Detailed Discussion of Bears Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Laura E. Tsai
- Animal Legal and Historical Center
- Publish Date: 2008
- Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
II. BEAR BILE AND TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
Bear bile has been a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for 3,000 years. It has been used to cure various ailments, such as fever, gall stones, liver problems, heart disease, and eye irritation. The active ingredient in bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is more abundant in the bile of bears than in any other mammal.  Bile is excreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, where it is released into the stomach to aid in digestion.  The average bear produces 2 kilograms of dry bile powder per year. The price of bear bile varies by location, but investigators have found that bile sells for about US$410 per kilogram in China, an average wild bear gall bladder sells for US$33 per gram in Japan, and a whole bear gallbladder sells for about US$10,000 in South Korea.  Because there is now a surplus of bear bile, bear farmers have begun producing shampoo, wine, tea, and throat lozenges containing bile.
UDCA has proven to be effective, although medical practitioners now often claim that its effectiveness has been overrated. Veterinarians examining bile from farmed bears have also discovered that it is often contaminated with pus as a result of the conditions on bear farms. Further, both synthetic and herbal alternatives exist that are cheaper and more readily available. Synthetic UDCA is sometimes used in the West as an alternative to surgery for the treatment of gallstones, primary cirrhosis, autoimmune hepatitis, and colon cancer.Many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine prefer to use one of the fifty-four herbal alternatives, such as sage, rhubarb or dandelion, to cure various ailments.
III. BEAR FARMING
By as early as 1942, the Asiatic black bear was nearly extinct in South Korea as a result of over-hunting.  Numbers were also rapidly declining in China. As a result, North Korean scientists developed a procedure to extract bile from living bears. This technique caught on in China by the early 1980’s. The Chinese government believed that this would satisfy the demand for medicinal uses of bear bile without impacting China’s wildlife. They also encouraged bear farming (along with other types of animal farming) in poor areas to drive economic development.  By the early 1990’s, there were over 10,000 Asiatic black bears in confinement on over 400 bear farms in China alone. 
Bears on bile farms are subjected to painful procedures and are denied everything that is natural to them. On most farms, bears are kept in cages that are about 2.5 feet x 4.2 feet x 6.5 feet, which is so small that these 110 to 260 pound bears cannot turn around or sit up completely. Many bears have been found with scars from cages pressing into their bodies, and some have head wounds and broken teeth from banging and biting at the bars in a feeble attempt to free themselves.
Extraction of a bear’s bile is done in a process called “milking,” which is performed twice daily. A catheter, usually a steel or rubber tube, is surgically implanted into the bear’s abdomen. Veterinarians rarely perform this surgery, which results in roughly half of the bears dying from infections or other complications.  Bile is then drained from the catheter and collected by the farmer. Milking begins at age three, and continues for a minimum of five to ten years. Some bears who have been rescued were found in cages producing bile for twenty years or more. 
In 1996 the Chinese government banned the use of the catheter method of bile collection in favor of the “free drip” method, although many farmers were financially unable to implement the changes, and thus catheters are still widely used. The “free drip” method involves surgery to create an open hole in the bear’s abdomen through which bile freely drips out. This method was touted as more humane, yet has proven to be at least as inhumane, if not more so, than the catheter method. Bile often leaks back into the bear’s abdomen, which increases rates of infection and mortality. Further, farmers often have trouble keeping the hole open, as the bear’s body naturally tries to heal itself. This results in more painful surgery, and often the implantation of a small catheter to keep the hole permanently open. 
The filthy conditions on most farms lead the bears to suffer from further infections, worms, and other parasites. The bears’ muscles atrophy from confinement in such small cages for the duration of their lives. They are also extremely malnourished from a diet of grain mash or porridge, and their teeth and claws are often removed to prevent injuries to the farmers. Some bears even commit suicide to escape the endless suffering they experience on the farms. The few bears who have been rescued are not able to stand or walk without extensive therapy as a result of these conditions. 
Plans were in place in China to increase the numbers of bears on farms from 10,000 to 40,000 by the year 2000. However, following pressure from animal welfare groups and public outcry, the Chinese government agreed to reduce the number of bears on farms instead of increasing them. China has also agreed to stop issuing licenses to new farms. Today there are still about 7,000 bears suffering on farms in China.  Bear bile farming also exists to a lesser degree in South Korea and Vietnam. Although bear farming was declared illegal in 1992 in South Korea, over 1,300 bears still remain on 108 farms where farmers are holding them in the hope that legal farming will resume. There is also thought to be a black market in bile between South Korea and China.  Further, wild bears over the age of ten can legally be killed for their gallbladders in South Korea. The situation in Vietnam is improving, as the Vietnamese government made a commitment in 2005 to slowly phase out bear farming. However, the methods used in Vietnam are even more inhumane than those used elsewhere. Bears in Vietnamese farms may undergo multiple surgeries to extract bile from their gallbladders, from which they usually die after three or four surgeries. Other bears have their bile extracted by having their gallbladders punctured with long needles. Today there are still 3,410 bears on farms in Vietnam. 
Although bear farming was originally intended to protect wild populations from over-hunting, it has since become clear that it is having the opposite effect by stimulating the demand for bear bile as a result of lowered prices. Before the existence of bear farms the demand in China was about 500 kilos annually. Today the demand has risen dramatically, to about 4,000 kilos annually.  Further, those who can afford it still often prefer bile from wild bears because they believe it to be more potent than farmed bile. Finally, wild bears still serve as an illegal source of bears to stock existing farms. This is evidenced by a rescue group which found twenty percent of their bears missing limbs from traps.  Bear farms pay the equivalent of US$280 to US$400 for a wild cub, which is about ten times the monthly wage of a restaurant worker in China.  It has been estimated that there are as few as 12,000 to 18,000 wild Asiatic black bears left in China; however, this number is difficult to verify, as no reliable estimates exist.The Chinese government maintains that bile farming does not threaten wild bear populations, and that wild bears are plentiful. 
IV. THE INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN BEAR BILE
The demand for bear bile is fueled by a thriving international illegal trade. Bear bile and gallbladders have been smuggled across borders packed in coffee to hide their smell, and dipped in chocolate to pass as chocolate figs.  Bear gallbladders and bear paws (considered a delicacy) have been found in places ranging from the freezer of an apartment building to a downed airplane on an international flight.  Evidence of increased poaching of American black bears has also been found. These bears, which are still plentiful in North America, are now being targeted to fill the demand for bear bile as the number of Asiatic black bears declines. American black bears are also being targeted as a result of the increasing Asian population in the United States and Canada, which has created a demand for bear bile domestically.  In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, park rangers in the United States began finding bear carcasses missing only gallbladders and paws.  It was first believed that occasional hunters were at fault, but investigations have since uncovered evidence of large commercial organizations dealing in poaching and smuggling of bear parts. During a three-year sting titled Operation SOUP, 52 people were arrested and 300 gallbladders were seized in Virginia. Another investigation in Oregon led the police to bring racketeering charges against a ring that poached an estimated 50 to 100 bears per year for a decade. 
It has been estimated that 40,000 American black bears are legally killed in North America each year, and it is likely that an equivalent number are illegally poached for their gallbladders and paws.  Although the population of American black bears is currently stable, increased killing coupled with habitat loss could threaten the species within the next several years.  Further, because the size of a bear’s gallbladder does not depend on the age of the bear, poachers are killing cubs as well as adult bears. Killing cubs that have not yet reproduced may rush the species into a threatened state. 
American black bears are being poached both for international smuggling of their parts, as well as for sale in traditional Chinese medicine shops in the Unites States. Asiatic black bear parts are also smuggled into the United States, as consumers apparently value Asian bear bile over American bear bile.  An undercover investigation conducted in 2006 and 2007 by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) uncovered bear bile and gallbladders for sale in traditional Chinese medicine shops in cities across the United States, as well as in all of the countries investigated: Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. 
WSPA’s United States investigation revealed bear bile and gallbladders in six of the eight cities investigated: Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. No bear products were found in Washington, D.C. or Portland, Oregon. Out of 130 traditional Chinese medicine shops in these cities, illegal bear products were found in 20 shops (15%). Of the stores selling these products, 75% offered gallbladders, 22% offered bile powder or crystals, and 35% offered other products containing bear bile. The investigators suspected shopkeepers of passing farmed gallbladders for wild gallbladders (which demand a higher price). They also noted that it was difficult to determine the origin of the bear products, as some shopkeepers claimed the origin was American bears, with others claiming Chinese or Russian bears. Some shopkeepers knew the laws on selling bear parts in their state, while others were either unaware of the law or operated in flagrant disregard of the law. Some shopkeepers mentioned that bear farming was cruel and suggested herbal alternatives. 
V. LEGAL PROTECTIONS OF BEARS EXPLOITED FOR THEIR BILE
While bear farming is legal and encouraged in China, killing wild bears and trading bear parts internationally is illegal.  China’s Wildlife Protection Law, enacted in 1989, forbids the trade of many of China’s endangered species. It first divides each species into Class I and Class II protection lists. Asiatic black bears are under Class II protection, meaning that a limited number of permits are issued to kill wild “nuisance” animals each year.  Protection of wildlife in China apparently includes utilizing and breeding wildlife for human purposes, as evidenced by the bear farming industry. This policy is stated in Article 4 of the Wildlife Protection Law: “the state shall pursue a policy of strengthening the protection of wildlife resources, actively domesticating and breeding the species of wildlife, and rationally developing and utilizing wildlife resources.” Article 16 prohibits the hunting, catching, or killing of wildlife under state protection, but provides an exemption for research, domestication and breeding, exhibition, or other special purposes. Articles 22-24 address wildlife trade by prohibiting the sale, purchase, export, import, or transport of wildlife or their products. China law imposes heavy criminal penalties for violation of these articles, including the death penalty. However, few violators are caught or prosecuted because these laws are rarely enforced. 
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty which establishes guidelines for international trade of wildlife. CITES categorizes various species into Appendix I and Appendix II tables. Appendix I encompasses species threatened with extinction. Trade in these species or their parts is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. The Asiatic black bear has been listed on Appendix I since 1979. Appendix II encompasses species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid the species from becoming threatened. The American black bear is listed on Appendix II, which means that international trade in American black bear parts is legal, although it is regulated by a permit requirement.  Not only does this distinction threaten the American black bear, but it also further threatens the Asiatic black bear. As bear gallbladders and bile from different species are virtually indistinguishable, traders are able to illegally trade Asiatic black bear parts by falsely stating to Customs officials or other authorities that they derive from American black bears, or other Appendix II bears. 
International cooperation is necessary for CITES to be effective in combating the illegal trade in bear parts. China, Korea, Vietnam, and the United States are among the many countries that have signed CITES. As signatories, these countries acknowledge that trade in Appendix I species is illegal. However, many CITES parties have failed to implement the trade controls which are necessary to enforce the agreement. China is even looking for ways around the treaty, as the CITES Management Authority in China has created a list of standards for bear farms with the goal of permitting registered farms to trade Asiatic black bear parts internationally.  Those countries that have committed to enforcing the treaty have found it difficult to obtain the resources and personnel necessary to monitor all trade crossing their borders.  For example, customs agents in airports often do not inspect the luggage or clothing of passengers, despite the fact that seizures suggest this may be the most common method of smuggling bear parts.  Furthermore, CITES is limited as it only addresses international trade; trade occurring within a country’s borders is regulated solely by the individual country.
Under the Pelly Amendment, the President of the United States may impose trade sanctions against a country that violates or diminishes the effectiveness of an international environmental agreement such as CITES. The President may do so even if the conduct is legal in the offending country.  A Pelly action begins when the Secretary of Commerce or the Secretary of the Interior certifies to the President that a country is violating an international environmental treaty. The President may then limit or ban imports from that country. Pelly actions usually only amount to threats to ban trade, as threats have proven effective in the past.  Actual sanctions are rare, despite pressure from environmental groups for the President to get tougher on offending nations.  This is in part due to fear of violating the World Trade Organization (WTO), an international organization with significant enforcement powers. The WTO’s goal is to reduce barriers to international trade. There is debate over whether a Pelly Amendment sanction could withstand a challenge brought under the WTO’s Dispute Settlement System. In the past, the United States has had similar embargoes successfully challenged due to its obligations under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), the predecessor of the WTO.  Due to these issues, the United States is not likely to impose sanctions on China, or other bear-farming or bear-trading nations. Threats of sanctions are a bit more likely to occur, but are still unlikely, as the United States itself has failed to control the bear-parts trade. 
In the United States, trade in bear parts is regulated by the federal Lacey Act and a patchwork of state laws. These laws leave much to be desired, and problems with enforcement further hamper their effectiveness. The federal Lacey Act, first enacted in 1900, makes it a federal offense to buy, sell, or transport in interstate commerce any wildlife parts which were taken in violation of a federal, state, or foreign law. As such, it provides a legal remedy for violation of CITES. A conviction under the Lacey Act requires the prosecutor to prove that the defendant knew or should have known of the offense which violated the federal, state, or foreign law. If this knowledge exists, the defendant may be found guilty of a Lacey Act violation without personally violating the underlying law.  Therefore, the Lacey Act can be used to target traffickers as well as poachers. 
Although the Lacey Act appears to be a strong tool in thwarting the bear-parts trade, it rarely leads to convictions, as smugglers and poachers are rarely caught. Further, violators that are caught benefit from the inconsistencies in state and foreign laws regarding trade in wildlife. As it is nearly impossible to determine the origin of smuggled bear parts, prosecutors run into difficulty proving that a specific state or foreign law has been violated. 
The Lacey Act relies heavily on state law to combat the bear-parts trade within the United States. Laws regulating bear hunting and trading of bear parts differ drastically state-to-state, creating a patchwork of laws that make convictions very difficult. Twenty-nine states allow for hunting of American black bears, five states allow for in-state trade of bear parts, and sixteen states allow for out-of-state trade of bear parts.  As such, hunters caught with gallbladders from bears in a no-hunting state can claim they are from bears in a state where hunting is permitted. Similarly, smugglers are able to acquire gallbladders illegally in one state, and then transport them to another where trade is legal.  Four states – Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa have no laws regarding bear-parts trading, and no bears either. Traders are taking advantage of these unregulated states by smuggling in bear parts from states that prohibit hunting or trading. 
Penalties for violating hunting or trading laws also vary widely state-to-state. A trafficker in Colorado may face up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine, while a first-offense trafficker in Kentucky may receive only a $100 fine.  Federal sentencing guidelines dictate that the market value of the item must be at least $350 for a prosecution under the Lacey Act.  If a smuggler is caught with only one gallbladder he may avoid a Lacey violation because judges often attribute the value of a gallbladder to be $280, which is an estimate of what one could sell it for domestically. Judges often fail to take into account the fact that many of these gallbladders are shipped oversees where they are worth thousands of dollars.  In Operation SOUP, which resulted in fifty-two arrests, only nine people were convicted under the Lacey Act. Most of these violations resulted in two years of probation and a $1,000 to $2,000 fine, which is not much of a deterrent in such a lucrative business. 
Due to the current failure of federal and state laws to combat the bear-parts trade, Congress is currently considering the Bear Protection Act of 2008 (H.R. 5534). If passed, this bill would amend the Lacey Act to further protect bears from becoming victims of the illegal trade in their gallbladders and bile. Specifically, it would assist with enforcement of the Lacey Act by making state laws more consistent. The bill would do so by inserting the words “or bear viscera” at various places in the text of the Lacey Act, which extends protections to bears affected by the gallbladder trade in the same manner that other wildlife species are currently protected. It would make it illegal for any person to “import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce bear viscera.”  Bear viscera is defined as “the bodily fluids or internal organs of a bear, including its gallbladder and excluding its blood or brains.”  The Act has much support, and hearings are currently being held in the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans.
However, the Bear Protection Act still leaves much to be desired. Similar bills have been introduced in the past, but all have died in the committee to which they were referred. If passed, the Act would not affect state regulation of legal hunting of bears. By continuing to allow hunting with few resources to ensure it is done legally, American bears are still at risk. Trade of their parts is also likely to continue with the current inadequate numbers of wildlife inspectors and customs officials employed. Further, as long as the demand exists for bear gallbladders and bile, the trade is lucrative and will continue despite the best enforcement efforts. 
VI. RESCUE EFFORTS
Beginning in 1993, Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) has been at the forefront of the fight to rescue bears in bear-farming nations. Due to their negotiations and public awareness campaigns, over forty bear farms have been shut down.  As the bears can no longer survive in the wild due to injuries and a lack of survival skills, the bears are turned over to sanctuaries. Often these bears have to be euthanized as a result of serious injury or disease from their long periods in captivity on these terrible farms. Others are able to be rehabilitated after months of care and, in many cases, intensive surgery. 
In 2000, an agreement was signed between Chinese officials and the AAF to rescue 500 bears, with the long-term goal of ending bear farming in China.  The Chinese government has also agreed not to issue new bear farming licenses. The AAF was able to accomplish this feat by agreeing to compensate bear farmers for each bear rescued, and by helping farmers move into alternative areas of employment. The AAF has now saved 247 of these 500 bears.  Rescue efforts are slow due to funding constraints and limited space on existing sanctuaries. It is estimated that it will cost over $3 million to build a sanctuary and care for 500 bears for their first year of release.  The AAF is also showing signs of success in Vietnam. In 2005, the Vietnamese government committed to slowly phase out bear farming. In 2008, Vietnam’s first rescue center opened, with its first four bears rescued from the luggage compartment of a bus traveling within Vietnam. The facility is still under construction, but should have space for 200 bears by 2009. 
Although these rescue efforts are a great step in saving bears from being exploited for their gallbladders and bile, thousands more suffer on farms, and wild bears are being killed in increasing numbers around the world. The AAF and other organizations are working to raise public awareness in Asia about the horrors of bear farming and the trade in bear bile through the use of billboards and media attention. They are also working with governments and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to reduce demand by promoting herbal alternatives to bear bile.  There is some indication that the popularity of bear bile is beginning to decline as these alternatives become more available. Recent polls conducted in China by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and AAF revealed that farming of bear bile was condemned by 62.8 percent of the people polled, and 70.5 percent of the people polled refused to buy bear bile. Further, 85 percent preferred plant-based alternatives to bear bile. 
In the United States, public awareness campaigns may be even more effective. Few people know about the plight of bears in Asian bear farms, or the threat to our nation’s bear population from hunting and trade. Education and awareness could result in fewer stores carrying bear gallbladders and bile products, with stores offering alternatives to their customers instead. In a 2007 poll conducted by WSPA, 75 percent of American adults stated that bear farming should not continue if the treatment of bears on farms is proven to be inhumane.  If Americans were more aware of the threat to American bears, public outcry may lead to more consistent state laws or to the passage of the Bear Protection Act, which would make prosecution easier. However, with limited resources to ensure compliance with the law, the government needs to take more drastic measures to best protect bears, such as banning all bear hunting and trade in bear parts, and increasing punishments for those that violate the law.
Bear farming and the trade in bear bile is causing thousands of wild bears to be killed and captive bears to suffer intensely on bile farms. If governments upheld their international obligations under CITES these bears would be better protected. The United States should take the lead in shutting down this cruel trade, and encourage other bear-farming or bear-trading nations to follow suit. This could be accomplished through additional legislation and tougher penalties for poachers and smugglers, which would be more likely to deter them from participating in this practice. More resources need to be dedicated to enforcing these laws and prosecuting those that violate them, as well as informing the public of the issues. As American bears are the new target of this growing trade, the United States should consider the risk of failing to act effectively before the species enters a threatened state.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Traditional Medicine, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 The Humane Society of the United States, The Unbearable Trade in Bear Parts and Bile, available at http://www.hsus.org/wildlife/issues_facing_wildlife/wildlife_trade/the_unbearable_trade_in_bear_parts_and_bile/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Cruelty Free Alternatives to Bear Bile, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 Kim Todd, Kim Todd on Why Demand for a Traditional Chinese Medicine is Bad News for Bears, 2002-Dec Legal Aff. 54, available at http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/November-December-2002/story_todd_novdec2002.msp.
 American Embassy in China, Bear Bile Farming, available at http://www.beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Bear Bile Farming – China, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Bear Bile Farming – Korea, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Bear Bile Farming – Vietnam, available at http://www.animalsasia.org./
 See the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ report, From Cage to Consumer, available at www.wspa-usa.org/pages/2206_from_cage_to_consumer.cfm.
 Humane Society International – Asia, The Unbearable Trade in Bear Parts and Bile, available at http://www.hsiasia.org/.
 The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, available at http://www.iucnredlist.org/.
 See http://www.cites.org/.
 In roughly three decades, sanctions have been imposed only once, when President Clinton banned all wildlife products from Taiwan in 1993 as a result of the country’s role in trafficking endangered tiger and rhinoceros parts. The embargo was effective. Taiwan was not a member of GATT at the time, however.
 See World Society for the Protection of Animals, Summary of Bear Parts Trade Laws in the United States, available at http://www.wspa-usa.org/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Campaign, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, History, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 Animals Asia Foundation, Rescue, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 The Associated Press, Bears Harvested for Bile Get Refuge in Vietnam, available at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23995065/from/ET/
 Animals Asia Foundation, What Animals Asia is Doing, available at http://www.animalsasia.org/.
 International Fund for Animal Welfare, Promoting Herbal Alternatives, available at http://www.ifaw.org/.
Top of Page