Had yet to tap bears
BEIJING––The Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation on April 15, 2014 announced at a Beijing media conference that it will take custody of 130 moon bears at the financially troubled Nanning Bear Farm, and will convert the farm into a sanctuary for about 100 bears.
The Nanning Bear Farm was built to produce bear bile for use in traditional Chinese medicines, but the venture did not pay off.
Flower World, a state-owned corporation, “invested around $1.3 million in the farm, which had yet to sell bile,” reported Michael Martina of Reuters. “The farm stopped extracting bile from the bears two years ago.”
The Animals Asia Foundation pledged to invest $5 million over the next three years to renovate the bear farm into a facility appropriate to the bears’ natural behavior and needs, and to retrain the bear farm staff to continue to attend the bears.
Blueprint developed since 1995
Re-purposing the Nanning Bear Farm will follow a blueprint developed by Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson since 1995. Then China director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Robinson in 1993 discovered 13 bears with metal shunts in their bellies in a basement behind a decrepit hospital in Hui Zhou. Two years of lobbying later, Robinson was allowed to relocate the surviving nine bears to an experimental sanctuary on a farm near Pan Yu.
Robinson hired the bears’ former caretaker to look after them, judging correctly that the transition from running what was in effect a prison and torture chamber for bears to running a sanctuary would transform the man as well as the bears.
Leaving IFAW to form the Animals Asia Foundation, Robinson made rescuing bile farm bears and opposing the bear bile industry her focal campaign.
Pan Yu pilot project led to a five-year contract
The Pan Yu pilot project led to a five-year contract to house 500 former bile farm bears at a much larger sanctuary near Chengdu. Receiving bears since 2000, the Chengdu sanctuary in turn became the model for the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, opened in 2008.
The plan to take over the Nanning Bear Farm “was one year in the making,” Robinson said in a prepared statement. “Now complex rescue plans are being finalized.
“We’ve done many bear rescues over the years, and they are never easy, but this will be by far the biggest bear rescue ever undertaken by anyone anywhere––it’s a huge logistical challenge. Our first priority will be 28 of the sickest bears, who will be transported 1,200 kilometers to our Chengdu sanctuary to be treated. The Animals Asia Foundation team will arrive in Nanning on May 4, 2014, with health checks on the 28 bears starting the following day. Each of these bears will be anesthetized and put into a transport cage ready for the trip.”
“Stopping only to feed the bears”
Preparing the bears to be moved is expected to take four days. “Driving through the night with rotating drivers, stopping only to feed bears,” the seven-truck convoy will then take three days to reach Chengdu, Robinson said.
“While the convoy is on the road,” Animals Asia Foundation veterinary director Nciola Field told media, “the team in Chengdu will be preparing quarantine facilities. The bears will be given several days to settle into their new environment before our veterinary team sets to work. Surgery will then take place to remove damaged gall bladders and address individual health concerns.”
Flower World general manager Yan Shaohong told media that “The company has always been investing money, but not making any. Particularly in the last two years,” he said, “there has been a lot of public discussion about the practice of extracting bear bile from live bears. Most people oppose it, so we consider prospects for the bear bile business will be less and less optimistic.”
Bile farming originated in North Korea
Traditional Chinese medicine has for millennia made occasional use of bile from bears killed by hunters. Widespread use of bear bile products, however, began in the early 1980s, after North Korea introduced the technique of keeping bears immobilized in coffin-sized cages with their gall bladders tapped for frequent or even continuous bile extraction. The practice soon spread to South Korea, China, Vietnam, and eventually Laos.
International trade in bear bile and bile products is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but the World Wildlife Fund subsidiary TRAFFIC in 2011 nonetheless reported finding bear bile products in more than 50% of traditional medicine shops that investigators visited in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia,
Myanmar and Vietnam. The investigators also found bear bile products in more than 30% of the traditional medicine shops visited in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Some bear bile products were also found for sale in Cambodia, Laos, and Singapore.
Fewer bile farms, but more bears
But speculation that bear bile production might become a growth industry appeared to end in June 2013, when Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals withdrew an application to the China Securities Regulatory Commission to be allowed to raise investment capital by selling stock.
Formed in 2001, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals claimed to have 470 moon bears, with a facility in development since 2009 that was intended to house more than 1,200 bears, as “the biggest bear site in the world.”
At peak the Chinese bear bile industry kept more than 10,000 bears, according to the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicines. But the total number of bile farms has fallen over the past 20 years from 480 to 68. The current bile farm bear population is believed to be about 7,000.
(See also Animals Asia Foundation saves Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre and halts Zimbabwe baby elephant deal in the same week; Ingesting bear bile can kill, warns top Vietnamese traditional doctor; Bear rescue season follows tsunami; and Tapping the wells of kindness in China & southern Asia)