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Plight of Asian Bears Discussed at CITES Conference - 2002-11-14

Delegates at a U.N. conference on endangered species have been making decisions about maintaining restrictions on international whaling and easing the ban on the sale of ivory from elephant tusks. Participants at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, are also hearing about the plight of bears, especially the Asiatic black bear.

The London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals has been lobbying government delegates at the CITES meeting in Santiago, Chile, about the threat to the world's bear population posed by traditional Chinese medicine.

"Bear bile, the bile from gall bladders of bears, has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years in very, very small amounts," explained Victor Watkins, director for wildlife at the World Society for the Protection of Animals. The society has issued a new report about the illegal international trade in bear products.

"In the last 20 to 25 years, China has developed a bear farm industry," Mr. Watkins said. "In the past, they would have had to kill the bear in the wild and take out its gall bladder. The bear farming means that they can keep the bear in captivity and drain the bile from its gall bladder at regular intervals."

Products made from bear gall bladders and bile have a variety of uses in traditional Chinese medicine, including the treatment of stomach and liver ailments and the reduction of fever.

Mr. Watkins says China has more than 200 bear farms holding 7,000 Asiatic black bears in small cages under inhumane conditions. He says that is about one-third of all the Asiatic black bears in China. He says the bears often suffer from infections and illnesses, and most die prematurely.

"We saw in most of the farms the bears would continuously bang themselves against the bars or hit their heads up and down, stereotypical behavior," Mr. Watkins said. "As a result, many bears had raw patches on their heads, on their arms, on their bodies where they would hit or rubbed against the bars. In addition to that, of course, because they are confined and they can not exercise, they get diseases related to this, like osteoporosis."

Mr. Watkins says the bears undergo an operation to open a channel that allows bile to be drained from the gall bladder. He says the operation and sometimes the channel itself causes infections and tumors in the bears.

In China, it is legal to sell medicines made from bear products, but the international sale of those products is banned under CITES. Despite the ban, Mr. Watkins' group found bear bile products on sale in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. In some countries, he says, more than 70 percent of the shops that were investigated had illegal bear products for sale.

"One of the concerns is that because China is now mass producing this bear bile, and they are finding an illegal outlet, they are flooding the market not only in China but around the world with these illegal bear bile products and creating a demand that was not there previously," Mr. Watkins said. "And as a result, more people want the product. And clearly if there is a chance of making money out of it, many hunters are now, even in America, they are killing native bears and just taking the gall bladder and selling that to the Asian communities."

He says a gram of bear bile sells in China for less than a quarter of a dollar, but on the international market it costs $20 or more per gram. His organization estimates the bear bile production in China is worth more than $100 million a year.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals wants China to close down its bear farms and governments around the world to enforce the laws banning the trade of bear products.

David Maloney is executive director of the American Association of Oriental Medicine and a licensed acupuncturist. Mr. Maloney says animal rights groups are, "heroic to try to protect the bear population." But he says it is not a big problem in the United States.

"There are bears that are hunted here legally, and I follow sort of the American-Indian tradition that all parts should be used," Mr. Maloney said. "I am not sure that bears should be poached in order to purchase these gall bladders, but I do think that bears that are hunted legally... I would say it is always best to use everything you can of an animal that is harvested for legal purposes."

Mr. Maloney says his association opposes the use of illegal bear products.

"It is actually quite uncommon, especially among American Chinese medicine practitioners," he said. "In areas where there are Chinatowns or Koreatowns, or something like that, you might find it more frequently. Just as you can import lots of illegal drugs, I am sure that you can also import bear gall bladder products and slip them by the Customs people. But that is more the exception than the rule."

Mr. Maloney says students of traditional Chinese medicine in the United States are required to learn about the medicinal qualities of bear gall bladder and bile, but he says bear products have been removed from the list of approved medicines.

Victor Watkins says the World Society for the Protection of Animals is planning a consumer awareness campaign in the countries where bear products are used. The presentation includes a video program about Chinese bear farms and a realistic-looking mechanical bear in a small cage to show how the bears are treated.