Future of wild bears threatened by trade in body parts

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The cruelty is unspeakable. Large numbers of fully-grown bears are kept in small coffin-like cages while bile is "milked" from their open wounds. These are the bear farms of China; already documented and much criticised.

The cruelty is unspeakable. Large numbers of fully-grown bears are kept in small coffin-like cages while bile is "milked" from their open wounds. These are the bear farms of China; already documented and much criticised.

Yet UN laws protecting endangered species are failing to check a burgeoning international trade in bear products, a report claims today. And the trade is now becoming a threat to wild bears everywhere, says the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).

This morning, WSPA activists are launching a campaign against bear farms outside the Chinese embassy in London, with a number of celebrities in support. "I am shocked to learn of the appalling cruelty involved," said the actor Stephen Fry. "These farms must be closed down."

The farms have come to underpin an industry which WSPA estimates is worth more than £70m a year to China. Bear bile and gall bladders are widely used in the traditional Chinese medicine industry. The bile, a greenish-brown alkaline fluid, contains a substance called ursodeoxycholic acid which is believed to have beneficial medicinal effects. It has been known for centuries and used on a small scale, as bears had to be hunted and killed to obtain it.

In the early 1980s the North Koreans devised a method for extracting bile from live bears by inserting a tube into the bile duct or gall bladder. In 1985 the Chinese set up large-scale bear farms. By 1998, the report says, there were 247 farms holding 7,002 bears.

The daily bile extractions can lead to abscesses, septicaemia and inflammation of the gall bladder, which can be fatal. The bears receive a poor diet and veterinary care and suffer severe mental distress from being in such cramped surroundings. They are unable to stand up and some chew their paws to relieve the pain.

Yet the farms are booming, both creating and feeding a big demand for bear bile and other bear products, even though the trade is outlawed by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

"Chinese bear farms are aggressively marketing their bear bile products to such an extent that they are massively over-producing this product and illegally exporting their stockpiles around the world on a large scale," said Victor Watkins, the WSPA campaign director. "As a result, they are bringing bear bile products to the attention of more and more users and creating an upward spiral in demand not only for farmed bile but also for wild bear gall."

Gall from wild bears is seen as particularly potent and fetches a high price. Wild bears are being poached around the world to satisfy demand.

A total of about 7,000kg of bear bile is produced in China each year, WSPA says, of which about 4,000kg is consumed in the country itself.

WSPA investigators surveyed traditional Chinese medicine shops in the USA, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. Bear products were found in 60 per cent of the shops, the report says.

The society is calling for trade restrictions to be tightened at a meeting of Cites in Chile next month. Greater protection for all bear species will also be called for.

"This blatant illegal trade has put a price on the head of every living bear," said Mr Watkins. "China's bear farms are the root cause of this problem and urgent action needs to be taken to close them down. They have nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with profit."

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