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May 1998
China's Appetite for Bear Parts: Suppressible or Insatiable?

By Adam M. Roberts


In October 1995, the People's Republic of China joined the governments of 19 other Asian countries and territories in reaching consensus on the "Beijing Statement on the Control of Wildlife Trade in Asian Region." The Statement recognized that "illegal trade in wild fauna and flora still occurs in the Asian region, and that the illegal trade in wildlife is the principal factor which stimulates poaching." More importantly, participants agreed to search "for all possible ways and options to stem the illegal trade in wild fauna and flora." It remains to be seen, however, whether China and the other nations of this pivotal region of the world will fulfill their responsibilities and take all measures necessary to conserve threatened and endangered species. Rhinos, tigers, bears, and other precious wildlife cannot withstand the current rate of unsustainable slaughter and still survive into the next millennium.

Chinese demand for parts and products of endangered species primarily emanates from the centuries-old holistic practice of traditional Chinese medicine. This pharmacopoeia unfortunately employs wild animals, many of whom are on the brink of extinction in their natural wild range. The valuable gallbladder and bile of endangered bears, for instance, are used to treat a variety of inflammations, infections and pain. One can work for the protection of all bear species by eliminating the use of their parts in traditional Chinese medicine--and do so without compromising the practitioners' ability to continue using age old medical techniques. Ending the use of endangered species in the Chinese materia medica is a delicate but worthy goal.

Bear Parts

Half of the earth's eight extant species of bear occur in China: the Asiatic black bear, Sun bear, Brown bear, and the famous Giant panda. All are protected under the global wildlife treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Because each is listed in Appendix I of the Convention, international commercialization of these bears' parts and products is prohibited. Unfortunately, the treaty is incapable of eliminating demand for bear parts within China itself. In addition, the high price many consumers are willing to pay for remedies containing endangered wildlife makes poaching and smuggling a risk worth taking.

In November 1995, police in China's Guangxi province caught a factory worker trying to smuggle three black bears, 188 paws and two bears' gallbladders. The gallbladders are used in medicine and, increasingly, high priced cosmetics items. Paws can fetch thousands of dollars as an expensive delicacy (mostly in soups). Just two months earlier, a federal grand jury in California indicted four Chinese nationals, ran the citation, for conspiring "to smuggle into the United States over five kilos of bear gall bile, valued at $2 million, as well as other wildlife products such as musk deer testicles, whole bear gallbladders, rhinoceros horn pills, and tiger bone plasters."

Although wild bear population estimates vary, and have varying degrees of reliability, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry has reported that in 1994 approximately 61,000 black, brown and sun bears were alive in China. By comparison, current estimates for the American black bear in California, Oregon and Washington alone number roughly 75,000. What is most worrisome, though, is the 7,462 bears on 481 "farms" in China. These bear farms began around 1984 and were widely supplied with wild individuals in the subsequent five years.

The ostensible goal of bear farming in China and other Asian countries is to meet the demand for bear bile without taking wild bears. Unfortunately, this premise is flawed: wild bears have been used to stock the farms; products from wild bears are easily laundered with products from farmed bears; wild bear parts are more valuable than their farmed counterparts, thus increasing the incentive to poach in the wild; and availability and acceptance of farmed products increases the consumer base, and thus demand, for these unacceptably risky products.

These general considerations, of course, ignore the extreme cruelty that intensive bear farms inflict on the animals. Steel catheters are surgically implanted into the bears' gallbladders, enabling handlers to regularly "milk" the singly housed animals for their bile. The Ministry of Forestry notes that before 1993, 89 bear deaths were recorded as a result of "postoperative infection of bile drainage operations." Furthermore, excluding last year, over 25 percent of cubs born in bear farms since 1991 have died.

New regulations have been put in place by the Chinese government to address some of the negative welfare implications of the farms. In an effort to close down some of the more poorly equipped facilities, there now must be at least 50 bears on a given farm, farms can only stock the (slightly) more plentiful black bears, and cages are to be used only for medical attention and bile extraction--not as permanent housing. In March 1997, Zhiyong Fan, representing China's CITES Management Authority, told a symposium on the bear parts trade that "the problem of farm bears being maltreated has been basically solved in China." Three months later, reported figures revealed that only approximately 20 percent of the farms conform to the regulations.

Strategies for Survival

Doctor Fan concluded his presentation by explaining that if the global demand for bear gallbladders "were not met with bear bile powders from bear farms, this demand would attract poachers to kill wild bears, which would really endanger the survival of bears in China, and even those in other countries." I disagree. The way to protect wild bears is to eliminate global demand through strict enforcement of protective treaties, laws and regulations, while simultaneously encouraging practitioners to employ non-animal remedies in their traditional medical practice.

Recognition of "the importance of research into the use of substitutes for specimens of endangered species" was included in a resolution on "Traditional Medicines" passed unanimously at the most recent CITES meeting in Zimbabwe in 1997. The parties recommended an investigation into further use of substitutes to threatened wild species in traditional medicine. The Chinese delegation, however, fought to keep language in the resolution calling for consideration of artificial propagation and captive breeding to meet demand for traditional medicines--a clear endorsement of the concept of farms for bears and, in the near future, potentially other species including tigers and musk deer.

According to the Earthcare Society and the Association of Chinese Medicine and Philosophy (two prominent Hong Kong non governmental organizations), there are at least 54 known herbal alternatives to bear bile in its various medical applications. Stefan Chmelik of the London-based Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine wrote to me in January 1997 that the organization supported "a total ban on all bear gall products and farming." He went so far as to suggest "that nearly all of the trade goes to the street stalls and barefoot doctors," and that "very few professional practitioners would think of using bear gall."

Educating practitioners and recipients of traditional Chinese medicine about the alternatives to using endangered species is the best way to stop the trade in bear parts throughout China and Chinese communities across the globe. Endangered bear species cannot survive an unfettered trade in their organs for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Adam M. Roberts is Research Associate with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC and is co-chair of the Species Survival Network's Bear Working Group.


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