2 Methods of bile extraction
- 3 Housing and husbandry
- 4 Welfare concerns
- 5 Welfare enforcement
- 6 Rescue centers
- 7 Implications for conservation
- 8 Statistics
- 9 Bile products
- 10 Pharmacology
- 11 Businesses
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
China was the first country to use bile and its storage organ, the gall bladder, as ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Bear bile was first recorded in "Tang Ban Cao" (Newly Revised Materia Medica, Tang Dynasty, 659 A.D.)[clarification needed]. For thousands of years, the traditional way to acquire bear bile was to kill a wild bear and remove its gall bladder. The use of bear bile in medicines was adopted by Korea and Japan centuries ago as a part of TCM. In the 21st century, the use of TCM is widespread, not only in Asia but also throughout Asian communities in other areas of the world.
In the early 1980s, bile bear farms began appearing in North Korea, and then spread to other regions.
Methods of bile extraction
There are several extraction methods:
- Repeated injection, in which an ultrasound imager is used to locate the gall bladder which is then punctured and the bile extracted.
- Permanent implantation, in which a tube is entered into the gall bladder through the abdomen. According to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the bile is usually extracted twice a day through such implanted tubes, producing 10–20 ml of bile during each extraction.
- Catheterization involves pushing a steel or perspex catheter through the bear's abdomen. The use of metal catheters has been banned, although the HSUS writes that bile bears are still seen with catheters in them.
- The "full-jacket" method uses a permanent catheter tube to extract the bile which is then collected in a plastic bag set in a metal box worn by the bear.
- The "free drip" method involves making a permanent hole, or fistula, in the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile freely drips out. The wound is vulnerable to infection and bile can leak back into the abdomen, causing high mortality rates. Sometimes the hole is kept open with a perspex catheter, which HSUS writes causes severe pain. An AAF Vet Report states that surgeries to create free-dripping fistules caused bears great suffering as they were performed without appropriate antibiotics or pain management and the bears were repeatedly exposed to this process as the fistulae often healed over.
- Removal of the whole gall bladder is sometimes used.
When the bears outlive their productive bile-producing years (at approximately 10 years old), they are slaughtered and harvested for their other parts.
Housing and husbandry
To facilitate the bile extraction process, the bears are commonly kept in cages known as extraction or crush cages. These measure approximately 79 cm x 130 cm x 200 cm (2.6 feet x 4.4 feet x 6.5 feet). Because the bears weigh between 50 to 120 kilograms (110 to 260 lb),, these cages prevent the bears from being able to stand upright, or in some cases, restrict the bear's movements even more. In two model Chinese bile farms, the HSUS reports that the bears are moved to the crush cages for milking, but the rest of the time live in a cage large enough to stand and turn around.
Longevity and mortality
Farmed bile bears are often malnourished and in poor health, living to an average age of five years; healthy captive bears can live until age 35 and wild bears live to 25-30 years. If the bears live past age five, they are most often killed around age 10, since by then their productivity usually drops off. They are then sold for their meat, fur, paws, and gall bladders. Bear paws are considered a delicacy, and have been seen priced at $250.
Farmed bile bears can suffer from a variety of physical ailments which include loss of hair, malnutrition, stunted growth, muscle mass loss, and often have their teeth and claws extracted.
Living for 10–12 years under such circumstances results in severe mental stress and muscle atrophy. The Chinese media reported an incident in which a mother bear, having escaped her cage, strangled her own cub and then killed herself by intentionally running into a wall. World Animal Protection sent researchers to 11 bile farms. They reported seeing bears moaning, banging their heads against their cages, and chewing their own paws (autophagia).
In January 2006, the Chinese State Council Information Office held a press conference in Beijing, during which the government said that it was enforcing a "Technical Code of Practice for Raising Black Bears," which "requires hygienic, painless practice for gall extraction and make strict regulations on the techniques and conditions for nursing, exercise and propagation." However, a 2007 veterinary report published by the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) stated that the Technical Code was not being enforced and that many bears were still spending their entire lives in small extraction cages without free access to food or water. AAF also noted that the free-dripping technique promoted in the Technical Code was unsanitary as the fistula created to access the gall bladder allowed for an open portal through which bacteria could infiltrate the abdomen. The AAF report also stated that surgeries to create free-dripping fistulae caused bears great suffering as they were performed without appropriate antibiotics or pain management and the bears were repeatedly exposed to this process as the fistulae often healed over. The free-dripping method still requires the bears to be prodded with a metal rod when the wound heals over and under veterinary examination, some bears with free-dripping fistulae were actually found to have clear perspex catheters permanently implanted into their gall bladders. In addition to the suffering caused by infection and pain at the incision site, 28% of fistulated bears also experience abdominal hernias and more than a third eventually succumb to liver cancer, believed to be associated with the bile-extraction process.
In China, there are two moon bear rescue centers, one in the Sichuan province and one in the Yunnan province. The rescue centers have already rescued approximately 300 moon bears. The bears are kept at the rescue centers where they are allowed to run around and play. The rescue centers not only rescue bile bears but also rescue some brown bears, dogs, cats, etc. The rescue center was opened by Jill Robinson from England.
It is claimed by animal welfare advocates that bear bile is not needed to make TCM or other products as many herbs, such as coptis or rhubarb, can be used as alternatives for bear bile.
Implications for conservation
The Chinese consider bear farms a way to reduce the demand on the wild bear population. Officially 7,600 captive bears are farmed in China. According to Chinese officials, 10,000 wild bears would need to be killed each year to produce as much bile. Government officials see farming as a reasonable answer to the loss of wild bears from poaching and are insouciant about animal welfare concerns. However, the government's agreement to allow the rescue of 500 bears may represent a softening of this stance.
One solution to improve welfare would be a ban on the trade of products containing the bile, but there is currently no way of preventing illegal trade, so a ban might be counterproductive. Moreover, a ban would remove the economic incentive for local human populations to tolerate wild bears, which may further endanger their conservation. It has been argued that "Wildlife farming offers, at first glance, an intuitively satisfying solution: a legal trade can in principle be created by farming animals to assuage demand for wild animals which thus need not be harvested."
The successes of farming crocodilia in reducing the poaching of wild crocodiles for their skins is pointed out as a further justification for the existence of bear bile farms. The Chinese government in particular encourages farming for conservation purposes.
Nonetheless, bears continue to be hunted in the wild to supply the bile farms. It is claimed that this is necessary because of difficulties with captive breeding. Research has shown that consumers of bear bile have a strong preference for bile produced from wild bears; bile from farms may therefore not be a perfect substitute for bile from wild bears.
There is no definitive estimate of the number of Asian black bears in the wild: Although their reliability is unclear, rangewide estimates of 5–6,000 bears have been presented by Russian biologists. Rough density estimates without corroborating methods or data have been made in India and Pakistan, resulting in estimates of 7–9,000 in India and 1,000 in Pakistan. Unsubstantiated estimates from China give varying estimates between 15–46,000, with a government estimate of 28,000. Some estimates put the total Asian population as low as 25,000.
In July 2000, Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong based charity, signed an agreement with the Chinese government to remove 500 endangered Asian black bears from bile farms in Sichuan province and work towards ending the practice. Today, the China Bear Rescue has placed 219 previously farmed moon bears at a Sanctuary in Chengdu, and is helping to advance the concept of animal welfare in China.
World Animal Protection conducted a study in 1999 and 2000, and estimated that there were 247 bear bile farms in China, holding 7,002 bears, though the Chinese government called the figures "pure speculation." The Chinese consider bear farms a way to reduce the demand on the wild bear population. Officially 7,600 captive bears are farmed in China. According to Chinese officials, 10,000 wild bears would need to be killed each year to produce as much bile. The government sees farming as a reasonable answer to the loss of wild bears from poaching, and at the same time are indifferent to the cruelty issues that concern Western animal rights activists. However, the government's agreement to allow the rescue of 500 bears may represent a softening of this stance.
In 2013, estimates of bears kept in cages in China for bile production range from 9,000 to 20,000 bears on nearly 100 domestic bear farms. China has repeatedly been found to be the main source of bear bile products on sale throughout South-East Asia; this international trade in their parts and derivatives is strictly prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
There are estimated to be 4,000 bile bears in Vietnam, where their bile can sell for 100,000 dong (~US$6.25) per millilitre (with 37,500 dong a week regarded as the poverty line for an urban resident).
In 2009, according to the Korean Environment Ministry, there were 1,374 bears raised at 74 farms across South Korea. In Korea it is legal to keep bears for bile and bears older than 10 years old can be harvested for their paws and organs. By 2012, it is estimated the number of bears in Korean farms will have risen to about 1,600.
In Laos, bear bile can sell for 120,000 kip (~US$15) per millilitre (with 240,000 kip being the average monthly wage in the country). the number of bile bears is estimated at more than 100 individuals.
The monetary value of the bile comes from the traditional prescription of bear bile by doctors practicing TCM. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). It is purchased and consumed to treat hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle ailments, sprains, epilepsy, reduce fever, improve eyesight, break down gall stones, act as an anti-inflammatory, reduce the effects of over-consumption of alcohol, and to 'clear' the liver. It is currently found in various forms for sale including whole gall bladders, raw bile, pills, powder, flakes and ointment.
Because only minute amounts of bile are used in TCM, a total of 500 kg of bear bile is used by practitioners every year, but according to WSPA more than 7,000 kg is being produced. The surplus is being used in other non-essential products such as throat lozenges, shampoo, toothpaste, wine, tea, eyedrops, and general tonics.
Reports on the efficacy of bile products are mixed. It has been stated "These products have absolutely no benefit to health" and "Scientists have scrutinized the health effects of bear bile but have come to no definitive conclusions".
Raw bile can sell for as much as U.S.$24,000 a kilogram, approximately half the price of gold.
A report published in 2013 stated that a poacher in North America can usually get U.S.$100 to $150 for a gall bladder, but the organs can fetch U.S.$5,000 to $10,000 in the end-market once they are processed into a powder. The report also stated that the HSUS indicated a bear gall bladder can cost more than $3,000 in Asia. A TRAFFIC report estimated that prices for whole gall bladders were as low as $51.11 (Myanmar) and as high as $2,000 (Hong Kong SAR). For gall bladder by the gram, the least expensive was $0.11 per gram (Thailand) and the highest was $109.70 per gram (Japan).
Pill prices ranged from as low as $0.38 per pill (Malaysia) to $3.83 per pill (Thailand).
The active therapeutic substance in bear bile—and in the bile of all mammals—is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Before the manufacture of UDCA by pharmaceutical companies, bear bile was prescribed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine because it contained a higher percentage of UDCA than the bile of other mammals. However, modern chemistry has made this fact irrelevant. Today, pharmaceutical-grade UDCA is now collected from slaughterhouses, then purified and packaged under trade names such as Ursosan, Ursofalk, Actigall, and UrsoForte. Chinese doctors have also endorsed several herbal substitutes, which provide a cheap, effective and readily available alternative.
Substances in mammalian bile other than UDCA, such as cholesterol, have never been demonstrated to have any healing effect in humans. Despite this observation and the availability of affordable pharmaceutical-grade UDCA, some practitioners of TCM continue to prescribe whole bear bile for their patients and reject any sort of modern substitute.
In 2010, the Guizhentang Pharmaceutical company was one of the most successful bile extraction companies in China, paying some 10 million yuan in taxes. In 2012, the company tried to go public in the Shenzhen stock exchange and proposed to triple the company’s stock of captive bears, from 400 to 1,200. This provoked a large response from those opposed to bear bile farming, and met heavy challenges from activists, internet users and protesters. This was followed by a number of controversies along with public interviews.
- Alligator farm
- Animals Asia Foundation
- Free the Bears Fund
- Jill Robinson
- Snake wine, a rice wine made with snake bile
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