'Are you a bear killer?' If you use this medicine, the answer is yes


  • Animals
  • Monday, 01 Jun 2015

Trapped and killed: At least 300 bears would have been killed to supply the bear gall bladders seen for sale in a 2012 survey of traditional Chinese medicine shops. Photo: WONG SIEW TE/BSBCC

Walk into a Chinese medicine hall in Jalan Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, and tell the sinseh of your bad bout of flu, and you might be prescribed a bottle of Xiong Dan capsules which can supposedly work miracles for flu, fever, haemorrhoids and “heatiness”. But beware – you will inadvertently help push an endangered species closer to the brink.

The capsules are derived from bear bile, which makes them illegal under wildlife laws. But that has not stopped the capsules, and other folk cures made from bear organs, from being sold in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shops nationwide, according to wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic.

For three months in 2012, Traffic researchers posed as interested buyers of potions and pills made from bear bile. They went shopping at 365 TCM outlets throughout the country and were offered the illicit products at 175 shops. The actual numbers are likely to be higher as some retailers only sell the products to known buyers.

In their report Hard To Bear: An Assessment Of Trade In Bear Bile And Gall Bladder In Malaysia released on May 29, researchers Lee Siow Ling, Elizabeth A. Burgess and Serene C.L. Chng wrote that banned items such as whole bear gall bladders, bear bile in the form of pills, extract, powder or flakes and dried gall bladder skins can be bought in TCM shops, especially those in Batu Pahat, Johor Baru, Kota Baru, Kuala Lumpur, Kuantan and Ipoh.

Some shops also sold other illegal or protected wildlife products, such as porcupine bezoar (stomach stone), rhino horn and saiga horn.

Most of the processed products were smuggled in from China but unprocessed items such as bear gall bladders were sourced locally. In Sabah and Sarawak, at least 118 Bornean sun bears (classified as a subspecies, Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) would have been killed to supply the gall bladders seen for sale in the shops.

“What is clear is that the trade persists and is continually carried out openly and is widespread throughout Malaysia, despite laws in place prohibiting the trade in bear parts and derivatives,” said Traffic South-East Asia regional director Dr Chris R. Shepherd.

Trapped and killed: At least 300 bears would have been killed to supply the bear gall bladders seen for sale in a 2012 survey of traditional Chinese medicine shops. Photo: WONG SIEW TE/BSBCC
Trapped and killed: At least 300 bears would have been killed to supply the bear gall bladders seen for sale in a 2012 survey of traditional Chinese medicine shops. Photo: BSBCC/Wong Siew Te

Unsustainable tradition

The use of bear parts in TCM can be traced back some 3,000 years. Bear bile is rich in ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA, also known as ursodiol), an active compound effective in treating a variety of ailments. It is a valuable ingredient in TCM and used to treat eye, liver and kidney diseases. The TCM community has identified some 54 herbal alternatives to bear bile and pharmaceutical companies have developed synthetic UDCA using bile from cows or pigs. However, many TCM practitioners reject these synthetic substitutes.

The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) are the species most threatened by the demand for bear bile. They are among the eight bear species listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means all international trade, including their parts and products, is illegal. Both species are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List.

The latest survey echoes the finds of similar studies done in 1991, 2001 and 2010, which hadalready found bear products for sale. Clearly, the illegal trade has not abated. Of the 131 shops re-visited in the latest survey, 58 were still selling the illicit products.

Some had even been raided by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan). The poor record in prosecution could be a reason for this: from 2000 to 2011, 44 bear gall bladders and two bile products were seized from shops but only one case resulted in a fine of RM1,000.

Under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, anyone dealing with products claiming to contain sun bear parts or derivatives faces a fine of up to RM20,000 and a year in prison. Importers and exporters face fines of RM30,000 to RM100,000 and a jail term of up to three years.

Under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, hunting or possession of the totally protected sun bear carries a fine of up to RM50,000 and a jail term of up to five years. Sun bears are only “protected” under the Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.

Bile is extracted from a bear at a bear farm in Huian, Fujian province. Animal activists oppose such farms as the bears are trapped from the wild and are kept in unhygienic conditions. Photo: Xinhua
Bile is extracted from a bear at a bear farm in Huian, Fujian province. Animal activists oppose such farms as the bears are trapped from the wild and are kept in unhygienic conditions. Photo: Xinhua

Evading tactics

Despite adequate wildlife legislation, there is a long way to go to stamp out the illegal trade in bear parts and products. The researchers said insufficient scrutiny has led to the Health Ministry unwittingly approving imported TCM products containing bear derivatives and a factory that produces pills containing bear bile – all in violation of wildlife laws.

The local companies making Xiong Dan pills must have imported bear bile for the production process. Although this contravenes CITES and the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, these businesses were still granted licences to operate by the Malaysian Investment Development Authority.

The traders knowingly violated the laws. They knew they were handling illegal products, but they also knew how to get round the law. Bear gall bladders were not displayed but stored elsewhere, and only brought out when requested by customers. They kept their stocks small, to minimise fines if caught.

Products were unlabelled or have unclear labelling. Only a few listed Fel Ursi (the pharmaceutical name for bear bile) as an ingredient. Of the 135 shops which claimed not to sell bear products, many still offered Xiong Dan pills supposedly made from herbs but retaining the name (Xiong Dan is Chinese for bear bile). Claiming that a product contains bear bile, regardless of the actual content, is an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

Retailers said the products can be easily obtained from Chinese manufacturers and bear bile can be concealed in personal luggage. One retailer goes on tours to China and Russia to buy bear gall bladder and bile. Many offered to pack bear gall bladders to evade detection at airports and advised that x-ray scanners will not detect bear gall bladders in personal luggage. The researchers were told that the gall bladders, if detected, would only be confiscated, with no further repercussions such as fines or jail term.

The retailers said there was little risk from enforcement efforts and made allegations of corruption. One shop owner hid his stocks of bear bile in vials to avoid paying enforcement officers who “come when they need money.” They also argued that bears were not killed when bile is extracted, and that health cures took precedence over the survival of bears.

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Role of health agencies

The Traffic report points to the Health Ministry playing a critical role in stopping wildlife-based medicines from making it to market, as it oversees the TCM business. But it first has to tighten its laws and step up enforcement.

The ministry needs a more thorough screening process to weed out products containing protected wildlife and their derivatives, and ensure that they do not pass registration. As many of the TCM products are improperly labelled, the ministry can also take action under the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Act 1956.

Now, only processed products in pharmaceutical dosage forms (such as bear bile pills) are considered to be medicine and can be regulated by the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1984. It does not cover wildlife products in raw form (such as gall bladder).

Also, the screening process by the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB) does not test for animal derivatives. Perhilitan and NPCB have to determine ways to deal with unregistered medicines that claim to contain bear parts and derivatives. Health and wildlife department officers can also carry out joint raids at TCM premises.

The researchers urged for consistency in legislations. As trade in bear parts and derivatives is banned under wildlife laws, this has to be complemented by similar provisions in the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1984.

The Health Ministry should ensure that traditional medicines adhere to wildlife regulations before it issues permits to the importers, wholesalers and manufacturers. It must determine that no wildlife-based raw materials are imported for making medicinal products, before granting Good Manufacturing Practice certification, which is mandatory to obtain a manufacturing licence and product registration.

If its scope is widened, the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Act 2013 can stop the exploitation of wildlife in medicine. Now, it only covers traditional and complementary medicine practitioners, not retailers of TCM products. It is also silent on instances where practitioners prescribe protected animal parts or derivatives. The dispensing activities of TCM retailers are also not legislated now as they are handling over-the-counter products. This is an oversight which needs attention.

Bear gall bladder from China. Photo: LEE SIOW LING/ Traffic
Bear gall bladder from China. Photo: Traffic/Lee Siow Ling

Working together

The sheer number of TCM shops, the wide range of products, and the difficulty of confirming the presence of bear in processed products make it daunting for wildlife officers to carry out enforcement. Which is why the researchers concluded that combatting the illegal trade requires collaboration between wildlife and health agencies issues as well as local councils.

“The trade is driven by purported health reasons, so we cannot reduce it without the commitment and close collaboration of the Health Ministry. Key to this is to ensure more scrutiny on the registration of products being sold legally in the country, as well as the import and export of these products.

“Equally important is the role of local councils that govern business registration. If shops are openly and knowingly selling bear parts or products, or any other wildlife parts or products for that matter, their business licences should be revoked. Local councils should pay close attention to this problem and be part of the solution to addressing illegal wildlife trade in the country,” said Shepherd.

Support from the TCM community is needed to reduce the trade in bear products. At the launch of the Traffic report on Friday, the Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia says the group does not condone the use of bear bile. “We will inform our members that they should not use bear bile and that continued use will result in severe penalties,” says secretary-general Kerk Ee Chan. “It is not compulsory for use since there are alternatives.”

The federation has 44 member associations representing 80% of the country’s 5,000-plus TCM practitioners and retailers. Committee member Steven Kow says any members found to be selling the illicit products will have to face the disciplinary committee, but he did not elaborate on the action to be taken against them.

Several committee members believe that the processed products on sale do not contain bear bile and the gall bladders, to be from other animals such as snakes. Regardless of whether the products actually contain bear bile, Shepherd says promoting them creates demand that leads to poaching of wild bears.

“Even if the bile is extracted from live bears, the trade is still illegal because of CITES. It is important to point out that there are numerous legal, herbal alternatives and synthetic alternatives to bear bile, and that it is key that TCM practitioners promote these, and discourage people from using bear bile,” said Shepherd.

The public certainly plays a key role; they need to understand that their choices of folk cures can kill endangered species.

Report illegal wildlife trade to Wildlife Crime Hotline: 019-356 4194

ALSO READTraffic counts 300 bears killed to supply Malaysian shops

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