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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 June, 2005, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Sanctuary calls for end to bear farms
Workers remove one of the 10 black bears rescued from a bile farm by animal activists in Shenyang
A kilo of bear bile can fetch up to $1,000 in the Chinese market
A bear sanctuary in China has called on the Chinese government to come up with a "strategic plan" to eliminate the practice of bear farming in the country.

Around 7,000 Asiatic black bears are currently being farmed in China for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.

But charity Animals Asia - founded by British woman Jill Robinson - has long campaigned for the practice to end, and in 2000 established a sanctuary for farmed bears, with government approval, in Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Now the charity has called on the government to co-ordinate a permanent end to the farms.

"If the government really came out with a strategic plan tomorrow to end bear farming, we could put an enormous amount of work and effort into this," Ms Robinson told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We don't have to build sanctuaries all over the place - although it would be nice - [but] you can at least enrich a bear's life, make a bear happy, on site.

"We could use many of these farms, where they have breeding areas, to turn these bears out into the enclosures they already have, and provide far-reaching enrichment programmes, to keep them busy and happy throughout the rest of their days."

Ending bear farming

The official China Wildlife Conservation Association has in the past said it will "achieve the final objective of terminating bear farming", but has admitted there are "many imperfections".

So far, Animals Asia's bear sanctuary has taken in 185 bears.

They are housed in eight compounds, one of which is for disabled bears.

Bears progress from the quarantine block to a forested area once they have recovered from their injuries and are able to socialise with other bears.

Jill Robinson
I almost feel like my life began when I found the bears
Jill Robinson
Ms Robinson founded Animals Asia in 1993 after observing the conditions in one bear farm.

She said the bears she saw "could hardly move" and were unable to do anything but put their arms through the bars of their cages.

"I knew nothing about the practice of bear farming," she added.

"As I was walking around this horrible basement and looking at this catalogue of injuries to these animals, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was a female bear with her paw stretched thorough the bars of the cage... I took her paw, and instead ripping my arm from my shoulders, she squeezed it rhythmically.

"It was something that I've never forgotten, and really set me on a path towards ending bear farming in China."

Ms Robinson, who described herself as a "frustrated non-vet," had been involved in animal welfare since leaving school.

Initially she began trying to help the bears by building relationships and negotiating with government departments. But in 2000, the Chinese authorities agreed to the establishment of the Chengdu sanctuary.

"We were incredibly lucky," she added.

A philanthropist friend, based in Hong Kong, gave her the money to set up the sanctuary properly.

"He invited me to come along for breakfast, and within half an hour of meeting him, he said, 'I pledge you your first million dollars.'

"I nearly fell off my chair. I'd never been offered anything like that before."


This money gave Robinson enough funds for the first two years of the sanctuary.

It has expanded dramatically since then and now employs 70 local workers.

One is Wu Guo Jen, a former local furniture maker, who told Outlook he was "so impressed, I decided to quit my job and start here".

Moon-crested bear in a cage at a bear farm
The bears often arrive having suffered horrific injuries
However, the centre needs large amounts of money just to keep going.

With wages, veterinary costs, feed and bear care, the monthly cost of the sanctuary exceeds $60,000; each individual enclosure for 48 bears needs $200,000 to build.

And every bear needs surgery to remove the steel or plastic tubes that had been inserted to remove the bile, meaning they all need at least one operation.

Meanwhile, Ms Robinson has pledged to spend the rest of her life looking after the bears.

"I couldn't think of a nicer place to end my days," she added.

"I almost feel like my life began when I found the bears. We grow as a foundation and I grow as a person."

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