The practice of bear bile farming is an anachronistic abomination that should be outlawed immediately.
The use of bear bile in traditional Asian medicine dates back to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) when the bile was acquired by killing Asiatic black bears and removing their gall bladders. The practice spread from China to Japan, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea and other Asian communities throughout the world.
These days, the Asiatic bears, often referred to as ‘moon bears’ on account of the crescent-shaped marking on their chests, are kept in captivity so that the bile can be harvested by means of catheters fitted to their abdomens. Unfortunately, they are typically subjected to deplorable conditions, trapped in small cages known as ‘crush cages’, so small that they cannot stand upright. They are malnourished and never see the light of day. Their teeth and claws are clipped right back and they are fitted with a metal jacket to keep the catheter in place. Most live for up to 30 years under these conditions. Approximately 14,000 of them are currently held in farms across Asia.
The Chinese government attempts to justify this by claiming that the farms promote captive breeding and reduce the need to hunt and kill wild bears. Nevertheless, hunting in the wild is still carried out since captive breeding does not provide the farms with sufficient animals.
The active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, is used for breaking down gall stones and is also prescribed for ailments such as haemorrhoids , tonsillitis and epilepsy. The farms actually produce a surplus of bile and this is used in non-essential products such as throat lozenges, eyedrops, shampoo and toothpaste. There are many legal herbal alternatives and many synthetic ones, although practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine debate their efficacy.
What can we do? For one thing, consumers can help by refusing to buy any products containing bear bile. It should be possible to crank up some pressure on countries with bear farms if we can strangle the export trade. Even if it means spending money on facilitating research into the manufacture of herbal and synthetic substitutes (and providing compensation to impoverished farmers), it is incumbent upon us to protect these vulnerable animals.
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