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Bear bile trade, both legal and illegal, ubiquitous in Asia

Surveying 13 nations and territories in Asia, the wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC found that the bear bile trade remains practically ubiquitous in the region. In many cases the trade, which extracts bile from captive bears’ gall bladders for sale as a pharmaceutical, flouts both local and international law, including Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES ). The international organization outlaws cross-boundary trading with the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), or the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the three species used in the bear bile trade.

“Both the Asiatic black bear and the Sun bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

Bear cub at a farm in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo © M. Silverberg/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

The report by TRAFFIC found the bear bile trade alive in well in all 13 nations and territories it surveyed, aside from Macao. The trade was most visible in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, where half of the traditional medicine stores visited carried bear bile.

In a number of countries—Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—traditional medicine purveyors flouted national law by carrying bear bile. But even when legal, the trade likely still flouted international law. According to TRAFFIC, the bear products regularly pass international boundaries, with some bears having been imported from as far away as Russia.

“Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES which should be the world’s most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade,” said Foley.

Asiatic black bear at rescue center in Laos. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The report found that bear bile had even gone beyond its use as a traditional medicine, advertized in as diverse products as shampoo, soda, and cough drops. Other sources have reported bear bile wine.

Most bear ‘farms’, where the bears are kept in small cages awaiting the extraction of bile from their gall bladder, did not have breeding programs, making it likely that bear victims were being stolen illegally from the wild.

While bile, and the gall bladder itself, remain the most popular parts of bears in Chinese traditional medicine, other parts are also in demand including paws, skin, claws, and teeth.

Animal rights activists have long argued that bear bile is severely cruel. Bears spend their lives in cages little bigger than themselves, while having their bile extracted frequently, a painful process given the bears’ reported reaction to it. Activists have stated that bears in these farms as under considerable stress and display abnormal behavior. Once a bear stops producing bile, it is usually killed to harvest its other parts.

The sun bear is listed by the IUCN Red List as Endangered, the Asiatic black bear is considered Vulnerable, while the brown bear is listed as Least Concern.

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