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China's bile bears finding sanctuary

May 29, 2002
Nick Easen

HONG KONG, China -- An ambush by security forces recently took place in Russia not far from the Chinese border, with agents firing at suspected smugglers as they tried to cross the porous frontier.

Yet Russia's federal security service were not trying to stop the passage of money, cigarettes or fake VCDs across the border, but wildlife.

In this case their suspicions were well-founded, inside the vehicle were 18 Asiatic black bear cubs, their likely destination was a bile farm in China.

Bears are the only mammals to produce significant amounts of the bile fluid, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). And at $10 a teaspoonful it is one of the most expensive traditional Chinese medicines.

The lucrative farming practice means that up to 7,000 bears in 247 Chinese farms are confined to small cages with catheters surgically implanted into their gall bladders.

Animal-rights groups, such as the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), say bear bile can be replaced by herbs or synthetically made substances, and are continuing to rescue bears from the worst farms in China.

"Ten percent of the bears are handicapped (because of) the farmer or when they were snared. Some have three legs, others have broken teeth," Annie Mather of AAF told CNN.

AAF now looks after 65 freed Asiatic black bears also known as "Moon Bears" because of the white crescent shape on their chest, and plans to take another 40 bears from defunct farms this summer.

The breakthrough with the government came in July 2000, when the China Wildlife Conservation Foundation and the Sichuan State Forestry signed an agreement with AAF to free 500 of the most needy bears from captivity.

The agreement came following international pressure to ban the 3,000 year-old practice used to obtain the bear's bile -- activists say farming bears is unnecessary and barbaric.

Of the eight species of bears, all except the giant panda have seen their numbers reduced as a result of the bear bile trade.

AAF has already established a rescue center outside of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province to receive bile bears.

Now a blueprint exists for a permanent semi-natural sanctuary in a bamboo forest to eventually rehabilitate and accommodate the rest.

"The best way to design somewhere for them, is to understand them" Jill Cheshire, who is the architect of the new bear environment, told CNN.

The sanctuary aims to educate local people about the bile bears and their plight, yet provide a natural environment where the bears can be rehabilitated after years in captivity.

Cheshire told CNN that by throwing out all cage-like material and bringing in glass and open spaces the physical and mental state of the bears can be improved.

Farming not illegal

The first bear farm was closed in October 2000, and the bears were brought to the rescue center, yet it is still not illegal to farm bears in China.

Farms are strictly licensed, yet it is illegal by law to get Asiatic bears from the wild -- a law that is hard to enforce.

Ironically bile bear farming as an occupation for poverty stricken farming areas was introduced to protect bears in the wild.

However, the demand has driven the poaching of bears from their natural habit in China -- mainly in Western Sichuan and Heilongjiang province and over the border in Russia.

Now, AAF says, there is an over production in bear bile and this can be seen with the sale of both bear bile shampoo and soda in order to stimulate demand.

Lengthy incarceration

Animal activists say the surgery to insert the catheter implants is crude and unsanitary and many of the bears die as a result.

The bears that survive spend the rest of their lives in a confined existence in wire crates where they cannot stretch, enduring daily extraction of their bile.

Many of the small unregistered and unregulated farms, where one or two bears are kept in a farmer's backyard, are considered to be far worse for the bears than the larger farms.

If freed by the AAF, the animals are taken to the Chengdu rescue center, where they require intensive and expensive medical treatment to remove the implanted catheters from their gall bladders.

Then comes the healing process from the physical and psychological scars caused by the long, painful years of incarceration -- the bears, which live to 30 years are both intelligent and docile.

In many cases the bears have little or no survival skills because many were taken from the wild at a very young age.

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