World Congress

for freedom of scientific research

"Bear bile: Bad for bears, bad for humans" by Angela Leary

05/21/2010

A most appreciated article by the Media Manager of Animals Asia Foundation www.animalsasia.org

Animals Asia Foundation is calling on the authorities in China and Vietnam to look urgently into the health risks of consuming bear bile that is sold as a cure-all in these two countries. The Hong Kong-headquartered charity, which is campaigning to end the brutal bear bile trade in Asia and rescuing hundreds of bears and rehabilitating them at its sanctuaries, says officials are ignoring compelling health concerns about the bile trade, which involves the torture of chronically ill bears for years, sometimes decades, under extremely confined and unhygienic conditions. The bile, which is sold to consumers of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is riddled with impurities, including faeces, urine, blood and pus. The farmed bears’ are pumped with antibiotics to keep them alive and even more worrying is that these bears are highly susceptible to liver cancer. Moon bears held in captivity, but not milked for their bile, rarely contract liver tumours unless they are very old, but almost half of the rescued bears that have died at Animals Asia’s China sanctuary were euthanised because of liver cancer. Some young bears have developed massive tumours weighing more than 5 kilos. The cancer cells seed throughout the entire body, and because the tumours originate within the biliary system, Animals Asia’s veterinary team is in no doubt that the bile is infected with cancer cells. Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson says the authorities should be asking what the bile taken from such sick bears is doing to the health of humans who consume it. She says the bears’ livers and gall bladders are often severely diseased, the bile contaminated with pus, blood and even faeces. A healthy bear’s bile is as fluid as water and ranges in colour from bright yellowy-orange to green. Animals Asia’s vets have described the bile leaking from the gall bladders of rescued farm bears as “black sludge�?. Throughout Asia today, thousands of endangered Asiatic black bears are milked for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat a range of heat-related illnesses. For thousands of years these bears, also known as “moon bears�? because of the yellow crescents of fur on their chests, were hunted down and killed for their whole gall bladders, where the bile is stored. It is only in the past two decades or so that entrepreneurial farmers in Korea, China and Vietnam discovered that keeping the bears in tiny cages and milking them regularly for their bile would be far more lucrative. Bear bile medicines are used in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries across the world with significant ethnic Asian populations. Officially 7,000 moon bears are kept on farms in China, though Animals Asia believes the figure could be higher than 10,000. According to official figures, the number of bear farms in China has dropped from 480 in the 1990s to 67 today, but in total, the number of bears has probably increased. Animals Asia work with the authorities has resulted in the closure of 43 farms and the rescue of Bear farming is permitted in China under certain conditions but it is illegal to export bile from the country. In Vietnam, around 4,000 bears remain trapped in the industry, even though bear farming has been illegal there since 1992. The ambitious bear rescue project began in 1993 when Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson made an undercover visit to a bear bile farm in southern China. Jill had been working in animal welfare in Asia for many years, but nothing had prepared her for the horror of that farm. “It was a torture chamber, a hell-hole for animals. The bears literally couldn’t move, they couldn’t stand up, they couldn’t turn around,�? she says. She made a promise to the bears that day – she would devote her life to freeing them from their torture and would not stop until every last bear farm had closed down. In July 2000, Animals Asia signed a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities to rescue 500 moon bears and work towards ending bear bile farming. Under the agreement, the farmers are compensated financially so they can either retire or set up in another business. Their licenses are taken away permanently. In Vietnam, too, Animals Asia has signed an agreement with the Vietnamese government to rescue 200 bears and care for them at its Vietnam Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi. Since the 2005 agreement, the sanctuary has taken in more than 50 bears confiscated by the government and currently has the capacity to receive 100 more bears rescued from bear farms. Bile extraction is extremely painful for the bears. In China, they are milked regularly for their bile, often through crude, filthy catheters. They are also milked through permanently open holes in their abdomens. This is the so-called “humane�? free-dripping technique. It is the only legal method of bile extraction in China, but still causes constant chronic pain. The bears are deliberately kept hungry and denied free access to water because this helps to produce more bile. They are kept in cages no bigger than their bodies for more than 20 years. In Vietnam, the cages are slightly larger, and the farmer drugs the bear with ketamine and uses ultrasound to locate the gall bladder. He then jabs the bear’s abdomen with an unsanitary four-inch needle (often repeatedly) until he is sure it is inserted in the gall bladder. He then uses a suction pump to draw out the bile. The bears generally die after a few years. Animals Asia argues that as well as being unconscionably cruel, harmful to humans and a threat to the survival of the Asiatic black bear as a species, bear bile farming is also totally unnecessary. Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), the medicinal ingredient in bear bile, can be synthesised easily and affordably. In fact, far more synthetic bile is consumed in Asia than bear bile. Most synthesised UDCA is derived from cow or pig bile – the gall bladders collected as off-cuts from slaughterhouses – but UDCA can also be synthesised using no animal parts. Synthetic UDCA is a safe medicinal ingredient, with no side effects. Known generically as “ursodiol�?, UDCA is used worldwide to treat gall stones, primary cirrhosis, auto-immune hepatitis and colon cancer. Animals Asia also promotes the herbal alternatives for a range of ailments that have traditionally been treated with bear bile, such as eye and liver complaints. More than 50 herbal alternatives to bear bile are listed in the Chinese pharmacopeia, including Chinese ivy stem, dandelion, chrysanthemum, common sage and rhubarb. The herbal alternatives are much cheaper than bear bile and considered more effective by many TCM practitioners. And more than that – bear bile can cause harm. In 2009, the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi reported several cases of people needing emergency treatment for severe stomach pain after consuming bear bile. Animals Asia invited Dr Dang van Duong, Chief Pathologist at the hospital to conduct clinical examinations of the damaged gall bladders of three moon bears rescued from Vietnamese bile farms. He said he was shocked by the condition of the bears’ organs and urged consumers to think twice before taking the bile from such diseased animals. After examining the gall bladder of one of the Vietnam bears, and concluding that she had “severe chronic cholecystitis�?, Dr Duong said: “I am wondering how this bear could have survived, because if this was a human sample, the person would have been dead long ago.�? The other bears to undergo cholecystectomies had similarly degenerative gall bladders. Dr Wang Sheng Xian, a Chengdu pathologist, who is analysing the livers of bears that have died from liver cancer at Animals Asia’s Chengdu Moon Bear Rescue Centre, said: “The more I learn about the extraction of bile from bears, the more I would never recommend this kind of drug to my family and friends. I personally think we are better to use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears … this kind of drug could be harmful to people.�? “Although I respect TCM, what I have seen from the samples from caged bears makes me doubt that products like this work. Bear bile products produced by farmers are only processed by baking the bile into a powder and not refined. This kind of preparation does not eliminate the contaminants in the bile. As we can see, the bile causes very sick bears – can we use this kind of bile for medicine for humans, especially as it is baked at a low temperature? I personally think we had better use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears,�? Dr Wang said. In China and Vietnam, the extraction process and husbandry methods cause constant long-term suffering for the bears. Animals Asia’s veterinary report, “Compromised health and welfare of bears in China’s bear bile farming industry, with special reference to the free-dripping bile extraction technique,�? which was widely distributed among both conservation and health authorities in China and throughout the world, states that “the etiology of the cancer [in farmed bears] is related to the chronic inflammation, infection and trauma caused by bile extraction. Research is under way to investigate this hypothesis. In another context, consideration must be given to the potential effects on humans of the consumption of bear bile that is so contaminated with pus and inflammatory material.�? Of the eight species of bear in the world, the Asiatic black bear (Ursus selenarctos) has been affected most by the demand for bile. They are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Appendix I, the most critical category of endangerment. Their range extends from Iran to Japan and across Southeast Asia and it is estimated that there are as few as 16,000 to 25,000 left in the wild in China. Moon bears in the wild can live to 35 years. Their diet is mostly vegetables, grains, fruits and nuts, but depending on their location, they can also eat insects, small mammals, birds and carrion. “Sadly, farmed bears can never be released back into the wild as their survival skills have been robbed from them and many of the bears that arrive at our sanctuaries are disabled,�? Jill Robinson says. “So they will spend the rest of their days in semi-natural enclosures – and this could be for 30 years or more.�? Animals Asia has two Moon Bear Rescue Centres – one in Chendgu, Sichuan Province, China and the other in Tam Dao near Hanoi, Vietnam. The rescued bears leave the farms in an appalling state, many suffering from crippling ailments, such as arthritis, peritonitis, weeping ulcers and ingrown claws. They need surgery to remove their damaged gall bladders and many have broken teeth from years of biting the bars of their cages or from the cruel “dentistry�? of the farmer. A third of the bears are missing limbs and all are in a state of severe psychological trauma. Almost half of the rescued bears that have died were riddled with liver cancer – a condition rare in bears in captivity. Remarkably though, nearly all of these intelligent, forgiving bears are able to put their pasts behind them, learning to walk, run, swim, climb and interact with the other rescued bears. In 2009, Animals Asia’s decade-long work with the China Wildlife Conservation Association and provincial governments throughout the country saw 18 of China’s 31 provinces and regions pledge to remain bear-farm free. In April 2010, Shandong became China’s 20th bear-farm free province (the district of Shanghai is also bear-farm free, but declined to commit to the pledge). The Chengdu sanctuary employs more than 150 local on-site staff – bear managers, maintenance workers, drivers and horticulturalists, as well as public relations and administrative staff. It also has a highly skilled veterinary team. Central to the sanctuary is the Education Village, where visitors learn about Animals Asia’s message that animals have the right to live free from exploitation and cruelty. Thousands of Chinese schoolchildren visit the centre each year. To learn more about Animals Asia’s Moon Bear Rescue and other projects, please visit: www.animalsasia.org

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