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Watch Adam Brookes reports
"Chinese people are becoming more aware of the cruelty of the trade"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 25 July, 2000, 01:01 GMT 02:01 UK
Sanctuary is a bear necessity
Chinese black bear
Chinese black bears are kept in appalling conditions
By Adam Brookes in Beijing

A Hong Kong-based charity has signed an agreement with the Chinese Government to launch a rescue of hundreds of endangered black bears from bear farms in China.

Thousands of Asiatic black bears are kept in farms across China, often in appalling conditions, for their bile, the liquid produced in their gall bladders.

Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and can command a high price.

Animals Asia Foundation plans to take 500 bears away from the farms and to place them in a new sanctuary.

Bears face 'absolutely horrific' life

On a bear farm in west China, cages are lined against damp peeling walls.

Caged: Life for bears is 'absolutely horrific
Caged: Life for bears is 'absolutely horrific'
In each rusting iron cage, there is an Asiatic black bear. The tell-tale sign is the crescent of white fur across its chest.

The animals weigh 136 kilograms (300 lbs). They cannot stand up, or turn or stretch.

Each has a grotesque steel catheter protruding from its belly.

It is from the opening that the valuable bile is tapped twice a day. Maddened by their confinement, the bears rub their skin raw against the cages and shatter their teeth on the bars.


If we don't compensate the bear farmers, it's very likely that some of them will try to sell the bears on the black market and they'd be able to get a substantial amount for gall bladders, for paws, for skin, for fat, for skulls

Jill Robinson, Animals Asia Foundation
Black bear cubs are born into the bile trade. There are 7,000 bears on China's farms.

Gail Cochrane is a vet. She describes such a life as absolutely horrific.

"They're lying there with holes in their abdomens, with massive skin problems, with scarring all over them, with all the physical problems because they're in these cages," she says.

"There's also the mental problems because they've got no mental stimulation.

"They're very intelligent animals, and they're shut up in a small box and all they have to amuse themselves is to bang their head off the bars."

Road to recovery

Gail and some helpers struggle to lift Cookie, a huge male black bear which has been anaesthetised and needs medical attention.

Cookie is rescued
Cookie is rescued
Gail spends part of her time working at the Panyu Bear Sanctuary in South China, where seven black bears - all of which have been rescued from the farms - now live.

Cookie is spread-eagled on the operating table, and Gail shaves the fur away so she can work on Cookies' infected ear.

Cookie spent years in a cage being tapped for his bile, because in traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed to have wide-ranging curative effects.

In medicine shops across China, bear bile is advertised as having properties that reduce high blood pressure, and reduce a range of internal afflictions.

Increasing awareness

However, animal welfare activists say that bile can easily be replaced by herbs and synthetic chemicals.


Doctors themselves are starting to recognise that as Chinese medicine is promoted across the world, and it shouldn't be promoted with this tag of cruelty attached to it

Jill Robinson
Jill Robinson runs Animals Asia Foundation, the international charity that is working to close down the bear farms.

She says Chinese people are becoming far more aware of the cruelty of the bear bile trade.

"A lot of young people are going on the net," she says.

"They're becoming more environmentally conscious. They're understanding more about animal welfare and they're absolutely understanding more about the replacements for bear bile in Chinese medicine.

Adam Brookes and the vials of bear bile medecine
Adam Brookes and the vials of bear bile medecine
"The doctors themselves are starting to recognise that as Chinese medicine is promoted across the world, it shouldn't be promoted with this tag of cruelty attached to it.

"Many, many thousands of them are joining us now to promote the herbs and to promote the synthetics."

Compensation issue

Jill's charity has signed an agreement with the Chinese government to take 500 black bears from the farms and put them in a new sanctuary which covers an area the size of 20 acres in Sichuan province.

What of the people whose livelihoods depend on the farms that she intends to close down?

"The bear farmers will be compensated," Ms Robinson says. "We have no wish to hurt anyone's livelihood.

Jill Robinson: We have no wish to hurt anyone's livelihood
Jill Robinson: We have no wish to hurt anyone's livelihood
"The other point is that if we don't compensate the bear farmers, it's very likely that some of them will try to sell the bears on the black market and they'd be able to get a substantial amount for gall bladders, for paws, for skin, for fat, for skulls."

The bile trade is not what it was. Because the bears are endangered, their bile cannot be traded internationally.

Many of the farmers are losing money. After Jill Robinson has pulled 500 of the Asiatic Black bears to safety, 6,500 will still remain on the farms.

The bears are assets of declining value, and they face a painful and uncertain future.

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See also:

05 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
'Torture chamber' agony of China's bears
29 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese ponder medicine alternatives
27 Jul 99 | World
Bears face extinction
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