Warning: Some of the images in this article may be considered disturbing
Bears! Most of us are used to seeing cute, fluffy soft toys or images of them gambolling along a riverbank in nature documentaries. But for many bears, the reality is starkly different.
Thousands of bears lie in constant pain and anguish in small cages as crude methods are used to extract their bile – metal catheters inserted into open, infected holes drilled into their bellies.
This is the description of the brutal bear bile industry that Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia, gave Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“They call them bear farms but they are more like bear torture camps,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, immediate past chief of wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic Southeast Asia.
“The bears are poorly treated. Some are confined to ‘crush cages’ so tight they can’t stand, sit or move,” he explained at a recent interview.
“Some bears show scars as they keep bashing their heads against the cage bars.”
Others have the added misery of wearing "metal jackets" designed to restrain them and with sharp metal spikes to stop them bending their heads.
There is also often a permanent catheter running from the bear’s abdomen to a bile collection pouch.
Metal pins, hooks and other makeshift devices are often crudely inserted right into the gall bladder to hold the catheter in place.
This is often done in conditions ripe for infection so the bears are fed antibiotics to keep them alive.
“Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never released,” said Robinson.
And after 10, 20 or even 30 years of captivity, bears stop producing enough bile and are then killed and their body parts sold.
Some have badly worn teeth, with raw and exposed nerves, from trying to chew through the bars.
These bear concentration camps are found mostly in China, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos noted Dr Shepherd.
Even Hong Kong movie stars such as Karen Mok and Jackie Chan have felt compelled to launch campaigns against bear bile farming.
Robinson said, “In Malaysia, there are no such farms, but wild sun bears are poached and killed and their gall bladders are removed for sale.”
Gloria Ganang, from the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, said poachers are even entering protected forest reserves to hunt for bears.
Heal not harm
The main driver of this horrific “industry” is the high value of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
But luckily, the cruelty can stop as there are many alternative medicines, as reiterated last week at a joint one-day conference by the Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Associations of Malaysia and Traffic Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur.
Federation president Ting Ka Hua said, “The purpose of traditional Chinese medicine is to save lives. But if you have to kill or torture animals to do that, then it defeats the purpose.
“Extraction of bear bile either kills bears or means horrible lives for bears in cages.”
He added, “Since there are over 50 substitutes for bear bile with similar healing powers, why don’t we use those instead?
“Our industry is different from others, it is to heal, not to harm. We are responsible for what we sell and use, and we urge everyone to stop using bear bile and medicine from endangered species.”
Kanitha Krishnasamy, acting regional director for Traffic Southeast Asia, said the organisation is very glad to be partnering with Malaysia’s largest TCM community to end illegal trade in wildlife.
Alex Choo, the federation’s secretary-general, said, “I was trained as a Chinese physician in Penang. We were not taught how to use bear bile in our text books.
“I believe Chinese physicians will not prescribe bear bile, though some shops may still sell it.”
He likens the campaign to move away from bear bile to the one on shark fin.
“The younger generation will probably support it, but the mindset of older folks will be harder to change.”
About 80 TCM practitioners, physicians and lecturers attended the conference.
This included Dr Feng Yibin, associate director at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Chinese Medicine.
According to him, the best alternative to bear bile is the herb huanglian, also known as berberis, Chinese goldthread, or by its Latin name Coptis chinensis.
During the conference, Dr Feng showed his scientific studies on the biogenetics, phytochemical properties, protein/DNA analysis and bioactivity of the herb in cellular and animal studies.
He explained that huanglian can be used like bear bile in the traditional cures of “removing damp heat”, “purging fire”, and “detoxifying”.
His conclusion: huanglian is just as effective as bear bile, and sometimes even better, in treating liver disease and cancer, two of the main uses for bear bile.
The studies have been published in 25 international medical journals.
Dr Feng himself has seen improvements when patients with liver problems were treated with huanglian.
His team at HKU also investigated bile from cows and found that it has similar effects on liver inflammation and other diseases.
Dr Feng said that because bears are now endangered and bear bile is expensive, some people think that “if they pay more, it will be better”.
But being expensive is a doubled-edged sword as “some bear bile is fake or mixed with other substances”, he said.
What makes bear bile even less desirable is that it’s often extracted in backyard (often illegal) operations in unhygienic conditions.
The wounds where the catheters are poked into the bear are often infected and this can cause contamination of the bile (with bacteria or antibiotics).
“A bear can spend 30 years of its life in a cage in extreme pain every day while bile is extracted from its gall bladder,” said Dr Feng.
“It is our duty to use scientific research to find a substitute and stop this cruel practice.
“We should modernise traditional Chinese medical knowledge with science. This not only benefits wildlife but also humans.”
Shepherd concluded, “We don’t want to demonise the (TCM) industry. We want to work with them to improve it, and this is a huge step forward.”
When the buying stops, the abuse and killing will stop too.
The sad facts and figures behind bear bile cruelty
Fact about the bear bile business from Traffic Southeast Asia and other sources:
> Malaysia is ranked at No.4 of 17 countries surveyed as a key source and consumer of bear parts and derivatives.
> All bear bile, whether local or imported, is illegal in Malaysia. But 175 of 365 traditional medicine shops (48%) in every state in Malaysia had bear bile openly for sale according to a survey by Traffic in 2012. Nobody has ever been punished for this.
> In Peninsular Malaysia, the sun bear has total protection under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, and anyone who hunts, keeps or trades it without a special permit can be punished with a fine up to RM100,000 or jail up to three years, or both.
> In addition, under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, someone possessing bear bile can be fined up to an aggregate of RM1mil, or up to seven years jail, or both.
> The trade in bear bile in China is worth about US$250mil (RM1bil) It’s even used as an ingredient in mundane stuff like shampoo and skin creams. Apart from animal cruelty, it may become a political issue (that embarrasses China), according to Hong Kong scientist Dr Feng Yibin.
> Seizures and raids by the Wildlife Department in Malaysia have been increasing. In August 2016, dozens of bear parts (teeth, claws, gall bladders, etc) were seized in raids in Peninsular Malaysia. In the same month in Sabah, two men were arrested for trying to sell bear parts. In October 2016, a man in Pahang was arrested for trying to sell a sun bear online.
> Sun bears are being hunted and killed in Sarawak and Sabah. Two sun bear carcasses were found disembowelled with both paws chopped off in the Kulamba Wildlife Reserve in eastern Sabah in 2015.
> In the Belum-Temengor forests of northern Perak, sun bears have been found (dead or still living) with limbs caught in snares.
Some are seen missing a limb, which would have probably been crushed in traps.