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Lucky few find sanctuary from horror of Chinese bear farms

Thousands of animals are being driven to madness. Stephen Vines reports on attempts to save them
Boris a rather confusingly named female Asian black bear, is one of the luckiest creatures in China: she even has physiotherapy when she needs it. She and seven others are inmates of China's first bear sanctuary, which opened yesterday in the town of Panyu, near the Hong Kong border.

Minutes away a vast new city is rising at a frenetic pace, but in a corner of a farm filled with chickens, fruit trees and vegetables, the tranquillity was broken only by the clashing of cymbals as a traditional lion dance ushered in the formal inauguration ceremony.

The normally playful bears were shy - possibly the noise reawakened dark memories of their previous home on one of China's 480 bear farms, where they lived until being rescued by the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW).

At the time they were living in conditions described as "absolutely dreadful" by Gail Cochrane, a Hong Kong-based vet who examined them. They were in crates so small that they could barely move, scalded by their own urine. Nor was this unusual for most of the 7,600 black bears still on the farms.

Three years ago Jill Robinson, IFAW's Hong Kong-based representative, made a clandestine visit to a farm close to Macau. She said: "I've never seen animals kept in such appalling conditions." The bears had catheters sticking out of their backsides, oozing with blood. Some had severe head wounds from banging their heads on the bars of their cages to relieve the boredom.

Like the bears Ms Robinson saw, Boris and her friends are still scarred from trying to turn in their cages and getting caught on the wire. They were suffering from extreme stress through boredom and unnatural confinement, which caused their behaviour to alternate between aggression and nervousness. All the bears needed surgery to remove the catheters inserted into their gall bladders to collect bile, which is widely used in Chinese medicines. In most cases the tubes were so carelessly inserted that they produced serious infection.

The collection of bile, and the establishment of bear farms to produce it, became a growing fad in the 1980s. Scientific evidence shows that bear bile is helpful in dissolving gallstones and alleviating liver complaints, but Chinese medical practitioners began claiming it was a virtual cure- all. Bile was added to shampoos, allegedly to make hair shiny, and throat lozenges. "It's an appalling waste," said Ms Robinson. "A lot of people got rich very quickly on spurious claims that they had a product which used the strength of a wild animal to help humans."

IFAW quickly realised that the trade in bile could not be stopped unless a herbal alternative was developed, and the charity is co-operating with Peking's traditional Chinese medicine administration to research substitute products. But belief in the potency of bear bile persists. Song Huieang, an official with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, thought a lot of educational work needed to be done. Reflecting official wariness, he said closing the farms would be a "time consuming process". As officials stressed at yesterday's bear sanctuary opening, the government wants to see tighter regulation and better conditions at bear farms.

The Panyu sanctuary is a very small start. Of nine bears that were rescued, one has died, seven have been restored to full health and one remains crippled but otherwise healthy. "We call them fat bastards," said Ms Cochrane proudly, referring to their impressive weight gain since moving to the sanctuary, where they are cautiously exploring their new-found freedom. At first they would not leave the concrete paths, because grass was unfamiliar to them.

Ms Robinson hopes China will see the Panyu sanctuary as a prototype, encouraging local people to set up similar ventures. As a minimum IFAW hopes to establish some other centres to treat released farm bears.

"These are the luckiest eight bears in China," said David Chu, a businessman and Hong Kong legislator who donated land on his farm to create the sanctuary. He is aware that, at best, the sanctuary can only set an example and increase awareness of cruelty to animals. "Animal welfare is not a commonly accepted concept in China," he said. "But as the standard of living increases, as education increases, it is inevitable that more attention will be paid to this."