British readers send a gift to bile farm bears

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2005:

CHENGDU–An early Christmas present sent
to the Animals Asia Foundation in October 2005 by
the readers of the Western Daily Press in
Bristol, England, bought the December 6, 2005
delivery of a newly liberated bear family of four
to the China Bear Rescue Center near Chengdu.
“As of 6 p.m. today,” Animals Asia
Foundation founder Jill Robinson e-mailed, “we
have four bears settling down in our hospital,
munching on a fresh fruit supper and slurping
shakes made of condensed milk, sugar, blueberry
jam, apples, and pears. One poor love is
blind. Some have cage-bar and stereotypic
scarring.”
Robinson noted that all had wounds in
their stomachs indicative of having been used for
bile collection by the “free drip” method, in
which shunts are implanted to keep their gall
bladders constantly open. This is the most
common method of collecting bile from caged bears
now, superseding the older method of permanent
catheterization.

The bile is used in traditional Chinese
medicine to relieve pain and fever–and
reportedly has at least 74 herbal alternatives.
“They’re angry, stressed, and need lots
of tender loving care,” Robinson said.
In seven years of rescuing bears from
bile farms whenever officials can be persuaded to
permanently close one, the Animals Asia
Foundation has taken in 198 bears, with 165
still living at the Chengdu sanctuary, opened in
October 2000.
Western Daily Press senior reporter Ruth
Wood and photo editor Jon Mills in September 2005
set out to raise £5,000 to help the bears with an
appeal to readers. The appeal actually raised
£120,000.
As well as rescuing and rehabilitating
the latest arrivals, the money will pay for
building seven new dens and a huge playpen for 28
bears.
Robinson meanwhile has obtained 230 of
the 367 signatures she needs from members of the
European Parliament to win an official
declaration of opposition to bear farming. There
are few European customers for bear bile
products, but the declaration might encourage
China to expedite the closure of bear bile farms
during the months leading up to the 2008 Olympic
Games in Beijing, Robinson believes.
China banned keeping bears permanently
catheterized and ordered that bile farm bears be
given exercise time outside their cages in 1996,
banned capturing bears from the wild and
strengthened the regulations governing bile
farming in December 2004, in April 2005 issued a
regulation requiring government approval of new
uses of bear bile, and in June 2005 announced
intensified enforcement of the bear care
regulations.
However, University of Houston assistant
professor of political science Peter Li told
David Fleshler of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
in September 2005 that he had just visited a
“model” bile farm where staff told him the bears
were never let out. Animals Asia Foundation
staff reported similar findings earlier in the
year.
The Animals Asia Foundation believes
there are still about 7,000 bears at Chinese bile
farms, more than 2,000 in Vietnam, 1,100 in
South Korea, and unknown numbers in Myanmar
(Burma) and North Korea, where the practice of
catheterizing caged bears to collect bile
reputedly began in the late 1970s.
The World Society for the Protection of
Animals believes there are actually closer to
3,000 bears on Vietnamese bile farms.
Technically the bile farms are illegal, but the
bear bile farming industry has been allowed to
grow virtually without restraint since
approximately 1980. In February 2005 the
Vietnamese government told WSPA that it will
allow bile farmers to continue tapping the gall
bladders of bears now in their possession, until
the bears die, but will not allow them to
acquire more bears.
In August 2005 Tran The Lien of the
Vietnamese forestry department and Nguyen Dao
Ngoc Van of the global wildlife trade monitoring
network TRAFFIC announced that with WSPA funding
they would microchip 4,000 bears now on bile
farms, to ensure that no more bears are taken
from the wild for bile farming.
However, the number of bears they cited
was so much higher than either the Animals Asia
Foundation or WSPA estimate as to suggest that
Vietnamese officials might have included a margin
in the microchipping plan to allow for
acquisitions, either by capture or by breeding.
Though the bear bile market is declining
in China and globally, the industry is still
lucrative by Vietnamese standards.
An encouraging sign that bile farming is
falling into official disrepute in both China and
Vietnam is that the state-controlled mass media
have given the Animals Asia Foundation and WSPA
efforts on behalf of the bears a high profile.
Twice in October 2005 the state news
media reported cases of tormented bile farm bears
fighting back. Tran Hoang Loc, 75, of Ho Chi
Minh City, Vietnam, was killed by one of his
two bears on October 7. An employee was injured
while attempting a rescue. Two days later bear
keeper Han Shigen of Changchun, Jilin Province,
China, was reportedly ambushed while cleaning
his bear house, and was eaten by six bears.
As the bile industry wanes, opponents of
animal use in traditional Asian medicine are
alarmed by hints that the Chinese government may
authorize farming tigers for their bones and
genitals.
There are already about 3,000
captive-bred tigers in China, and a substantial
black market in tiger parts that are believed to
come from captive tigers as well as the few
tigers who can still be poached from the wild.
“If this goes ahead,” providing legal
cover for the sale of poached tiger parts, “it
will undo all the excellent work that the Chinese
government has done over the past 12 years [to
protect wild tigers],” TRAFFIC executive
director Steven Broad recently told Maxine Frith
of The Independent.

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