Chinese scientists from Beijing Forest University have called for their government to ban bear farming in Nature this week. Around 10,000 endangered Asian black bears or ‘moon bears’ are kept captive in China so that their bile can be extracted for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
The correspondence follows weeks of public outcry in China since Guizhentang, a prominent pharmaceutical company, made its second attempt to go public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in February. The company wants to use its initial public offering to expand the number of bear farms it runs.
“Our stance is not to try and bring TCM down,” says Qiang Weng, a veterinary physician and one of the authors of the correspondence. “The industry is part of Chinese culture and really helps patients. What we would love to see is a proven and recognized replacement for the bear bile, so that there will eventually be a win–win situation for both animals and the industry.”
Two alternatives to using bear bile already exist. One is simply finding herbal substitutes. The other involves synthetically producing the active ingredient in bile, ursodeoxycholic acid. Synthetic bile acid was first made in 1954 from dead chickens, and has since been produced by scientists at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis without the use of animals.
But bear bile has been used in TCM for the past 3,000 years, and some practitioners still refuse any alternative to the original ‘liquid gold’.
At present, no legislation exists for the wide-scale protection of animals in China. A draft proposal from 2009 is still pending approval by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
Guizhentang claims to have developed a surgical technique for extracting bile from the gall bladders of bears without causing the animals any pain. The bile is sanctioned by the Chinese government for use as an anti-inflammatory agent in widely available products, from toothpastes to wine.
But 30% of these bears still die of liver cancer, says Jill Robinson, the founder and chief executive of the Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charity that seeks to end animal abuse across the continent. “It’s still a cruel and unconscionable method of bile extraction,” she says.
Bile bears are kept in small cages where their teeth are clipped short, their eyes develop cataracts and they face untimely death, says Robinson.
Animals Asia funds TCM doctors to hold discussion panels on the issue of conserving the moon bear species. Proceeds from an art exhibition this week in London, inspired by moon bears and entitled Moonstruck, will go in part to such conservation efforts.
“No amount of animal-welfare legislation is enough to protect these bears,” Robinson says. “It has to be flat-out banned.”
Photo: Animals Asia