OFF THE SHELVES
Pharmacies say no to controversial bear bile
Around 150 Chinese drugstores in Chengdu announced on Thursday that they would stop selling products containing bear bile powder, giving a boost to animal rights activists in China’s long-running debate over the extraction of bile from live bears.
Over 100 drugstores in Shenyang, Zhuhai and other cities made the same pledge in 2012.
More than 260 drugstores have openly opposed the sale of the product, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever and conditions of the liver, heart, circulation and eyes, according to Zhong Yuanwei, a manager with Dahua Pharmacy company in Chengdu.
He said his company has not sold the products since 2010 when a video circulated on the Chinese Sina Weibo micro blog site revealing the method by which bear bile is extracted from Asiatic black bears, prompting concerns among animal rights activists and animal lovers.
The method involves inserting a tube into the bear’s gall bladder and extracting the bile while the animal is alive. Bears are kept in small cages for periods of 10 years of more so that large amounts of bile can be extracted.
Zhong said that healing human diseases should be possible without cruelty to animals.
In order to further boycott the bear bile industry, Zhong’s company has formed an alliance with other pharmacy chain stores, all of which prohibit the sale of bear bile products.
“After we got to know the industry, we found that there is a shared sympathy for the bears, and most of the customers agree too,” Zhong said.
Zhong said that he is contributing to the progress of animal welfare in the country, which depends on raising awareness of the issues.
He said the company has suffered some loss in business but not much. He said that he has not received any form of subsidy or compensation from the government or any other organization.
According to Zhong, very few customers come to stores asking for bear bile products these days. When someone asks for such products, his sales assistants explain the reason why they stopped selling it, and most customers seem to understand.
“There are five or six different medicines of this kind, but they can all be replaced with others,” he said, giving the example of bear bile eyedrops, which can be replaced with a product made from pearl powder.
Liu Zhengcai, a prominent traditional Chinese medicine doctor, is a leading supporter of the campaign.
He said that he never uses bear bile in medicines, preferring alternative herbal medicines like European verbena and heartleaf houttuynia.
However, he is still in a minority among doctors of traditional Chinese medicine.
The China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine announced on Feb 16 last year that bear bile is not replaceable.
Fang Shuting, president of the association, also said in a press release that the previous reports about the practice of drawing bile from live bears had greatly exaggerated the animals’ suffering and certain organizations had used gory photos to mislead the public and malign the bear bile industry.
He said that the philosophy of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine was scientific conservation, rational use and sustainable development, a view echoed by Yan Xun, deputy head of the Wildlife Animal Conservation Authority under the State Forestry Administration.
“Human society relies on animals to grow. One cannot simply emphasize protection,” said Yan.
He said that before this method was introduced from Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to China in the 1980s, people killed bears to extract bile, which was more cruel.
The administration has no plans yet to ban the industry. However, public discontent has been moving faster than the policymakers.
Guizhentang, China’s largest manufacturer of bear-bile products and the biggest owner of captive black bears in southern China, was planning an initial public offering last year. But due to increasing opposition and criticism, the company withdrew its plan on June 2 this year.
The company gave no response to Thursday’s boycott in Chengdu when contacted by a China Daily reporter.
The new boycott in Chengdu does not signal an end to the battle between traditional medicine lobbyists and animal rights campaigners.
For animal welfare advocates, the challenge is to convince Chinese consumers that the cruelty of bile farming outweighs the medicinal benefits and there is also a health risk associated with consuming bile from sick bears.
According to the Animals Asia Foundation, a charity in Hong Kong that campaigns against the bear bile industry, there are an estimated 20,000 bears being kept on nearly 100 bear farms in China.
The charity has managed to provide a new life for some bears already, creating a wildlife sanctuary with the help of forestry authorities in Sichuan, and setting the animals free there. Most of them came from farms closed by the authorities because they had fewer than 50 bears, a violation of industry rules.
Veterinarians and nurses from Animals Asia Foundation perform a health check on an Asian black bear at the Sichuan Longqiao Moon Bear Sanctuary in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on April 27, 2010. Bears suffer various illnesses after their bile is extracted. More efforts are being made to prohibit selling bear bile products.