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Do you have the guts? Bear Bile farming and its undoing

With improving medical technology, a vast number of medicines have been discovered or invented to help relieve the pain and suffering of human patients. Most human patients can fully recover after treatment and continue to live blissfully. As they celebrate and thank the doctors and nurses, the sacrifices during the production of medicines are hardly mentioned. Even when attention is drawn to the production of medicines, most people would only pay tribute to the doctors, researchers, pharmacists and others in the field. Very rarely will anyone be concerned about the expense of animal welfare in the production process? Many types of medicines are extracted from animals who are diminished to suffering in exchange for the recovery of human patients. One of the examples is bear bile.

For thousands of years bear bile has been commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and was first used in treating illnesses such as epilepsy, haemorrhoids and heart pain. Bear bile contains a much larger proportion of ursodeoxycholic acid than other common animals like cows and pigs, which was discovered later in the early 1900s. Ursodeoxycholic acid disperses cholesterol and so it reduces the amount of cholesterol released by the liver, hence it is medically proven that the acid can dissolve and break down gallstones, so as to cure pancreatitis and other liver diseases. It is also believed that bear bile can treat ailments such as hangovers, acne and sore throat, which further fuelled its demand. Thus, bear farms were derived to increase the supply. These farms are mostly located in Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where moon bears and sun bears are densely populated.

So what is the problem behind bear bile farming?

Being kept in small cages, the bears are unable to stand on all fours or to turn around. They are forced into cages as cubs and as they grow bigger, the same cage is often used. Cramped spaces induce stress and anxiety. These captive bears use their teeth to bite the metal cages, hopeful for an escape route. Of course, they never succeed, and they end up having very few or no teeth. Some of them are forced to stay inside the cage permanently, and they die mainly due to starvation or diseases associated with the liver and gallbladder.

Needless to say, the bile extraction process is brutal. The extraction methods vary from farm to farm, but the most common practice is ‘free drip’, in which a permanent open passage is created. A hole is created in the bear’s gallbladder through the abdomen. Sometimes, catheters, syringes and pipes are used to drain the bile from the bears’ abdomen directly. The entire process is extremely traumatic, causing distress and discomfort. As the process is rarely performed by veterinarians, the bears usually suffer from infections and may even develop malignant tumours, leading to a slow, painful death.

Apart from selling it in the form of tablets and powder, manufacturers have also added bear bile into skincare products, toothpaste and even tea to expand the market. It may seem as if bear bile is a popular medicine in the country. The reality being, a shocking 87% of Chinese people actually oppose the mere idea of bear bile farming, according to a finding from Animals Asia, an organisation dedicated to ending the horrendous practice of bear bile farming.

Research shows that there are cruelty-free and plant-based alternatives that yield medicine serving the same purpose as bear bile, and it is clinically agreed that it is not essential to intake bear bile. People can simply live healthily without it.

Currently, bear bile farming is banned in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, however, there are around 10,000 bears being held captive in Chinese bear farms. With the help of organisations such as Animals Asia and Free the Bears, sanctuaries are built in these countries to rescue bears from the farms and transfer them to a safer and enriched environment for them to live the rest of their lives.

There is an increasing awareness growing towards the issue and the medical field, to shun the use of bear bile. More and more pharmaceuticals have begun cutting their stocks. Moreover, the biggest bear bile buyer Kai Bao also announced that they would pursue the study of bear bile alternatives. These suggest that the all-rounded market demand for bear bile is shrinking, and with the help of various organisations and wildlife advocates, hopefully, this cruel, unnecessary practise will come to an end.

Author: Kate Cheung

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