China's caged bears in long battle for freedom

SINGAPORE Mon Oct 22, 2007 7:54am IST

Two endangered Asiatic black, or moon bears play on a log in an enclosure at Animals Asia's rescue centre for ex-farm bears in Sichuan Province in this August 8, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Gillian Murdoch/Files

Two endangered Asiatic black, or moon bears play on a log in an enclosure at Animals Asia's rescue centre for ex-farm bears in Sichuan Province in this August 8, 2007 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Gillian Murdoch/Files

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Smuggled overseas from China's far-flung bear farms, bear bile eye drops and remedies can be bought at traditional Chinese medicine shops the world over.

The amber-brown elixir is difficult but not impossible to procure say TCM storekeepers in Singapore's downtown Chinatown, despite bear bile being banned outside China to protect the endangered Asiatic black bears whose gall bladders store it.

Stopping the trade that experts fear could drive endangered bears to extinction means stopping demand for the "liquid gold" so prized as a traditional cure that it has fetched prices higher than gold, ounce-for-ounce, experts say.

"We need to stop buying," said Grace Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, (IFAW).

"If we don't buy, they don't die".

Even with a new state-approved "free drip" method of extracting bile, China's incarcerated bears lead miserable, pain-wracked lives, said campaigner Jill Robinson, who says she won't rest until the 7,000 bears kept on China's farms are free.

"(It's) undeniably cruel, undeniably wrong, from start to finish," said Robinson, head of Animals Asia, at her bear rescue centre in southwest Sichuan Province, the home of China's iconic panda, which draw hordes of tourists each year.

"I mean no one's going to die from lack of bear bile".

Listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union since 1979, the bear's rarity does not protect them from the estimated 8 billion yuan (US$1 billion) domestic traditional Chinese medicine market which does not care about "bunnyhuggers" protests about cruelty, she said.

"(The authorities) know the death rate on their farms, they know the suffering it causes, they see the infections and cuts on those bears bodies".

"But still they let it continue because they're driven by the dollar rather than by a genuine desire to save lives," she added as she watched two rescued bears tussle on top of a log while others cooled off in a pool at the rescue centre.

BATTERY HEN BEARS

Covert photos and videos of the large, 400-pound black bears lying immobilised in tiny cages with stainless steel catheters protruding from their bellies provoked an international outcry when first leaked to the press in the 1990s.

Since then wildlife officials say farms have cleaned up. No new farm licenses have been issued since 1992, catheters were banned in favour of a "free-drip" method to drain bile straight from the caged bear's gall bladders in 1996, and farm numbers cut from over 480 in the 1990s to 78 in 2006.

Wang Weisheng, director of the state government's Wildlife Management Division, says outsiders may find it strange, but China has every right to domesticate wild animals such as bears to supply its medicine markets.

"If a facility is called a farm, it means that it is the legal right of the facility to sell its products, such as chicken farms etcetera," said Wang.

One bear in a farm saves hundreds in the wild by providing a steady flow of legal, farmed bile that meets demand so well that illegal poachers are cut out of the equation, Wang explained.

"Captive (farm) breeding is regarded as making an indirect contribution to (the bears') status by some experts," he said.

LOST BEARINGS

Shy and solitary, the black bears whose bile contains the magic ingredient - ursodeoxycholic acid -- have few fans compared to fellow Sichuan mammals, the pandas, said wildlife policy expert Peter J. Li.

"Because pandas are cute, the communist government started sending them as gifts ... International enthusiasm for pandas made them a star. The Chinese government cannot ignore them".

"But black bears. You have them everywhere, even in Europe," Li said. "To change the ancient, traditional attitude towards black bears as clumsy and stupid takes time."

While officials insist bear farms save wild bears from poachers, conservationists are sceptical as there are no accurate records on China's wild black bear population, with estimates ranging from 16,000 to 25,000, said U.S.-based bear conservation expert Chris Servheen.

With most farms off-limits to visitors, there is little information to back the government's claims that bear farms are helping replenish the numbers of wild bears, or that the conditions at farms are humane, Servheen said.

"If the authorities really believe that the wild bears are doing well and that bear farming benefits bears they would do well to support joint scientific work to document that," he said.

"My belief is that farming promotes the use of bear bile and this promotion increases the value of wild bear bile."

China banned tiger farms in 1993 due to an international outcry over plummeting tiger numbers and complaints that the TCM markets were driving Asia's biggest cat to extinction.

But hidden away in farms, and lagging behind tigers and pandas in the cuteness stakes, China's black bears still have a long battle ahead before China's government outlaws bear farms.

"They (China's leaders) really underestimate the level of passion for animals across the world, and also in their own country now," said Robinson.

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