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Test kit targets cruel bear trade

11 June 07 23:02 GMT
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News, The Hague

Wildlife campaigners are turning to science in a bid to halt bear farming.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has a test kit that will detect the presence of material from bears in medicines or other products.

Its researchers believe more than 12,000 bears are kept on farms in China, Vietnam and South Korea.

The group wants to stop the practice of extracting bile, which is used in everything from hair shampoo to wine and medicinal tonics.

The test kit was launched at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in The Hague.

Trade in bear products is prohibited under CITES regulations.

But in a report also launched at the meeting, WSPA found remedies containing extract of bear bile from Chinese farms being sold in traditional medicine shops in Australia, Canada and the US, as well as several east Asian countries.

The organisation hopes that customs and wildlife trade officers will use the kits to detect illegal products and so reduce demand from traditional medicine practitioners.

Positive results

Looking something like a home pregnancy test, the kit detects the presence of bear albumin, a common protein found in many body tissues.

Kate Sanders, from the University of Adelaide and a scientific consultant to WSPA, said trials by Australian and Canadian authorities had produced encouraging results.

"So far we've had positive detection of meat, blood, dried and fresh galls, teeth, bones, skin, fur, as well as the patent bear medicines that originate on China's bear farms," she told BBC News.

WSPA and other animal welfare organisations regard bear farms as unacceptably cruel.

Animals are confined to cages too small to allow them to stand up, with a catheter bringing bile from the gall bladder to a hole in the skin. Bile is drained out each day.

The substance in demand is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) which is prescribed for a range of conditions including fever and inflammation.

Synthetic versions of UDCA have been available for several decades.

WSPA is hoping that the kits can be deployed from October.

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