20080311-WAid_oc03_bustBangbuathong2 wild allaince.jpg
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---ometimes sells for hundreds of dollars. Bear paw is supposed to be especially tender from pawing for salt.

South Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese tourist go 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

bear bile products

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 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 Farms

20080311-huizhou1 bile bear aapa.jpg
Bear in a bear farm
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

20080311-huizhou3 bear bile aapa.jpg
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. ~^~

20080311-bearcag1.gif Many bears on farms today are caught in the wild either from Vietnam or neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia and China. They are captured using a leg-hold trap – a metal contraption that brutally traps and holds the animal alive in steel jaws. The bear is shocked, painfully gripped and restrained, all while fully conscious. Often the trap severs the bear’s limbs. More common is the capture of cubs. The mother is killed and her cubs stolen and smuggled onto farms. ~^~

A driving force behind the ongoing poaching of bears is the continuing demand for bear bile from within Vietnam and also from South Korean tourists who are encouraged to visit a bear bile farm and buy some freshly extracted bear bile to take home. Due to a lack of law enforcement resources, bears continue to be hunted across the country for their meat and body parts and they are still captured for the bile farming industry. Today bear bile is completely unnecessary as there are over 50 herbal alternatives and many widely used synthetic substitutes that are equally effective, easily accessible and inexpensive. ~^~

Bear Bile: Vietnam's Obscene and Deadly Obsession

In 2001, Penelope Debelle wrote in The Age, “The Asiatic black bear, an endangered species, is caught in the forests of Vietnam and Laos using crude traps made from motorcycle cables. Often the bear loses a paw, arm or leg by the time it is retrieved by poachers who want it as a live source of bear bile. The trapped beast is bound in chicken wire and hidden in the back of a van or truck to be delivered to a life of misery and suffering that will culminate in a protracted and painful death. [Source: Penelope Debelle, The Age (Australia), November 10, 2001 <^>]

“Animal cruelty is completely overlooked in this illegal but tolerated medicinal trade that has spiralled so rapidly since mid-1999 that in Vietnam there are almost no wild bears left. For reasons no one fully understands, in just two years the Vietnamese people have become totally enamoured with bear bile as a miracle cure. Its purported powers in Vietnam are without foundation. The role of bear gall in traditional Chinese medicine is established and explains bear farming in China - a practice being wound down - but no reputable practitioner supports the range of diseases pure, wild bear bile is meant to cure. This includes cancer, AIDS and a host of minor ailments, including sore eyes, gnawing pain, toothache, dysentery and hangovers. <^>

“Dr Charlie Xue, head of the Chinese Medicine Unit at Melbourne's RMIT, says bear gall bladders have been used for hundreds of years, but in powdered form. It was prescribed to counteract inflammation and infection, convulsions and ulcers. He knows of no evidence of it as a cure for cancer or other serious illness. Bears in China were traditionally hunted in late summer and early autumn and the gall bladder was removed, dried in the sun and reduced to powder, he says. Liquid bile was never prescribed or extracted. Yet to feed this obsession, black bears are kept in caged torment in restaurants and in the backyards of homes, mainly in Hanoi. <^>

“Lyn White, an Adelaide policewoman who works with Animals Asia, tried to persuade the government to enforce the laws to protect the bears and allow the group to repatriate those in cages. She said “The numbers have gone from 200 bears to well over 1000 in Hanoi alone, where bears are being kept in private premises to have their bile extracted.”Sunday in Hanoi is bile collection day and for cultural reasons the extraction of the fluid from the bear's gall bladder attracts a crowd. Restaurants openly tout for bookings to watch bear bile extractions, despite its illegality. Visitors to Vietnam are increasingly being exposed to this and White says her organization has had calls from travellers distressed by what they have seen. <^>

Unlike in China, where bile is extracted with a metal catheter, Vietnamese bear farmers use ultrasound scans to locate the gall bladder and a hypodermic needle to extract up to 400 ml of bile at a time. “To extract the bile, the bear is felled with a dart or jabstick injection that anaesthetises it. A seven-centimetre spinal needle pierces the gall bladder and a medicinal or hand-held pump sucks the brilliant green bile from the bear's stomach. This operation is performed on each bear every three months. After each extraction more bile leaks into its stomach, causing infected peritonitis.

Bear parts sold on the street in China

In China, bears were found with steel tubes inserted into their abdomens for easier subsequent extractions. Other bears had to be operated on to have catheters removed. Many died. "I saw very sick bears in Vietnam last time with distended abdomens who were obviously in terrible pain," White says. "It is difficult to know how long they survive; they say about three years." White does not blame the Vietnamese poachers who hunt bears for survival. They are probably paid in rice or other necessities, she says. It is the middleman who is paid $US3000 ($A5900) for supplying a bear and the illegal operator who then makes at least $US10,000 (A$19,700) a year from bile extraction that disturbs her because their role is built on cruelty and exploitation. "Whether they are the last bear or the last tiger in Vietnam is really not important to these illegal operators," she says. "And when it comes to the buyers, they are being told that if you have this, you won't get cancer." <^>

Microchips and Combating the Bear Bile Trade in Vietnam

There is no animal welfare agency in Vietnam. Such matter are handled within Vietnam’s Agriculture Ministry. The first international group to become actively involved in helping the bears was the international Animals Asia Foundation, which is based in Hong Kong and headed by a British woman, Jill Robinson, who has worked to rescue bears in China since 1993.

In August 2005, Reuters reported: “Vietnam plans to plant microchips in an estimated 4,000 captive bears to try to stop wildlife traders catching more of the animals in the wild and selling them to bile farms, state media reported. The Agriculture Ministry said the chips would also help prevent the slaughter of the bears for food in the southeast Asian nation, where bear parts such as paws are regarded as a delicacy. [Source: Reuters, August 17, 2005 <<>>]

“The bear-bugging campaign, which is being carried out with help from the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), is due to end in December, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported. Farming bears for their bile is widespread in Vietnam, where people believe it is a potent cure for fevers, liver illnesses and sore eyes. One millilitre of fresh bear bile, which is either drunk neat or diluted with rice wine, fetches as much as 100,000 dong ($6.5). 'This could be the beginning of the end of the bear farming industry as the only other countries that still tolerate this form of cruelty are China and Korea,' said Leah Garces of the WSPA. Bear bile farms first appeared in Vietnam in the 1980s and have increased dramatically in recent years, the WSPA said. <<>>

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 May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.