Traditional Medicine Trade: Bears Bears of all species have come under siege from a variety of causes, including habitat loss, hunting, killing for meat and as "nuisances." Their greatest threat today, however, is their slaughter for the market in bear products, mainly their gallbladders and paws. All of the world's eight species of bears, except the Giant Panda, have suffered population declines as a result of this Traditional Medicine trade (Knights 1996). Their gallbladders are ground into powder, and bile is extracted for various medicinal purposes, including digestive problems, inflammation and blood purification. Sold at extremely high prices, a record $45,000 was paid for a single gallbladder (Barron 1991). To illustrate the avid market in this product, an Asian dealer in New York City was murdered in 1991 to obtain his profits from the sale of bear gallbladders. Japan imported 1,500 pounds of bear bile in 1989 alone (Schaller 1993).
The largest consumer of bear bile is now South Korea, and Koreans have even hunted Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in California and placed ads in newspapers to purchase bear gallbladders from hunters (Knights 1996). A Grizzly or Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) gallbladder can sell for up to $10,000 on the black market, and the larger the gallbladder, the higher the price. A Black Bear gallbladder can be purchased from a poacher in Idaho for $15, but in Hawaii, it brings $1,500, and in Korea, as much as $15,000 (Barron 1991). Some AIDS patients in the United States take extracts of bear gallbladder as a supposed cure for this disease, according to CBS News (July 7, 1993).
The Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), already endangered and listed on Appendix I of CITES before the 1980s, may now be verging on extinction, according to the Chairman of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group (Servheen 1989). Native to most of Asia from Iran and India east to Mongolia, Russia and Vietnam, this species has been the major target of the gallbladder trade. From 1979 to 1988, up to 59,000 gallbladders were illegally exported from China to Japan (Servheen 1989). A wild Korean Black Bear shot in 1982 was sold at auction for $18,500 (Servheen 1989). Fewer than 10 of these bears remain in Korea, according to the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement after they were finally given protection. In 1996, five Koreans and two Thais were arrested in South Korea after they were caught with the carcasses of six wild bears with the paws chopped off and internal organs extracted (WuDunn 1997). Hunters of these bears will often frighten or wound the bear first in order to let it die slowly, in pain, in the belief that the gallbladder becomes larger when the animal suffers (WuDunn 1997). South Korea recently banned sale of bear parts except for U.S. bears, which are still allowed to be sold. The bear bile is touted as a magical cure-all, used in health tonics and aphrodisiacs throughout Korea (WuDunn 1997). An average of more than 2,000 Asiatic Black Bears per year are killed in Japan, and many are exported as live animals or parts, primarily to Korea.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) reported in 1995 in The Protector that an illegal shipment of 21 live small bear cubs, of which 20 were Asiatic and one was a Sun Bear, was seized in Thailand. All had been captured in Burma, and the smuggler had made an arrangement with airport authorities in Thailand to let these Appendix I species pass on their journey to Korea to be killed and their paws removed for restaurant diners. The Thai forestry department was informed and confiscated the bear cubs. After the seizure, three died of disease, brought on by their crowded and unhealthy captive conditions. These cubs, which would still have been with their mothers, were placed by the World Society for the Protection of Animals in a humane rescue center. This species has declined so dramatically throughout its range that the Traditional Medicine trade has turned to other bear species. The Asiatic Black Bear ranges into Siberia, where it is being slaughtered for its gallbladder in spite of being legally protected (Galster 1996). The IUCN Bear Specialist Group's Chairman, Christopher Servheen, in his report The Status and Conservation of the Bears of the World (1989), predicted that without strict controls on trade and hunting, the Asiatic Black Bear could become extinct throughout most of its range in the very near future.
An estimated 8,000 to 9,000 Brown Bear gallbladders are exported from Russia annually, of which half are legally hunted bears and half are poached animals, but no official records are being kept (Knights 1996). The Brown Bear is the national symbol of Russia, and yet the combined effects of disintegrating law enforcement, financial gain from selling bear body parts, and official corruption pose serious threats. Russian poachers receive about $200 per gallbladder, and they are sold in Korea for up to $5,000 apiece (Galster 1996). In 1995, in the Bikin Valley of Russia's Far East, bear poaching was reported on the rise, and the Amba patrol protecting Siberian Tigers reported seeing an increasing number of orphaned bear cubs (Galster 1996). Some cubs are killed along with their mothers; a report by the Investigative Network included a photograph of a dead mother Brown Bear and her slaughtered infant cub, killed for their gallbladders in Russia (Galster 1996).
After floods in northeastern China in mid-1995, many Brown Bears crossed over the Amur River into Russia to reach higher ground, and hunters converged on them (Galster 1996). They were pursued into forests by four-wheel drive vehicles, and at least 60 were shot. Because the trade in bear parts is legal in Russia, little can be done to stop the poaching (Galster 1996).
The grisly consumption of bear paws, which are cooked as a gourmet delicacy that to some is also health promoting, is widespread in Asia. Served at Japanese business banquets, they can cost $1,000 per person; a Seoul restaurant advertised bear paw soup in 1994 at $1,000 per bowl (Knights 1996). More than 900 kilograms of paws were imported annually into Japan from China in the mid-1970s, and about 600 kilograms per year entered in the 1980s (Servheen 1989). In 1987, one Chinese city, Harbin, consumed 4,000 pounds of Brown and Asiatic Black Bear paws, and nine live bears were smuggled into Guangzhou City to lease to restaurants in order to lure customers (Schaller 1993). In 1990 a single load of 4,000 kilograms of bear paws from 1,000 bears was intercepted at the Chinese border headed for Japanese and Korean buyers (Knights 1996). Live bears, imported with the pretext of going to zoos, are killed in front of Korean restaurant customers (Servheen 1989). A Korean newspaper reported that live bears are lowered onto beds of hot coals, where they are held until their feet are cooked (Knights 1996). In China, servings of bear paws sell for between $346 and $576 each. At the Beijing Lou restaurant, braised bear paws are advertised on a three-sided, revolving, illuminated sign, with enlarged photos of the paws (Highley and Highley 1994).
Sun Bears (Helarctos malayaunus), smallest of all bears, are native to southeast Asia. Populations of this species have been severely reduced by the capture of many animals shipped to South Korea for their paws (Highley and Highley 1994). The Sun Bear is an endangered species on Appendix I of CITES, and total populations are thought to be less than 20,000; it ranges from India though Thailand to Sumatra and Borneo (Knights 1996). Another rare Asian species, the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, is thought to number less than 10,000 (Knights 1996). It is listed on Appendix I of CITES and listed as Vulnerable by the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. An estimated 728 to 1,548 Sloth Bears in India alone are also being killed for the restaurant and gallbladder trades (Nowak 1999; Servheen 1989).
Asians are not the only ones who consume bear paws. An American entertainer, Tommy Tune, joked on a U.S. talk show about a banquet he attended in Japan where he ate a bear's left paw. It had been ordered one week in advance, probably so that a live bear would be killed or maimed for the purpose. Jay Leno, the host of the “Tonight” show, on which Tune was a guest, said "Imagine a bear getting its paw cut off! How could you eat that?" Tune replied, "Oh, you just don't think about it."
Bear “farms” have been established in several Asian countries, keeping these animals in captivity to extract bile from their gallbladders. China had an astounding 10,000 Asiatic Black Bears in bear farms throughout the country (Knights 1996); but that number has been reduced to fewer than 8,000 at the beginning of the new millenium. They represent at least a third of the species' entire population. An investigation by two researchers (Highley and Highley 1994), who visited a number of these farms and published a report, Bear Farming & Trade in China and Taiwan, found bears being kept in extremely cruel conditions in cages only 3 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, so small they could barely move (Highley and Highley 1994). Some cages are raised off the ground like rabbit cages, and others are placed on the ground, with bears often lying in their own excrement. Films and documentation of the conditions in which these bears are kept have provoked international outcries (Highley and Highley 1994).
The extraction of the bile from caged bears is another cruelty. Christopher Servheen, a bear biologist, witnessed such an operation, in which the owner used a metal pole to harass the small bear, which already had a badly scabbed nose, into a narrow portion of its cage. As his wife distracted the bear with a pan of sweets, a door was lowered and metal rods inserted to confine the bear and keep its legs from interfering with its abdomen. The owner reached in, unlocked the metal panel, and a plastic bag attached to a catheter dropped down, which was half full of a green-brown liquid. The bear scraped and clawed wildly at the cage when the owner proceeded to extract the liquid from the bag with an oversized hypodermic needle, withdrawing two full syringes (Highley and Highley 1994). Several caged bears with one or more paws cut off for sale to the restaurant trade have been seen on these farms (Highley and Highley 1994).
An organization based in Hong Kong, Animals Asia Foundation, run by Jill Robinson, has begun a rescue operation to save at least 500 Asiatic Black Bears from bear farms. They will live in a sanctuary where they are able to roam free. The organization signed an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing and the Sichuan Forestry Department to close the worst bear farms in Sichuan with the goal of expanding the initiative to other provinces and promoting the manufacture and use of synthetic or herbal substitutes for bear bile. Many of the bears rescued had severe wounds from the catheters implanted to drain bile, or from banging their heads against the bars. Their teeth were broken and worn down from biting cage bars in a vain attempt to escape. They are being given veterinary care at the Animals Asia Foundation.*
*Animals Asia Foundation, Hong Kong Headquarters Office, P.O. Box 82, Sai Kung Post Office, Sai Kung, Kowloon, Hong Kong; Web site: www.animalsasia.org. Donations are needed for this important rescue work.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has been extremely active in rescuing bears from inhumane conditions in Europe and Asia, and its recent research on 44 bear farms was published in two reports in 2000: The veterinary, behavioural and welfare implications of bear farming in Asia details the conditions on these farms, in which cages are tiny metal boxes with holes punched for ventilation; the extremely abnormal behavior exhibited, such as self-mutilation; and the untreated wounds, deformities and health problems. From Cage to Consumer is a market survey showing that bear gallbladders and bile are being sold in most major U.S. and Canadian cities, with prices of up to $650 for a whole gallbladder. The United States and Canada thus help to keep these cruel farms in business. Legislation to ban U.S. sales failed in recent Congressional sessions, but was reintroduced in 2001.
According to the Association of Chinese Medicine and Philosophy in Hong Kong, there are at least 54 alternatives to bear gall, including common rhubarb and a type of gardenia (Knights 1996). A chemical used in Western medicine to dissolve gallbladder stones, Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has been synthesized from cattle bile acid for the past 50 years (Knights 1996). Twelve tons of this chemical are produced by a single pharmaceutical company in Korea every year. This product has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many practitioners of Traditional Medicine are unaware of synthesized UDCA, and most prefer to stock products from rare wild animals (Knights 1996). Korean practitioners claim that only the real bear bile is effective, a totally false assumption but one that keeps the demand strong (WuDunn 1997).
The Traditional Medicine trade in bear products is also practiced in South America, where the endangered Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is struggling for survival in its Andean habitat. Bear fat is used for bone bruises and claws for strength and fertility; machismo is associated with killing these bears (Servheen 1989). Total numbers of this rare species are estimated at only 10,000 animals (Knights 1996). Although protected throughout its range, enforcement is poor (Servheen 1989). It is listed on Appendix I of CITES.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory, after intensive research, is now able to identify bear gallbladders by species if a bit of tissue is attached for DNA analysis (Knights 1996). However, law enforcement officers are unable to distinguish by sight alone whether the gallbladders come from an endangered species of bear. Detection of smuggled bear gallbladder in packages and luggage by trained dogs is one step in the right direction. British Columbia has begun training dogs for this purpose, and should this become widespread, confiscations might have a major effect on smuggling.