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Asia Trade In Bear Gall Bladder Medicines Booming

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Thousands of bears captive in Chinese bile farms
(IPS) TOKYO -- Demand in Japan, as well as South Korea and Singapore, for traditional medicine that uses bear bile continues to fuel the illegal trade in that product and large-scale bear farming in China, wildlife conservation activists say.

The three East Asian countries are the biggest overseas markets for such products, Victor Watkins, campaign director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), said in a press conference here yesterday.

Trade in bear gall bladder and bile products, collected mostly from bear farms in China, are banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but Watkins presented evidence of a thriving international trade that still exists.

"The huge popularity of bear bile is threatening the existing populations Asiatic black bear, the most popular source for the product," Watkins said, urging that government move quickly to ban the practice and trade.

According to CITES figures, there are currently 20,000 Asian black bears in the wild in China. Official figures released in China in 1997 say 7,000 bears are kept in captivity in 601 Chinese bile farms.

More than 700 tons of dried bile is collected annually, of which 400 tons are used domestically. The rest is illegally exported, activists suspect.

Bile products are traded in the form of pills, powder and crystals. The products are sold as traditional medicine and used for a variety of ailments that include reducing fevers, breaking gall stones, and treating stomach and liver ailments.

In addition, bear bile is also used in shampoos, wine, tea, eye drops and tonics, also popular in some Asian markets.

Masayuki Sakamoto, a lawyer and member of the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, said private investigations indicate that bear bile products are sold as stomach medicine in Japan.

"The bear is at the top of the list when it comes to trading in wild animals in Japan," he explains. "Bear bile products are used widely by the Japanese public and there are no regulations to control the illegal trade."

He says imports make up the main source of bear gall and bile in Japan. Hong Kong is one of the main accumulation points for these products.

Japanese activists estimate the demand in Japan at some 200 kilograms per year. But the official importation is only at between 2 to 8 kg per year, which they means the illegal trade is way above that range.

But Yuji Matsui, owner of Matsui pharmaceutical company, defends the use of bear bile, arguing that the medicine is vital for patients with various liver diseases.

"An increasing number of Japanese are being infected by liver diseases and need bear gall bladder products, which are the only cure (for them). As long as the bears are not being killed, there is no harm," he says.

Matsui says current bear bile products were imported before the CITES ban was enforced in 1992.

But critics of the illegal trade in bear gall bladder say the milking of bears in captivity for their bile is a cruel practice that forces the animals, most of them cubs, to undergo painful surgery and constant torture.

This practice shortens the bear's life span by one-third of the average 30 years. As a result, WSPA activists say, this fuels the increased poaching of the animals to keep the supply going.

Indeed, Watkins says, bears are now being brought from neighboring countries such as Burma, Russia and North Korea, into Chinese farms.

China defends the bear-farming practice, which started in 1984, stating that the bears used for the supply of bile are bred in captivity and thus do not pose a threat to existing populations in the wild.

During a 1999 international symposium on the bear trade in Seoul in 1999, the Chinese government also said that some Chinese farms have reached internationally agreed standards as captive breeding centers.

But critics see this statement as a move to eventually secure permission from CITES to legalize the trade, on the pretext of meeting so-called standards. "The trickle (in the bile trade) will reach a flood soon if bear farms are not closed down," pointed out Watkins.

Undercover investigations by WSPA in China, compiled in a film shown to reporters here, showed hundreds of bears, most bearing physical scars or wounds, cooped up in steel cages.

The bears are milked twice a day through a tube that is inserted directly into their gall bladder. The animals are unattended by medical staff and left to die once they do not produce bile, the activists claimed.

Some say there are herbal alternatives for the bile as well as synthetic products, but proponents such as Matsui insist these products do not work. "The Japanese government must find some way to keep the supply of bear gall products to desperate patients," says Matsui.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 2002 (

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