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Bear paws
Bears generally have no natural predators other than humans. Wolves and other animals have been observed feeding on bears that have already died. Mothers and cubs sometimes seek out places occupied by humans for protection against males, who tend to keep their distance from humans, viewing them in same way they would a rival or superior bear.

Bears can learn to tolerate humans and they generally don’t attack humans that keep their distance because they are not viewed as a threat or a source of food. Those that attack humans are usually startled, instinctively defending their space, or are mothers defending their cubs. Most injuries from bears take place when bears are raiding food. Once they have food bears are hard to drive off.

To get at food bears have jumped on car roofs, shattered windshields, pried open locked doors and ripped out seats to get at food stored in the trunk. City bears sometimes hibernate under decks, roam through parking lots and feed at dumpsters at night.

To avoid confrontations in bear country, people should walk with jingling bells to warn bears of their presence and avoid startling them and food should be hidden in elevated caches. Pepper spray is available for protection from bears. Rangers scare off bears with firecrackers and noise makers and protect cabins and other places with electric fences.

Problem bears are shot with tranquilizer guns, rubber bullets, and firecracker-like shells that explode loudly in mid-air. Bears that are killers or have repeated problems are relocated or sometimes killed. The problem with relocation is that bears often find their way back to their home territories.

Studies have shown that bears that hang out around cities, and eat a lot of garbage, which often includes a lot fast food and junk food, are more lethargic that bears who eat wild foods. Garbage-fed bears are also more likely to become nocturnal creatures rather than normal day time ones. They hibernate less because garbage dumps provide a year round food supply.

Bears have a hard time in zoos. They often look lethargic and bored. Ben Kilham, an American conservationist has taught orphaned black bears how to survive in the wild. Among his techniques are getting down on all fours and eating wild plants to show bears which plants they can eat. As of 2002, he had successfully released 31 bears into the wild.

Bear Parts and Chinese Medicine

bear bile wine

Bear gallbladder, liver, bile and testicles are prized in Chinese medicine, mostly as aphrodisiacs. A gall bladder can fetch up to $3000. Most bear parts are smuggled into China, Taiwan, and Korea from the United States, Canada and Russia. The Chinese also collect bile from bears in cramped cages with a tube stuck directly into the animal's liver.

Bear meat is valued as sexual-performance and health booster. A bowl of bear paw soup — prized delicacy at restaurants in China, Hong and Taiwan — sometimes sells for hundreds of dollars. Bear paw is supposed to be especially tender from pawing for salt. In 2013, Chinese customs said they caught two men trying to smuggle more than 200 bear paws into the country from Russia. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2013]

South Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese tourist went to restaurants in Thailand where, one environmentalist told AP in the 1990s, "The bear is tortured to death in front of the diners. They say it makes the meat taste better. the coast of the bear banquet is now about 9,000 U.S. dollars." The Patrons restaurants that serve bear and other endangered animal in Thailand are usually from South Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. In 1996, five South Koreans were arrested in central Thailand with 24 severed paws and six carcasses from two endangered bear species — the Malayan sun bear and Asiatic black bear. The Koreans planed to sell the paws and meat for soup. The suspects faced four jail terms and $1,600 fine. Until the mid 1990s, some Korean restaurants served dished like bear paw soup and braised bear palms.

Conservationists say that efforts to help the bears are mitigated by the fact that black bears that produce most of the bear parts are not as cute as pandas or glamorous at tigers, which get more attention in the world animal rights forum. There is also the widespread belief that bear parts work. A Korean environmentalist told the New York Times, "Koreans are concerned about bears...but at the same time, bear gallbladders are so good for health that people's can't resist using them."

Bear paws are a favorite food delicasy. In the late 1980s the author Terry Domico found parts, skins and skeletons of 168 dead moon bears in markets in Chengdu in Sichuan.

Bear Gallbladders and Chinese Medicine

It is estimated that 90 percent of all the gallbladder taken from the world's shrinking population of bears find their way to South Korea. Traditionally bear gallbladders have been used as a treatment for diabetes, stomach and bowel problems, liver diseases and heart problems but over the last few years, they have been promoted as a magical cure-all capable of increasing sexual stamina. Bear gallbladders can sell for up to $45,000 a piece.

Some bears are poached solely for their gallbladders. Bear gallbladders sells for around $1,100 an ounce or $100 a gram at oriental pharmacies. The fist-size organs are hung up to dry, diced, mixed with wine or liquor and ingested. Koreans believe that if a bear is frightened or in pain its gallbladders get bigger and as a result the animal is often tortured or forced to suffer before it is killed.

According to AP reporter David Crary, "Unlike rhinoceros horn, which has a mythical reputation as an aphrodisiac, bear's gall bladders have proven medicinal value. They produce a substance called ursodeoxycholic acid, which is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat intestinal, liver and cardiac-related diseases. Synthetic substitutes are available, but profit margins are much higher for authentic bear gall products."

One Canadian conservationist, originally from Hong Kong, told AP, "In the old way of Chinese thinking, a patient would take a real gall bladder every time. It's a mystique, a way of superstitious thinking. They believe a powerful animal should make a powerful medicine."

Bear Bile and Chinese Medicine

bear bile products

Bear bile is regarded as a cure for liver disease, blood disorders, digestive ailments, cancer, fevers, liver problems, sore eyes and other illnesses and is said to be able to rejuvenate dead brain cells. By one count a total of 123 different kinds of Chinese medicines, including eye drops, contain bear bile or powdered bear bile.

Bear bile is amber brown in color. Like bear gall bladders it contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which dissolves human gallstones and is more abundant in bears than any other animal,. Chinese physicians used bile as a treatment for jaundice as early as A.D. 649.

A gram of bile from a bear gall bladder sells for more than a gram of gold or cocaine. Some of the bile is exported to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where it sells for as much as $1,400 an ounce.

In the late 1990s, there was such an oversupply of bear bile it was added to shampoos, anti-wrinkle creams and even wine. Critics of use of the substance say there are many Asian herbal medicines and Western medicines that can provide the same function.

Bear Bile: a Powerful Medicine?

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “Before I leave the market, one ingredient catches my eye. In a section near deer antler velvet, I see a glass case with a row of bottles containing yellowish liquid. I ask the vendor what it is, and he gets his neighbor to translate. “Take from bear,” the man says. “Very good.” “A robust market for bear bile still exists.[Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, January 2019]

“The earliest mention of bear bile in Chinese literature turns up in a 40-volume treatise from the eighth century called “The Medical Secrets of an Official”. It prescribes bear bile for liver problems, as well as fever, hemorrhoids, and other ailments. In 1902 a Swedish scientist isolated one of the chemicals in bear bile, later named ursodeoxycholic acid, and it’s now used in drugs for liver diseases and gallstones.

“Researchers believe there are many more secrets to be revealed from bear bile, which is produced by the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and secreted as hormones into the bloodstream. They are taking aim at a range of therapies, including treatments for muscular dystrophy and for bedridden patients who can lose half of their muscle mass in three weeks.

Paul Iaizzo, a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota, identified three classes of bile components that likely trigger hibernation and may help heart patients — fatty acids, bile acids, and delta opioids. In Asia bears are farmed for their bile, kept alive in small cages, with catheters inserted to drain their fluids. Animal welfare groups decry the practice, which is inarguably inhumane. And yet as I listen to Iaizzo describe how the chemicals that protect a bear’s organs from atrophying during hibernation could also sustain human organs, I can’t help but wonder whether bear bile could have saved my father’s failing heart, or whether someday it might save mine, or my children’s.

Bear Bile Researcher

Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: ““Paul Iaizzo loves bears. An avid outdoorsman who grew up in Minnesota, he has long been fascinated by the animals, which roam the state’s forests. As head of the University of Minnesota’s Visible Heart Lab, he’s especially interested in their unique physiology and has teamed up with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to study how they hibernate.[Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, January 2019]

“Tall and lean, with a mane of silver hair, Iaizzo ticks off a list of mysteries related to bears, which spend up to six months completely inactive yet suffer no ill effects. Their breathing slows to as few as two breaths a minute. Their temperature drops by 10 percent, which would cause hypothermia in a human. They regularly lose more than half of their body fat but no muscle. Their hearts can pause for 20 seconds, but their blood never clots. Humans risk deadly clots if their hearts pause for only a few seconds. And yet if a predator approaches, a bear can wake up to defend its den. “And its heart suffers no damage,” Iaizzo says.

“I ask him whether the Chinese practice of drinking bear bile could really bestow any health benefits. “It could,” Iaizzo says, noting the chemicals would enter the bloodstream and move through the heart and other organs. He doesn’t condone farming bears for their bile, emphasizing that the chemicals can be synthesized, but the science is the science. And though the ancient Chinese didn’t understand how bear bile helped humans, they observed that it did.

Bear Bile Experiment

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Bear in a bear farm
Peter Gwin wrote in National Geographic: “In my hand I’m holding a warm, beating heart. About the size of a softball, it’s a luminous globe of scarlet, pink, and white tissue. I can feel its chambers contracting and hear the whoosh of the fluid it’s still pumping. It’s slimy and gives off a slightly pungent odor. [Source: Peter Gwin, National Geographic, January 2019]

“The organ is alive almost eight hours after I watched Paul Iaizzo remove it from a sedated pig in a basement lab, connect it to tubes simulating arteries and veins, and spark it back into rhythm with an electric jolt, as a paramedic would shock a human heart back to life. Although it’s outside the pig’s body, the heart flexes and lurches on its own, driven by some unseen, unexplained, primordial force. More than grotesque, I find it hypnotic and beautiful.

“The pig’s heart is still beating partly because Iaizzo, treated it with a bath of chemicals mimicking those in bile from bears...During the procedure on the pig, he injected a synthetic mixture of these into the protective membrane around the beating heart to coat the organ for an hour before he removed it. As I hold the pig heart, I can feel its rhythm slowing. It finally stops. The pig died hours ago, and now its heart has stopped too. Its color seems to dim — like a mahi-mahi that loses its lightning yellow glow as it dies in the hands of a fisherman. I wonder if whatever is now gone is what the ancient Chinese meant by qi.

Over hundreds of experiments, he’s seen pig hearts — which are very similar to human hearts — last up to twice as long as they usually do outside the body. There are many possible applications for humans. Most notably, hearts from donors could be kept viable longer and, once inside a recipient, could be restarted faster. Currently, a heart must be transplanted within six hours or less. In the U.S., 300 people die every year waiting for hearts. “If we could preserve a heart for 24 hours, we could get it anywhere in the world,” Iaizzo says. “And that could vastly increase the number of available organs. That would be a game changer.”

Bear Bile Farms

As many as 10,000 Asiatic black bears were kept in small cages at legal Chinese "bear farms," where drainage tubes and metal catheters have been surgically implanted in their gallbladders to milk gallbladder bile over a period of several months. The bile is dried and made into medicine. A single bear can produce about five pounds of dried bile over a period of several months.

Bile is “milked” with rusty metal catheters permanently implanted through a puncture made in the bear’s gallbladder. The tubes are painful and the cages the bears kept in are so small that the bears can barely move around.

A typical bear farm has 32 bears kept in four rooms in an apartment building. A typical bear is kept in a 60-x-120-x-75centimeter cages. Some are kept in smaller cages that force them to lie spread eagle on the floor. Many of bears have teeth cracked from gnawing on the bars and paws covered with sores. Some are reportedly driven crazy by confinement and have terrible wounds from self-mutilation. Particularly cruel is the practice of leaving a bear in a snare, allowing to storm around and get angry to increase the amount of bile in its gallbladder.

Catheters have been banned in 1996 and replaced by the more humane, state-approved “free drip” method to drain bile straight from the bears’s gallbladder.

According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, about 7,000 kilograms of bear bile and 14,000 gallbladders collected from dead bears is produced annually by Chinese bear farms. Of this about 4,000 kilograms is consumed domestically. The remainder is transformed into crystalized powder and exported to other Asian countries or places where Asians live.

Opening and Closing Bear Bile Farms

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Bear bile tapping began in the 1980s when farmers began using primitive surgery to insert the catheter. This lead to infections and trauma that often killed the bears. The "free dripping" method — which involves drilling a hole in the abdomen and pushing a plastic tube to milk the bladder — was developed because it was "more humane."

In 1984 and 1985, licenses were issued to farm 2,000 bears. The original goal was to issue 40,000 licenses by 2000. In that late 1990s a deal was worked between the government and animal rights groups to phase out the practice. No new licenses have been issued since 1996.

Responding to critics, the Chinese government closed down a third of the nations legal bear farms and tried to improve conditions at the remaining ones. There are concerns that if the farms were closed down, poaching of wild bears would increase.

Bear farming is banned in Japan and South Korea. In December 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for China to end “cruel; and uncivilized” bear farming before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. China responded by basically saying it wouldn’t. A conservation specialist at the State Forestry Administration said, “We have introduced painless practices in obtaining bear bile, such as extracting the bile through tubes developed from bear tissue.” The official said improvements has also been made at the farms themselves.

Bear bile is now difficult but not impossible to get. As of 2007, an estimated 7,000 bears were kept on 78 Chinese farms down from 480 in the 1990s.. Bear bile farmers say they have a right to conduct business just as chicken farmers and cattle ranchers — other businesses which sell animals parts — have a right to conduct theirs. They say they help bears in the wild by supplying legal, farmed bile, negating the need for bile from bears poached in the wild. Conservationists disagree, arguing that farmed bile increases the use of bear bile and increases demand for wild bear bile.

Bear Bile Farming in Vietnam

According to AnimalsAsia: “Around 2,400 bears – mainly moon bears, but also sun bears and brown bears – are kept on bile farms in in Vietnam. The bears are milked regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine. On the farms they are imprisoned in stark metal cages for their entire lives, which could be in excess of 25 years. To extract their bile, the bears are drugged and an ultrasound machine is used to locate the gall bladder; their abdomens are then repeatedly jabbed with 4-inch unsterilised needles until the gall bladder is pierced and the bile is pumped out of the bear’s body. [Source: AnimalsAsia ~^~]

The bears’ gall bladders are severely damaged from being repeatedly jabbed every few weeks and the process also leads to the dangerous leakage of bile into the body. In some cases, the result of this leakage is a slow, agonising death from peritonitis. The wounds from the unsterilised needles cause massive and painful abscesses and the bears suffer severe joint and muscle ailments from their inability to move freely. Their physical pain is compounded with the mental stress that this horrific situation causes and many bears end up psychologically damaged. ~^~

Bile has been used in traditional medicine for over 3,000 years and is known to be effective in treating a range of liver and eye-related diseases. The active ingredient in bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is found to be more abundant in bears than any other mammal and particularly abundant in moon bears. In the past, bears were hunted and killed in the wild for their whole gall bladders. But in the early 80s, Korea developed farms, soon adopted by China, in an effort to commercialise the production of bile to satisfy the local demand for the tonic. The practice subsequently spread to Vietnam in the early 90s. ~^~

Endangered Bears in Asia

Most of the bears kept on farms are Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears. China has only 16,000 to 25,000 bears left; Japan, 10,000. Taiwan and South Korea have wiped out there bear populations.

There are two types of bear indigenous to Southeast Asia: the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear. Wild bears living in the forests of Cambodia, Thailand and Burma are placed in cages by environmentalists to protect them from poachers.

China is allowed to import bear gallbladders from Japan where 30,000 bears were killed between 1988 and 2004. Even so many of the gall bladders are smuggled Bear parts are also smuggled in from Russia.

Bear Parts and the North American Market

Bears in South American and North American are killed to supply bear gallbladders for the Chinese medicine market. A large number of them are legally imported from bears legally killed in Canada and the United States. A large number are also illegally imported from these countries.

In North America, there are still large numbers of bears in the wild. It is estimated that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 black bears remaining in the wild in Canada but they are being poached at a rate of about 40,000 a year. There are around 600,000 black, grizzly and polar bears in all of North America. The situatiion is more worrisome in Latin American, where only around 10,000 speckled bears are left. They are being killed for the Asia medicine market.

Bear hunting is legal in Canada and every year about 20,000 to 25,000 bears are taken by hunters with special license. But conservationists estimate that for every bear killed legally two are killed illegally. In the United States, total of 366 bears were taken from the Great Smoky Mountains over a three year period. Many of their gall bladders ended up in Asia. On those that don’t one Hong Kong trader told U.S. News and World report: "Your hunters shoot bears for sport and fun but deny Asians their medicinal benefits.”

Vancouver, British Columbia has become a major center of the illegal bear part trade. One raid by Canadian conservation officers uncovered 191 bear gall bladders. Another found 84 bear paws in a basement freezer. One government official In Vancouver told AP, "The middleman can easily make a ten-fold profit in this business. The penalties (a maximum fine of $US7,500) are enough only to deter small-time poachers. We need penalties to deter the hard core."

Laws that Protect Endangered Animals

In 1993, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) warned China and Taiwan, the two countries where the trade in tiger and rhino parts is most prevalent, to take steps to shut down the trade or face trade sanctions. In response, Chinese authorities said they would assign 40,000 people to enforce laws protecting endangered animals. Conservationist say that Taiwan and China would do just enough to stave off sanctions and then allow the market to resume business.

The CITES treaty has been signed by 130 nations. It protects 25,000 species and enforces bans on a number of items including tiger bones, rhinoceros horns, musk glands and bear gall bladders.

Korea had hoped for exemption on seven species — musks, bears, tigers, pangolins, turtles, mink whales and Bryde's whales.

The politics of the sanctions on endangered animals is tricky. Why, for example, are sanctions imposed for the mistreatment of tigers and not on the torture and imprisonment of Tibetans. There is also the issue of free trade. "Once you impose sanctions," a State department official asked, "then what?"

The U.S. has used a section of the U.S. Fisheries Protective Act known as the Pelly amendment to impose sanctions on nations whose acts hurts endangered species. The amendment was intended to curb the use of drift nets by Korea and Japan.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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