HONG KONG––The Animals Asia Foundation on July 31, 2014 cautiously welcomed a report that KaiBao Pharmaceutical, the world’s largest maker of bear bile pharmaceuticals, has embarked upon a five-year-plan to develop synthetic alternatives using byproducts from poultry slaughter.
Reality is that there are already synthetic alternatives for every established use of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine. The most widespread use of bear bile, historically, was relieving fever, a job done just as effectively and inexpensively by ordinary aspirin.
Announcing the five-year plan, however, gives KaiBao Pharmaceutical a face-saving way to transition out of the bear bile industry, and a potentially lucrative market-saving way to keep customers who otherwise might turn to cheap over-the-counter remedies.
KaiBao Pharmaceutical, headquartered in Shanghai in 2012 reportedly bought 18 metric tons of powered bear bile from producers, amounting to about half of all the bear bile used in China.
“Our project ‘Key Technology and Clinical Research of Developing Bear Bile Powder in Vitro’ has gained support from the State Ministry of Science and Technology,” KaiBao Pharmaceutical told media. “The project aims to develop a synthetic bear bile bioequivalent in terms of chemical composition by using poultry bile and biotransformation technology.”
Said Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson, “We applaud the official backing of this research and believe it is good news for the bears and the millions of people who have campaigned for their freedom. From the point of view of ending bear bile farming, and drastically reducing suffering of animals caged and mutilated for anything up to 30 years of their lives, this is a huge step.”
But Robinson added, “We note that synthetic bear bile is also still an animal product––albeit a byproduct of a wider industry. It remains an ethical dilemma. The debate surrounding the use of all animal products continues and remains entirely worthwhile. The battle to improve the lives of all animals, including those suffering under intensive farming conditions, goes on.”
Bile farm closes
The KaiBao Pharmaceutical announcement that it will seek to transition to selling alternatives to bear bile came 120 days after the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation agreed to take custody of 130 moon bears at the financially troubled Nanning Bear Farm, and announced that it would 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. 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.
Re-purposing the Nanning Bear Farm follows a blueprint that Robinson has pursued 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 in 2000 to form the Animals Asia Foundation, Robinson made rescuing bile farm bears and opposing the bear bile industry her focal campaign.
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. The Chengdu sanctuary in turn became the model for the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, opened in 2008.
Traditional Chinese medicine for millennia made occasional use of bile from bears killed by hunters, but because hunters were able to kill relatively few bears, bear bile products were expensive and were never in common use.
Widespread use of bear bile 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.
7,000 bears yet to free
International trade in bear bile and bile products is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Nonetheless, the World Wildlife Fund subsidiary TRAFFIC in 2011 found 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.
Speculative investments in attempting to make bear bile production 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 “Bear bile farm to become a bear sanctuary”, http://wp.me/p4pKmM-hm; “Animals Asia Foundation saves Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre and halts Zimbabwe baby elephant deal in the same week,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2013/01/16/animals-asia-foundation-saves-vietnam-bear-rescue-centre-and-halts-zimbabwechina-baby-elephant-deal-in-same-week/; “Ingesting bear bile can kill, warns top Vietnamese traditional doctor,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2010/07/17/ingesting-bear-bile-can-kill-warns-top-vietnamese-traditional-doctor/; “Bear rescue season follows tsunami,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2005/01/17/bear-rescue-season-follows-tsunami/; and “Tapping the wells of kindness in China & southern Asia,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2001/01/17/tapping-the-wells-of-kindness-in-china-and-southern-asia/.)