HONG KONG; PAN YU, Guangzhou, China––Two burly Asiatic moon bears at a time lick strawberry jam from the hands of Jill Robinson, 42, at the prototype Animals Asia Foundation sanctuary in Pan Yu, China. Four more bright-eyed bears watch, as eager for their treat as any dog, yet with patience too. Another bear, the oldest, is blind. He follows with his nose each handful of jam, each apple, each grape, and each blueberry that Robinson dispenses.
Only scars in the bears abdomens reveal their past.
Robinson met these bears in 1993 at a so-called bile farm behind a decrepit hospital in Hui Zhou, almost immobilized in small cages. There were 13 bears then. Metal shunts resembling those driven into trees to extract maple syrup were implanted in each bear s belly, to collect bile. The bile, with medicinal qualities akin to corticosteroids, was used to make a variety of traditional drugs.
“It was absolutely devastating, almost unbelievable that sentient creatures were kept in such a way,” Robinson told Australian reporter Lyn White. “The bears had scars along the length of their bodies from the pressure of the bars on the cages. They had ulcerated paws, ingrown claws, wounds from banging their heads against the bars, and gaping implant sites inflamed and infected.
“The bears were crazed to the point of being deadly dangerous, and their keeper teated them brutally, to maintain dominance.”
Robinson became inflamed and infected with determination to get them out of there. But China at the time had 10,000 bears in similar cages with catheters poked into their stomachs, with plans to quadruple production by 2000.
Then-China director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Robinson within a year helped persuade a government advisory body called the Chinese Association of Medicine, Philosophy, and Earthcare to recommend a phase-out of the use of bear bile an abrupt policy reversal.
The Chinese scientists were already convinced that plant-based alternatives were equally effective and cheaper to produce, Robinson recalls, and they were not indifferent to her humane concerns. The biggest problem, Robinson said, was that they had been told by Chinese wildlife officials that bile farming was helping to save bears in the wild, including the highly endangered giant panda, by providing a source of bile other than hunting and poaching.
Robinson countered that argument with evidence that the promotion of farmed bear bile medicine had actually stimulated bear hunting and poaching around the world. Killing a wild bear, Robinson pointed out, would always be less costly than keeping and tapping a captive bear.
The Chinese authorities at length agreed. There were also signs that the bile market was already tapped out, as the elder generations who grew up with traditional medicine passed on and younger patients turned to modern cures.
By 1995 the Hui Zhou hospital bile farm had become economically unviable. Closing it, the hospital gave Robinson the nine surviving bears. Robinson arranged a longterm lease of the L-shaped two-acre Pan Yu property, located in the middle of a farm owned by Hong Kong legislator David Chu Yu Lin, and IFAW paid for adding walls and indoor quarters. Veterinarian Gail Cochrane, then working for IFAW and now fulltime with Animals Asia, removed the bears shunts and invented physiotherapy routines to strengthen their atrophied arms and legs.
Robinson hired as sanctuary manager the same keeper she had seen beating up the crazed bears. She believed he was almost as much a victim of the situation as the bears themselves. She believed rightly, as it turned out that he would become a different man among different rules and ethics.
And Robinson bought the bears cages from the hospital partly as a good-faith gesture, partly to ensure that the cages would never again be used to hold animals in misery.
“We have to remember the people when we help the animals,” Robinson explains. “We can’t advance humane values if we leave people thinking we care about animals but not about them. We knew the keeper was only doing what he had been taught to do and what he thought he had to do in order to maintain control. It was difficult at first to work around the language and culture barriers to show him that violence just brought more violence and made the bears more dangerous, and we had some high-stress moments for several years, but eventually he understood. When he mellowed out, the bears mellowed out. Now, believe it or not, the bears are very fond of him, and no one else pays closer attention to what they need.”
The Pan Yu sanctuary is not open to the public, but has some educational value to the surrounding village, Robinson believes.
A dog rescued from a kitchen guards the entrance from within a fenced run. Other animals occasionally brought to the sanctuary by concerned individuals are taken to surroundings more appropriate to their species as promptly as possible.
“Most important,” according to Robinson, “is that the sanctuary has become an accepted part of Pan Yu, in a nation which has tended to see outsiders of any kind as foreign devils for more than 4,000 years especially if they bring disturbance.”
First of 500
Now the Pan Yu sanctuary is the prototype for Robinson s most ambitious project yet: accepting 500 bears from bile farms scheduled for closure over the next five years by the Sichuan provincial government, under contract with the Chinese Wildlife Association. Some of these bears have been caged as long as 22 years.
The 500 bears will be kept at a much larger sanctuary at Chengdu, Sichuan, currently being rushed to completion by Animals Asia Foundation special projects director Boris Chiao and staff. The first bear, three-legged Andrew, arrived at a temporary facility in October 2000. Another 62 followed by the end of the year, taken from 27 now defunct bile farms. About 200 more bile farms are to be closed in all.
Each bear costs the Animals Asia Foundation almost $1,000 up front, for the cages, transportation, and compensation of the bile farmers for loss of income. Care and maintenance costs come on top of that. IFAW helps the Animals Asia Foundation to some extent, but Robinson must raise most of the budget herself.
She hopes the charm of the bears will help her, via videos and the Animals Asia Foundation web site.
“When they first come, they’re horrible,” veterinarian Cochrane told vistor Damien McElroy of the London Sunday Telegraph. “They’re mostly aggressive, bitter, and scared. It’s hard not to love them, though. They re such incredible creatures highly intelligent, with very individual personalities.”
Robinson et al have discovered only a few instances of ex-bile farm bears who don’t get along together. Instead, the bears all surgically sterilized seem to revert to cubhood, much like group-housed pumas and domestic cats. They forage for treats hidden in their landscaped enclosures, splash in a pond, romp, and wrestle.
Robinson hopes the Sichuan bile farm closures mark the beginning of the end of the entire bear bile industry. Across China, an estimated 250 bile farms have gone out of business during the past five years, mostly during a general slump in the Southeast Asian economy associated with 1997 stock market crashes in Thailand and Indonesia. As many as 2,500 bears who suffered on bile farms circa 1995 have since died from infections or were killed for body parts. But that leaves about 7,000 bears still at bile farms.
Robinson says she agreed to accept 500 bears on the understanding that the central authorities have approved the long-term goal of eliminating bear farming.
But Chinese authorities have sent mixed signals. London Daily Telegraph Beijing correspondent David Rennie reported in mid-2000 that Fan Zhiyong, chief of the Chinese delegation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said he hoped to lift the present global ban on traffic in Asian bear parts, so that China can sell a stockpiled surplus of bile and other bear products to clients in Japan, South Korea, and North America.
A mid-December 2000 meeting of science advisors to CITES reviewed Chinese production, consumption, and exports of products made from embargoed wildlife. Asiatic black bears, seahorses, Indian cobras, and Siberian musk deer were all discussed.
Confirmed Reuters reporter David Morgan, “China hopes some day to establish an international market in bear bile.”
World Society for the Protection of Animals researcher Phil Wilson warned that WSPA had already found bear bile products of apparent Chinese original for sale at 65 traditional Chinese medicine stores located in nine North American cities. More than 80% of the sellers acknowledged that the products were illegal, Wilson indicated, but stocked them anyhow in response to consumer demand.
Wilson said WSPA had also found Chinese bear bile products for sale in Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Robinson counters that the bile producers are dumping merchandise abroad because of declining domestic demand.
But poachers selling bear gallbladders and other wildlife products to the same markets remain active and willing to take high risks, as recent cases confirm.
In Anchorage, Alaska, Michael Tony Roberts, 39, on November 20, 2000 plea-bargained the forfeiture of his aircraft and rifle, fines and restitution of $6,000, and nine months of jail time, after he was allegedly found in possession of 12 bear gallbladders that he meant to sell to Korean dealers.
Three days later, in Oroville, California, Jun Seok Park, 37, drew six months in jail and a fine of more than $5,000 plus 200 hours of community service for illegally paying an undercover informant $2,000 for 10 bear gallbladders.
Customs officers in China on November 23 disclosed three major seizures of smuggled antelope horn since August 17, 2000, allegedly en route from Kazakstan to traditional medicine markets, and on December 26, 2000 an appellate court in Shiyan, Hubei province, upheld the prison sentences of from four to 11 years meted out to seven farmers who allegedly trafficked in the remains of snub-nosed monkeys from the Shennongjia Nature Reserve.
Overall, the use of wildlife products in traditional Chinese medicine remains lucrative enough that it involves about half of the species of current concern to CITES, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientific advisor to CITES Susan Lieberman.
Anticipating that the demand will continue long after rare species are completely poached out of the wild, Thai legislator Chuvit Pitukpornpunlob has acquired 21 tigers and is reportedly breeding them at a farm 300 miles northeast of Bangkok, licensed as a private zoo. Expected to be part of the ruling coalition after the January 7 Thai national election, Chuvit campaigned on a plank calling for legalized export of tiger parts.
Whether Robinson or WSPA best assesses the future of bile farming, Robinson has a pair of viable bear sanctuaries up and running in China. WSPA started successful sanctuaries for former dancing bears in the Pindus mountains of Greece and near Karacabey, Turkey, in 1994 and 1995, but has had less success in trying to start a dancing bear sanctuary in India and a sanctuary for bears made to fight against dogs in Pakistan.
The situations in India and Pakistan both involve bears kept by members of Qualander or Kalendar gypsy clan, consisting of about 400 Muslim families who have exhibited bears for centuries.
All such exhibits are now illegal in India, and bear-baiting using dogs is illegal in Pakistan. The governments of both nations have long promised crackdowns. But developments in India and Pakistan have taken opposite directions.
In India, then-federal environment minister Maneka Gandhi in 1991 authorized the forest department to implement unenforced sections of the Wildlife Act of 1972 by confiscating bears, lions, tigers, leopards, and monkeys from traveling shows. Appeals brought by the Circus Federation of India delayed action until December 1998. In the interim, the facilities planned to house the confiscated animals were never built, including the bear sanctuary that was to have been WSPA s contribution. Now minister for social justice and welfare, Gandhi again authorized confiscations as soon as the Delhi High Court upheld her right to do so and housing confiscated animals has been a problem ever since. Most have been temporarily placed at zoos, some of which have had notorious trouble in keeping the animals alive and preventing them from being stolen or poached.
The Times of India announced on December 15, 2000 that a bear sanctuary site had finally been selected near the Sur-Sarovar lake, 19 kilometres from Agra, on the Agra-Delhi road.
Uttar Pradesh state chief wildlife warden R.L. Singh explained that nearly 90 Kalendars had given their acceptance to part with their tame bears, in exchange for compensation and job retraining.
WSPA representative Geetha Seshamani reportedly suggested that specific types of trees be grown and a honey industry be encouraged inside the proposed park.
In Pakistan, WSPA spent $1.5 million building a bear sanctuary within Kund Park, in the North West Frontier Province.
“The sanctuary was built in response to a request from Pakistan for a facility for bears whom the government pledged to confiscate from future bear-baiting events,” WSPA press officer Jonathan Owen told media on January 5. “However, it has lain empty since completion last summer.”
Charged WSPA Libearty campaign director Peter Henderson, “Pakistan authorities have sent WSPA on a merry-go-round of false promises.”
Pakistan officials in January 1994 promised then-WSPA Libearty campaign director Wim de Kok [now co-chair of World Animal Net] that they would enforce the anti-bear baiting law. But Henderson in mid-November 2000 used a low-flying aircraft to videotape a baiting event at Khan Bela in the Pakistani Punjab.
“There were 14 bears defending themselves against pairs of dogs, more than 30 altogether,” Henderson said.
Added Owen, “Hundreds of people paid to attend this appalling spectacle, which was hosted by local landlord Malik Muhammed Ramzan with police in attendance.”
Despite being informed of the event in advance, and being repeatedly requested by WSPA to take action, the authorities failed yet again to assist and cooperate in enforcing the law. To date, no action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Aired globally by Sky Television on January 5, the video brought renewed promises of a crackdown from Ejaz Raja, a ranking member of the Pakistan High Commission delegation to London.
“I am sure we shall see the first bears rescued from the baiters entering the WSPA sanctuary later this year,” Raja told Alex Kirby of BBC News.
The differences of outcome among the WSPA bear projects in India and Pakistan and the Animals Asia Foundation project in China may reflect the greater authority of government in China. The parts of Pakistan where bear-baiting persists include the frontiers with Afghanistan and northern India, where private militias run by local warlords, heroin traffickers, and religious zealots reputedly run amok.
But there is also a basic difference in the methods of WSPA and the Animals Asia Foundation. WSPA, like IFAW and Humane Society Internat-ional, the global arm of the Humane Society of the U.S., typically sends a lone expert to respond in some manner to a sensational abuse or disaster, surrounded by videographers, photographers, and media liaisons. Each effort is organized to generate a global burst of publicity, coinciding with mass-mailed appeals for funds, signatures on petitions, and letters of protest. The idea is to win a quick victory, then move on.
Rarely does WSPA, IFAW, or HSI leave a team in the field with a longterm commitment to implementing change. Frequently their campaigns give North American and European donors the misleading impression that because most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America lack effective humane law enforcement, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans are indifferent to cruelty. More often, the lack of legal response to cruelty reflects a history of totalitarian government, by despots used to using cruelty to animals as well as people to distract and intimidate the populace.
Many of the WSPA, IFAW, and HSI quick-hit victories are also illusory, like the 1978, 1980, 1984, 1986, 1988, and 1991 promises of the South Korean government to abolish dog-eating.
The result is a global legacy of offended citizens of other nations, unenforced edicts, and unfulfilled promises which does not seem to hurt the revenue of the charities. Instead, the more familiar donors are with a campaign theme, the more it tends to pay off. Donors remember that the organizations seeking money have won victories on the theme, without holding them responsible when the problems persist.
It is offensive and incorrect to say that Asian people don t care about animals, says Robinson, who in 1999 commissioned opinion surveys in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong that proved the point. The data, echoing the findings of U.S. polls done during the past 20 years, appeared in the March 1999 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Asians do care about animals, Robinson continues. That is why I started the Animals Asia Foundation in August 1998, after working for 12 years in Asia for IFAW. The growing number of Asian environmental and animal welfare groups, Robinson adds, is a clear indication that many Asians share the concerns of animal lovers worldwide. Asia lacks animal protection legislation and realistic educational programs, Robinson stipulates, but what it needs is help and encouragement, rather than condemnation. Asian governments are generally receptive to animal welfare initiatives, Robinson has found, and many local people welcome the chance to join with us in making a difference.
The separation from IFAW was friendly: IFAW turned over to Robinson many of the projects she began under their auspices, and IFAW has continued to assist those projects and others with seed money. IFAW representatives have told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the main reason for the separation was simply that the time was right for Asia to begin to have its own strong multi-national and trans-cultural animal protection organization, and Robinson seemed to be the right midwife to bring it into being.
“W’ re fond of Jill and proud of her accomplishments,” said IFAW international liaison officer A.J. Cady. “As head of an independent group, she can do some things that we couldn’t, while we continue to do what we do best. We have some differences, but they are mainly rooted in the realities of how we have to operate because of who and where we are.”
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the January/February 2001 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.)