The inhumane exploitation of bears
for traditional Asian medicine
As a consultant to the International Fund for Animal
Welfare, Jill Robinson walked onto her first bear farm
12 years ago. At this facility in southern China, she
found each bear standing not on a solid floor but on
bars in a cage too small for the animal to take even
one step. Although the Asiatic black bear is normally
a solitary and clean animal, these cages were crowded
together in buildings that could only be described as "filthy," Robinson reports.
Worst of all, she says, was the bears' evident
suffering. Many had gnawed at the bars of the cages
until their teeth cracked. Some repeatedly banged
their heads against the bars, and most had open
The purpose of these farms was to supply bear bile—a
prized ingredient in many traditional Chinese-medicine
therapies. In powders, pills, and liquids, it's used
to treat conditions including eyesight problems and
what Chinese practitioners call "liver fire."
Traditional medicine has been driving an active trade
in bear bile and gallbladders, which produce it. Sales
flourish despite a longstanding, near-global ban
administered by the United Nations on international
trade in bear parts and products.
In China, wild Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus)
are protected as endangered. However, it's legal there
to sell bile from bears on licensed farms.
Animal-protection groups have estimated that about
half of the world's Asiatic black bears reside in
cages on farms, primarily in China, Vietnam, and
Korea. Some farms have just one bear;
others—especially in China—can have several thousand.
Each bear is milked regularly for bile in a painful
and physically harmful procedure, or the bear is
killed and bile is extracted from its gallbladder.
On subsequent farm visits, Robinson witnessed the
staff extracting bile from bears by unplugging metal
catheters that had been permanently inserted into
their gallbladders. The bile dripped into collection
pans beneath the cages. Seeing such "inhumane" animal
treatment, Robinson recalls, "changed the course of my
Within 5 years, she had set up the Hong Kong–based
Animals Asia Foundation. It operates a 25-acre
sanctuary at Chengdu in China's Sichuan Province that
currently houses 168 bears rescued from farms that
have shut down. Robinson is also working to find
places for additional bears expected to become
available in the near future.
Vietnam is a major bear-farming nation, despite laws
that forbid the practice. Recently, an animal-welfare
group negotiated with that country to enforce its laws
and phase out bear farms. New technologies are being
developed for policing this agreement and the
international-trade ban. These tools are expected to
come into use within the next year.
In North America, hunters kill American black bears
and sell the gallbladders illegally. Although these
bears aren't considered endangered, special agent
Allen Hundley of the Fredericksburg, Va., office of
the Fish and Wildlife Service notes that any time an
unregulated market "puts a price on the head of
wildlife," as it has on bears for their gallbladders,
the future of that wildlife is in serious jeopardy.
Estimates remain sketchy, but wild populations of
Asiatic black bears seem to have dropped to about
15,000 animals throughout all of Asia, says Dave
Eastham of the World Society for the Protection of
Animals (WSPA) in London.
Trafficking in bear parts is largely responsible for
this decline, according to the Gland,
Switzerland–based World Conservation Union. The group
concludes that this species faces "a high risk of
extinction in the wild in the medium term."
Heavy poaching prompted China, 25 years ago, to move
some bears to licensed facilities. The resulting farms
were expected to supply all the bile needed to fulfill
traditional medicine's demand—then about 500 kilograms
of bile per year—says Eastham.
However, traditional medicine's bile consumption has
now reached 4,000 to 5,000 kg per year worldwide, he
reports. China's farmers manage at least 7,000 bears,
and Vietnamese farms harvest bile from an estimated
Another 1,800 bears are caged in South Korea, but they
aren't milked for bile. Instead, when they turn 10
years old, they're killed and their gallbladders
harvested, Eastham says. In the wild, Asia's black
bears can survive to nearly 30 years old.
Today, supplies of farmed and poached bear bile exceed
demand for bile used in Asian medicine, perhaps by up
to 2,000 kg per year, Eastham's group reports. So, a
luxury market in Asia now offers consumer products
that brag of their bear-bile content. They run the
gamut—from hemorrhoid creams to shampoos to wines.
"Rather than supplying existing bile demand," Eastham
argues, "farming actually increased it."
The chemical of interest is ursodeoxycholic acid,
which has been found only in bear bile. At least a few
scientific studies of the compound have supported
traditional Chinese medicine's claim that bile
products benefit the liver, according to TRAFFIC North
America, a joint program of the World Conservation
Union and the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund,
which studies international trade in threatened and
An April 2002 report by the group TRAFFIC North
America cites research finding that ursodeoxycholic
acid has some effect against autoimmune hepatitis,
viral hepatitis, and other liver diseases. The bile
agent also appears to improve immunity and prevent
colon cancer, TRAFFIC North America notes.
Although the compound can be synthesized from other
sources, many traditional healers still recommend the
bear version, Eastham's group has found.
Prices for bile and gallbladders vary dramatically.
Asian smugglers have told U.S. Fish and Wildlife
agents that gallbladders can fetch $10,000 apiece.
WSPA cites market studies indicating that bile powder
can cost as little as 24 cents a gram at bear farms in
China but as much to $28 a gram in Taiwan and $250 a
gram in Japan, two places where bear bile is illegal.
Cruel and unusual
International animal-protection groups have taken on
the issue of farmed bile because of the heavy price
that the bears pay. The Animals Asia Foundation has
documented that price among the bears that it has
Most of the animals lack wilderness-survival skills
after having spent most or all of their lives in
captivity. Moreover, most carry substantial injuries:
missing teeth, missing limbs, and severely damaged
More than 85 percent of rescued bears suffer abdominal
adhesions that bind organs to one another and to the
abdominal wall, says Kati Loeffler, the veterinarian
at the foundation's sanctuary in Chengdu. Some 10
percent of bears also have liver tumors.
Shortly after the animals enter the sanctuary, they
have their gallbladders surgically removed. "We do
this," Loeffler explains, "because those gallbladders
are just a horrible mess." Nearly all these have
polyps, and many contain old, pus-filled abscesses,
which are "an indication of long-term trauma and
infection," she says.
These health conditions reflect repeated trauma, such
as from nonsterile surgery to insert a catheter or
repeatedly piercing the gallbladder to drain bile,
Loeffler says. In one such technique, Robinson notes,
Chinese farmers stitch the gallbladder to the
abdominal wall, pierce it, and then prevent the wound
from healing. For each bile extraction, the
gallbladder is repunctured—sometimes twice a day,
These animals are amazingly tough, Loeffler says:
"Only a bear could handle such trauma. Any other
species would have died."
An illegal trade in bears and their parts exists even
in the United States. During the past year, federal
prosecutions were brought against three hunters in
Alaska for killing 10 bears to harvest their
gallbladders for sale in Korea. Biologists surveying
salmon runs uncovered the kills (see "Snaring
But the Alaska haul pales in comparison with the 118
gallbladders—now frozen and in federal custody—that
were purchased from a single person as part of an
earlier sting. The major undercover program—Special
Operation to Uncover Poaching (SOUP)—investigated
illegal trafficking in bear parts in the Mid-Atlantic
Run cooperatively in the late 1990s by the U.S. Park
Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, SOUP
found that bear parts traded in the region came
largely from animals taken in Virginia, where bear
hunting is legal.
However, because the state prohibits the sale of bear
parts, these hunters marketed the animals'
gallbladders and paws - a delicacy used in some Asian
soups - to a broker in West Virginia, where trade in
bear parts was then legal. That broker, in turn, sold
the gallbladders and paws to Asian buyers living in
the United States.
The most satisfying aspect of SOUP, Hundley says, was
that "we exposed West Virginia as a laundering haven
for bear gallbladders that were acquired illegally
elsewhere." Shortly afterward, in 1999, West Virginia
closed this loophole by outlawing the sale of paws and
organs of even legally killed bears.
Yet that didn't end the region's bear poaching, notes
Skip Wissinger, a Park Service special agent in the
Shenandoah National Park's Elkton, Va., office. Using
information acquired in SOUP, his team and state
officers set up a second, more complicated sting
operation. Undercover agents opened a sporting-goods
store in Elkton. Under the counter, however, they
provided bear parts from road kill, previous busts
such as SOUP, and a federal forensic lab in Oregon.
For 3 years, each gallbladder sale was recorded on
tape. Unlike SOUP, which focused on hunters and
wholesalers, this sting—Operation VIPER, for Virginia
Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental
The agents had expected most of the bear parts to be
exported. The "surprise," Wissinger says, was that
"well over half of what we sold went to a domestic
market" of traditional Chinese- and Korean-medicine
distributors, largely along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.
Growing sales to U.S. consumers have created a local
black market in bear parts that "appears absolutely
insatiable," Wissinger told Science News. "We just
couldn't begin to keep up with what we had been asked
From VIPER, hundreds of felony charges were leveled
against some 80 defendants for trafficking in bear
parts. In the 40 cases that have been settled in
Virginia state courts, all the defendants were found
guilty, Wissinger says. The other cases are still
wending their way through federal courts, where
prosecution is more difficult and cases take longer,
but where the penalties may be greater.
Still, Wissinger adds that he's certain that his
team's sting didn't end the local black marketEthough
we might have slowed it some."
Although bear farming in Vietnam has been illegal for
years, Eastham notes that the government turned a
blind eye to most of these mom-and-pop operations,
which have only one or two bears apiece. But this
year, WSPA—on behalf of its 500 member
societies—brokered a deal with Hanoi officials for
Vietnam to enforce its laws.
Vietnamese officials will prevent the sale of bile,
but will permit farms to keep the bears they now own.
The officials plan to implant microchips, whose
purchase may be partially subsidized by WSPA, in the
shoulders of all bears on farms.
Similar to the identification chips implanted in many
pet dogs, these chips would give each bear a unique ID
number, record when the tag was implanted, and carry
the farm's address. Monitoring agencies could send
people around every 6 months or so to scan bears and
generate readouts of their implanted data. This
procedure would prevent the farms from replenishing
their stock when a bear died.
The government is "being pragmatic" in letting farmers
keep their bears for now, Eastham says, since it's a
violation of international law to kill the endangered
animals and sanctuaries can't spring up overnight to
absorb several thousand bears. Moreover, the program
should finally end Vietnam's rampant problem with
capture of wild bears for farming, he says, since the
monitoring agencies would prosecute anyone harboring
bears without a chip.
Eastham told Science News that currently, in South
Korea, "we're in negotiations with government
officials to see if they won't go down the same road
Last year, Kate Sanders, a herpetologist in Adelaide,
Australia, who works with WSPA, came up with the idea
for another antipoaching technology. Inspired by snake
venom-detection kits, she says, she suggested a tool
to enable customs officials and other law-enforcement
agents to test for the presence of bear proteins in
suspicious materials within just 5 minutes.
Geneticist Rob Ogden of Wildlife DNA Services in
Bangor, Wales, is managing the assay's development. It
will employ the dipstick technology typical of
pregnancy-test kits. The assay contains antibodies to
characteristic proteins found only in bears. These
antibodies are attached to a dye. If they contact a
bear protein, they will bind and create a telltale
Ogden says, "We hope to have the kits ready for
testing by June 2006."
Yet another WSPA program is fashioning a decidedly
low-tech program aimed at stemming demand for bear
bile and gallbladders. Susan Sherwin in the group's
Framingham, Mass., office is working with Eastham to
compile a list of plant-based products that some
traditional Asian-medicine practitioners prescribe in
place of bile. Among the dozens of materials that
they've turned up so far: aloe vera, ash bark,
dandelion, and honeysuckle flowers. The alternatives'
activity depends on chemicals other than
WSPA is currently surveying traditional-medicine
practitioners worldwide about the conditions and
circumstances under which they prescribe these plant
materials. Over the next year, WSPA plans to begin
publicizing the results to traditional Asian healers
in hopes of encouraging more of them to substitute
herbal products for bile.
One thing working in his favor, Eastham notes, is that
the plant products all "are a lot cheaper than bile."
Snaring Poachers: It's Often the Hard Part
Feds prosecute Alaskan bear poaching
In September 2002, biologists under contract to
ExxonMobil Corp. repeatedly visited a small stream on
heavily wooded Chenega Island in Alaska's Prince
William Sound. Their goal: to tally spawning pink
salmon. At this time of year, creeks are normally
"thick with bears," which fatten up on those salmon in
preparation for winter hibernation, notes Shawn
Haskell, now at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His
team therefore had anticipated spying the powerful
predators at virtually every stream.
Instead, during three successive visits to this
island, some 50 miles off the mainland town of Seward,
the biologists found snares suspended along bear paths
and the nearly intact carcasses of bears missing only
their gallbladders and the occasional paw.
State and federal investigators would later find the
animals' gallbladders in coolers aboard a boat
anchored just off the island.
Although Alaska permits hunting of its native American
black bears, a license permits the taking of only one
bear, and a hunter must bring home its coat and skull.
When caught at Chenega Island, the boat owner Kwan Su
Yi and his two hunting partners had five gallbladders,
11 paws, a bear head—and no fur skins, notes Special
Agent Jill Birchell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service in Anchorage. Search warrants turned up still
more gallbladders in Yi's home freezer.
Yi admitted to federal investigators that he and his
companions intended to smuggle their booty to Korea,
where a single gallbladder can fetch $3,500 from
purveyors of natural medicines. Despite a host of
herbal alternatives, many traditional Asian healers
continue to prescribe bear bile, which can be obtained
from the gallbladder, to treat a range of health
conditions. This market has been driving an active
trade in bear products despite a longstanding
near-global ban on international trade in bear parts.
The vast majority of medicinal bile comes from farmed
bears in China and Vietnam. Organs plundered from
North American bears supplement this source.
Over a 6-month period ending last March, the three
poachers—all Korean immigrants—pled guilty to felony
violations of the Lacey Act. This federal law
prohibits trade of wildlife that was acquired in
violation of local state law and also transported
across that state's border. The law also covers the
intention to carry out such trade.
Yi was sentenced this past March to a year in jail, to
be followed by 3 years probation. He forfeited his
22-foot boat, a rifle, and a 40-caliber handgun. Over
the next 4 years, he cannot apply for a hunting
license or possess any bear parts. His brother-in-law,
James Ho Moon, who was part of the bear-hunting party,
received no jail time but some $1,600 in fines and
fees, 3 years probation, and must do 160 hours of
The final participant in the Chenega Island bear
plundering incidents was Tae Won Ro. Birchell says
that Ro "admitted that it was sort of his idea to get
these other two men involved [in the venture], having
learned the [snaring] technique from another
individual." With a prior criminal conviction for
domestic violence, Ro proved willing to cooperate with
Birchell's team on piecing together various elements
of this case.
In the end, he gave evidence that showed that his team
had killed 16 bears during five separate trips to the
island. Ro's sentence: 9 months house detention with
electronic monitoring to be followed by 3 years
probation. He was also assessed roughly $5,000 in
fines and fees.
Such convictions are rare, Birchell notes. The U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service has just 219 agents
nationally, which includes managers and supervisory
staff, to investigate potential incidents affecting
any type of wildlife. Moreover, bears tend to inhabit
extremely remote locations. Finally, even when someone
is found with bear parts, such as gallbladders,
Birchell points out that it's daunting to prove that
they were both acquired illegally and intended for
sale across state boundaries.
Indeed, she told Science News, the relative ease with
which her team mounted a case against these men
reflected their ignorance of the law. "They assumed
that they were maybe going to get a ticket for a game
violation," she says. If they had realized that their
actions constituted a federal felony, she notes, "they
might not have been so forthcoming when we interviewed
In a state as big as Alaska, "it would be very easy to
get away with this snaring," Haskell says. It was just
the poachers' bad luck that they chose to plunder
their prey on one of four streams being surveyed every
4 days by wildlife biologists.
Haskell's group spied the first snared bear some 200
yards inside the tree line on Chenega Island. The bear
had a noose of wire around its neck that was cabled to
a small, nearby tree.
Respectful of the frightened animal's power, the
biologists shot at the wire anchoring the snare.
Suddenly, the bear snapped the frayed wire and bounded
away, the noose still tightly cinched around its neck.
When the biologists next returned to the island, they
found that the poachers had preceded them. Along the
stream they encountered carcasses of snared bears.
Each animal had a slit down its abdomen, several cut
ribs, a missing gallbladder, and snaring gear still
attached to a nearby sapling.
Team leader Bill Wilson, now with the North Pacific
Fishery Management Council in Anchorage, recalls one
of those visits to Chenega Island, a day dreary with a
heavy downpour that dogged their trek. While counting
fish, he and his partner, geneticist Matt Cronin, soon
came upon one dead bear on its back with a small area
of its belly sliced open. Later that day, the pair ran
across carcasses of two older cubs, also missing their
Cronin collected tissue samples so that that DNA might
later be used to identify any gallbladders found on
the black market.
In fact, Birchell notes, such tissue samples helped
seal the federal convictions that the bear parts found
in Yi's possession came from the illegally poached
Chenega Island animals.
The biologists alerted state troopers about the
snares. Those state wildlife officers arrived and
confirmed the bear poaching. A few days later, using a
seaplane, those state troopers found Yi's boat
anchored near the headwaters of the little salmon
stream. Almost immediately, they called in federal
officials to help them investigate the extent of the
No national bear-protection law
The nation's black bears currently number between
300,000 and 400,000. Of these, roughly one-third roam
Alaska's wooded terrain, notes Adam Roberts of Born
Free USA in Washington, D.C.
Protection for these animals varies widely by state.
For instance, Idaho, Maine, New York, Vermont, and
Wyoming all permit an unrestricted trade in bear gall
bladders, he notes, whereas 34 other states prohibit
trade, sale, or commercialization of any bear parts.
The remaining states—most of which have few wild
bears—permit the sale of gall bladders if the organs
come from animals harvested outside their borders,
The problem, he notes, is that without DNA to tie a
particular gall bladder to a carcass, no one can know
for sure in what state it was collected. The only way
to arrest the problem, Roberts says, "is to enact a
national prohibition on trade in bears."
About a decade ago, he helped draft legislation to do
just that. However, despite having had considerable
bipartisan support in the Congress—for instance, it
won Senate passage several times—it has yet to pass
the House of Representatives.
Roberts hopes to see the bill reintroduced in the next
year or two. At present, he says, this legislation is
Week of Oct. 15, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 16 , p. 250
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name and location.
2005. Vietnamese government to phase out bear farming.
World Society for the Protection of Animals news
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2004. Six Anchorage residents charged with illegally
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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Division of Law Enforcement
605 West 4th Avenue, Room 57
Anchorage, AK 99501
World Society for the Protection of Animals
89 Albert Embankment
London SE1 7TP
Texas Tech University
Department of Range, Wildlife & Fisheries Management
102 Goddard Building
Lubbock, TX 79409
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Division of Law Enforcement
4900 Quality Drive
Fredericksburg, VA 22408
Animals Asia Foundation
P.O. Box 374
General Post Office
Wildlife DNA Services
9th Floor, Alan Roberts Building
University of Wales
Bangor, Wales LL57 2UW
Born Free USA
P.O. Box 32160
Washington, DC 20007
Hong Kong Head Office
P.O. Box 374
General Post Office
South Australian Museum
15 Noble Street
Ovingham, Adelaide, SA 5082
World Society for the Protection of Animals
34 Deloss Street
Framingham, MA 01702
TRAFFIC North America
c/o World Willdlife Fund-US
1250 24th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20037
North Pacific Fishery Management Council
605 West 4th Avenue, Suite 306
Anchorage, AK 99502-2252
Shenandoah National Park
22591 Spotswood Trail
Elkton, VA 22827
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