Fighting for China’s battery bears

As a bear-farming firm prepares to launch on the stock market, the use of animal bile in traditional Chinese remedies is at the centre of a public row. Meng Si reports.

A Chinese pharmaceutical company that uses bile extracted from the gallbladders of black bears as the key ingredient in its products is to launch on the stock market as part of an expansion drive. The news has met with fierce public opposition and caused environmentalists once again to appeal against the cruelty of live bear-bile extraction.

“In online opinion polls on major websites, hundreds of thousands of citizens – 90% of all respondents – have registered their support for the elimination of bear farming,” wrote Chinese web portal Tencent, newspaper Southern Weekend and 62 animal protection organisations in an open letter sent on March 1.

The company at the centre of the controversy is Fujian Guizhen Tang Pharmaceutical Company – known simply as Guizhen Tang – the self-proclaimed largest bear farm in southern China. It has more than 400 black bears in captivity, capable of producing 100 baby bears each year.

Currently, the company uses bile from second and third generation black bears bred in captivity to create more than 30 products, including Guizhen Tang-branded bear-gallbladder powder, bear-gallbladder capsules and a tea said to boost lung and gallbladder health. The firm’s stock-market flotation will focus on raising funds for two main programmes: “boosting annual production of gallbladder powder to 4,000 kilograms”, and “farming 1,200 black bears, and breeding 200 more annually”. 

Techniques for farming bears for live gallbladder extraction were developed in North Korea in the 1980s. The practice quickly caught on in China, and become a lucrative industry. Later, the government started testing synthetic substitutes, but the project ran aground due to pressure from industry.

According to a report aired on Shangdong Qilu TV, at any one point, nearly 10,000 bears are being farmed for bile production in China. Trapped in iron cages, they have metal tubes permanently inserted into their bellies for the convenient extraction of their bile. Because the wounds are exposed, they cannot heal. Infections are common. Each bear has to wear an iron vest so that bile can be extracted two to four times a day, producing at the least 30 millilitres of bile; at the most 200 millilitres.

Due to the extreme pain, said the programme, the bears often chew at their own paws until they are bloody. They go into a frenzied state, some pulling at their own intestines and other internal organs. Some develop cancerous tumors.

Bai Yipeng, founder of the NGO China’s SOS for Help, has sent his own open letter to Guizhen Tang, appealing for the company to overhaul its operations. Writing on his micro blog, he also announced that he would represent several domestic and foreign environmental protection organisations in their negotiations with Guizhen Tang. He said: “At all costs, we will block Guizhen Tang’s initial public offering under the existing business model. Otherwise, several thousand more moon bears will be tortured daily for the sake of their bile.” 

The moon bear – also called the Asian black bear – is so named because of the moon-shaped patch of golden fur on its chest. Animal welfare organisation Animals Asia has estimated that only around 25,000 moon bears remain in the wild.

Of all the Asian countries where traditional Chinese medicine is practised, only China still allows the extraction of bile from live bears. In an interview with Tencent, Zhang Xiaohai, director of external affairs at Animals Asia, explained that black bears have national-level second class protection in China. This means provincial governments have the authority to decide whether or not to issue permits for bear farming. To date, 20 provinces have banned bear farming, while 10 have continued to issue permits. Animals Asia has already written to the Fujian authorities in protest against Guizhen Tang’s stock-market flotation.

“A strong body of evidence has demonstrated that live bear-gallbladder extraction inflicts great physical and mental pain on black bears. Furthermore, the theory that bear-bile products are irreplaceable has been challenged. In most cases, the bile comes from wounded and sick black bears, raising concern over consumer health,” Tencent and Southern Weekend declared in their open letter.

Zu Shuxian, an epidemiology professor at Anhui Medical University wrote on his blog: “Modern medicine has proved that bear bile does not have any major curative effects. However, long-term consumption of a certain dosage of bear deoxycholic acid can get rid of small cholesterol stones in the gallbladder and prevent stone regeneration, decrease bile deposits and cure primary biliary cirrhosis. That is all. (Attention: it is not the case, as some articles have claimed, that it can cure Hepatitis B and C.)”

Xinmin Weekly quoted a 2007 report from Longqiao Black Bear Care Centre indicating that 37% of bears involved in bile extraction die from Hepatobiliary system cancers – diseases affecting the liver and biliary tract. Doctors speculate that the cancer is caused by chronic inflammation and infections arising from the bile extraction. This suggests consumers frequently buy bile sourced from severely ill bears. In addition, the diseased organ is exactly the one that produces the bile. This raises serious doubts about the safety and efficacy of this kind of treatment.

The same report also stated that, while bear gallbladder does have medical value, it is not irreplaceable. Researchers in Chinese medicine have long advised that certain medicinal herbs could replace bear bile. In traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile has bitter-cold nature, believed to clear internal heat, relieve spasms, brighten eyesight, protect the liver and get rid of worms. Many herbs – such as dandelion and wild chrysanthemum – are believed to achieve the same result.

Guizhen Tang has hit back at these assertions. The company said: “Some people have put out misleading information claiming there are more than 50 medicinal herbs that can replace bear bile. But they have only taken into consideration the functions of clearing heat and detoxification. Professor Deng Minglu, animal section chief in the natural medicine division of the state Food and Drug Administration, has shown evidence that bear-bile powder contains taurodeoxycholic acid. It cannot be replaced by any medicinal herb.”

Jill Robinson, founder and executive director of Animals Asia, told Xinmin Weekly that China produces 7,000 kilograms of bear bile each year, but consumes only 4,000 kilograms. A huge quantity is hoarded. Zu Shuxian also stated: “China is an exporter of bear bile – it is seriously over-producing. Many businesses have tried to use false advertising to promote the use of other ‘health products’ and shampoos to broaden the market.” A brand of Korean toothpaste sold in China – LG bamboo salt toothpaste – also contains bear bile, he said.

In a bid to deal with growing public concern, on March 1 Guizhen Tang posted on its website a 2006 press release from the State Council press office covering the issue of bear farming and bear-bile extraction. It also highlighted words from Wang Weiru deputy director of the wildlife conservation division at the State Forestry Administration

“Current conditions and techniques for bile extraction have improved fundamentally. Practices with metal cages and metal pipes have been reformed and painless operations are now used. Some organisations and individuals have used old or illegal case photos and videos to depict Chinese ‘live bear bile extraction’. This is a distortion of the facts. Obviously these groups are misleading donors in a bid to raise funds.”

But Zhang Xiaohai told National Business Daily that even if it were true that the iron jackets and metal tubes are no longer in use, this would by no means ensure the bears are no longer in distress. And, to determine whether or not bears currently held in captivity suffer, Bai Yipeng has this to say: he would like to invite a Guizhen Tang technician to prove the process is painless by extracting his own bile without anaesthetic.

Some media outlets have reported that Guizhen Tang’s plan to launch on the stock-market has already been checked and approved by the local government. In an interview with First Financial Daily, the company’s founder, Qiu Shuhua, said that bear farming has long been approved by the Forestry Administration and producing bear bile powder was awarded the necessary permits by the Ministry of Health in 1995.

It is all legal, she said, adding: “If you are against us, you are also against the state.”

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from black bear protection campaigner

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