Help me, please

Bears are caged for years in mis­er­able con­di­tions to have their bile ex­tracted for tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. Luck­ily, there are bet­ter al­ter­na­tives.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By AN­DREW SIA star2­green@thes­

BEARS! Most of us are used to see­ing cute, fluffy soft toys or images of them gam­bolling along a river­bank in na­ture doc­u­men­taries. But for many bears, the re­al­ity is starkly dif­fer­ent.

Thou­sands of bears lie in con­stant pain and an­guish in small cages as crude meth­ods are used to ex­tract their bile – metal catheters in­serted into open, in­fected holes drilled into their bel­lies.

This is the de­scrip­tion of the bru­tal bear bile in­dus­try that Jill Robin­son, the founder of An­i­mals Asia, gave Britain’s Guardian news­pa­per ( star2BearHor­ror).

“They call them bear farms but they are more like bear tor­ture camps,” said Dr Chris R. Shep­herd, im­me­di­ate past chief of wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing net­work Traf­fic South­east Asia.

“The bears are poorly treated. Some are con­fined to ‘crush cages’ so tight they can’t stand, sit or move,” he ex­plained at a re­cent in­ter­view.

“Some bears show scars as they keep bash­ing their heads against the cage bars.”

Oth­ers have the added mis­ery of wear­ing “metal jack­ets” de­signed to re­strain them and with sharp metal spikes to stop them bend­ing their heads ( star2BearRes­cue).

There is also of­ten a per­ma­nent catheter run­ning from the bear’s ab­domen to a bile col­lec­tion pouch.

Metal pins, hooks and other makeshift de­vices are of­ten crudely in­serted right into the gall blad­der to hold the catheter in place.

This is of­ten done in con­di­tions ripe for in­fec­tion so the bears are fed an­tibi­otics to keep them alive.

“Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never re­leased,” said Robin­son.

And af­ter 10, 20 or even 30 years of cap­tiv­ity, bears stop pro­duc­ing enough bile and are then killed and their body parts sold.

Some have badly worn teeth, with raw and ex­posed nerves, from try­ing to chew through the bars (­a­cleBear).

These bear con­cen­tra­tion camps are found mostly in China, Viet­nam, Myan­mar, and Laos noted Dr Shep­herd.

Even Hong Kong movie stars such as Karen Mok and Jackie Chan have felt com­pelled to launch cam­paigns against bear bile farm­ing (­ieBears).

Robin­son said, “In Malaysia, there are no such farms, but wild sun bears are poached and killed and their gall blad­ders are re­moved for sale.”

Glo­ria Ganang, from the Bornean Sun Bear Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre, said poach­ers are even en­ter­ing pro­tected for­est re­serves to hunt for bears.

Heal not harm

The main driver of this hor­rific “in­dus­try” is the high value of bear bile in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine (TCM).

But luck­ily, the cru­elty can stop as there are many al­ter­na­tive medicines, as re­it­er­ated last week at a joint one-day con­fer­ence by the Fed­er­a­tion of Chi­nese Physi­cians

The pur­pose of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine is to save lives. But if you have to kill or tor­ture an­i­mals to do that, then it de­feats the pur­pose. Ting Ka Hua

and Medicine Deal­ers As­so­ci­a­tions of Malaysia and Traf­fic South­east Asia in Kuala Lumpur.

Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Ting Ka Hua said, “The pur­pose of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine is to save lives. But if you have to kill or tor­ture an­i­mals to do that, then it de­feats the pur­pose.

“Ex­trac­tion of bear bile ei­ther kills bears or means hor­ri­ble lives for bears in cages.”

He added, “Since there are over 50 sub­sti­tutes for bear bile with sim­i­lar heal­ing pow­ers, why don’t we use those in­stead?

“Our in­dus­try is dif­fer­ent from oth­ers, it is to heal, not to harm. We are re­spon­si­ble for what we sell and use, and we urge every­one to stop us­ing bear bile and medicine from en­dan­gered species.”

Kanitha Kr­ish­nasamy, act­ing re­gional di­rec­tor for Traf­fic South­east Asia, said the or­gan­i­sa­tion is very glad to be part­ner­ing with Malaysia’s largest TCM com­mu­nity to end il­le­gal trade in wildlife.

Alex Choo, the fed­er­a­tion’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral, said, “I was trained as a Chi­nese physi­cian in Pe­nang. We were not taught how to use bear bile in our text books.

“I be­lieve Chi­nese physi­cians will not pre­scribe bear bile, though some shops may still sell it.”

He likens the cam­paign to move away from bear bile to the one on shark fin.

“The younger generation will prob­a­bly sup­port it, but the mind­set of older folks will be harder to change.”

Bet­ter al­ter­na­tives

About 80 TCM prac­ti­tion­ers, physi­cians and lec­tur­ers at­tended the con­fer­ence.

This in­cluded Dr Feng Yibin, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Chi­nese Medicine.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the best al­ter­na­tive to bear bile is the herb huan­glian, also known as ber­beris, Chi­nese goldthread, or by its Latin name Cop­tis chi­nen­sis.

Dur­ing the con­fer­ence, Dr Feng showed his sci­en­tific stud­ies on the bio­genet­ics, phy­to­chem­i­cal prop­er­ties, pro­tein/DNA anal­y­sis and bioac­tiv­ity of the herb in cel­lu­lar and an­i­mal stud­ies.

He ex­plained that huan­glian can be used like bear bile in the tra­di­tional cures of “re­mov­ing damp heat”, “purg­ing fire”, and “detox­i­fy­ing”.

His con­clu­sion: huan­glian is just as ef­fec­tive as bear bile, and some­times even bet­ter, in treat­ing liver dis­ease and can­cer, two of the main uses for bear bile.

The stud­ies have been pub­lished in 25 in­ter­na­tional med­i­cal jour­nals.

Dr Feng him­self has seen im­prove­ments when pa­tients with liver prob­lems were treated with huan­glian.

His team at HKU also in­ves­ti­gated bile from cows and found that it

has sim­i­lar ef­fects on liver in­flam­ma­tion and other dis­eases.

Dr Feng said that be­cause bears are now en­dan­gered and bear bile is ex­pen­sive, some peo­ple think that “if they pay more, it will be bet­ter”.

But be­ing ex­pen­sive is a dou­bled-edged sword as “some bear bile is fake or mixed with other sub­stances”, he said.

What makes bear bile even less de­sir­able is that it’s of­ten ex­tracted in back­yard (of­ten il­le­gal) oper­a­tions in un­hy­gienic con­di­tions.

The wounds where the catheters are poked into the bear are of­ten in­fected and this can cause con­tam­i­na­tion of the bile (with bac­te­ria or an­tibi­otics).

“A bear can spend 30 years of its life in a cage in ex­treme pain ev­ery day while bile is ex­tracted from its gall blad­der,” said Dr Feng.

“It is our duty to use sci­en­tific re­search to find a sub­sti­tute and stop this cruel prac­tice.

“We should mod­ernise tra­di­tional Chi­nese med­i­cal knowl­edge with science. This not only ben­e­fits wildlife but also hu­mans.”

Shep­herd con­cluded, “We don’t want to de­monise the (TCM) in­dus­try. We want to work with them to im­prove it, and this is a huge step for­ward.”

When the buy­ing stops, the abuse and killing will stop too.

An­i­mals Asia

An Asi­atic black bear squashed into a tiny cage in a bile fac­tory in China. Its cracked paw pad is due to lack of use. —

— An­i­mals Asia

Metal ‘jack­ets’ are used to re­strain bears while their bile is ex­tracted, in of­ten un­hy­gienic con­di­tions.

— An­i­mals Asia

A bear in Viet­nam with a miss­ing paw, which was prob­a­bly crushed in a trap. Most bears are cap­tured to have their bile ex­tracted.

— AN­DREW SIA/The Star

Ting: ‘We urge every­one to stop us­ing bear bile and medicine from en­dan­gered species.’

— AN­DREW SIA/The Star

Dr Feng says the herb huan­glian may be even bet­ter in treat­ing liver dis­ease than bear bile.

— CHRIS SHEP­HERD/Traf­fic South­east Asia

A bear cub has been killed to ex­tract its gall blad­der con­tain­ing bile.


Bears are so­cial an­i­mals that need in­ter­ac­tion – and even play when they’re young, as seen here at the Bornean Sun Bear Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre (BSBCC). Iso­lat­ing them, as is done on bear bile farms, is a form of tor­ture.

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