Bear Farming and the Trade in Bear Bile

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Brief Summary of Bear Farming and Trade in Bear Bile
Laura E. Tsai (2008)


Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, have been hunted and killed for their gallbladders for thousands of years. Bear gallbladders contain bile, a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine that is believed to cure a variety of illnesses, from heart conditions to eye irritation.

In the 1980's, as China's wild bears became scarce, the government initiated bear farming in a supposed attempt to protect wild populations. Wild bears were caught, put in very small cages, and had tubes surgically implanted into their abdomens to draw out, or "milk" their bile twice daily. This process is incredibly painful to the bears, who cry out, chew on their paws, and sometimes try to kill themselves to stop the pain. Today about 12,000 bears are confined to this cruelty in China, Vietnam, and Korea. Their suffering is unnecessary, as herbal alternatives to bear bile widely exist. These alternatives are just as effective, and are much cheaper to buy and produce. It has also become clear that bear farming has not improved the population of wild bears in China. Many people believe that wild bear bile is more potent, and thus hunting of wild bears continues, despite its prohibition by China's Wildlife Protection Law.

This problem is not limited to moon bears in Asia. Asian communities around the world are creating a demand for bear bile, and the popularity of traditional Chinese medicine has spread to other cultures as well. As a result, seven of the world's eight bear species are threatened by hunting and international trade in bear parts. American bears are also killed for their gallbladders, which are sold in the United States or smuggled abroad, where they are worth more than their weight in gold.

Several animal welfare groups have brought the plight of these bears to the forefront, and have negotiated with officials in bear-farming countries. As a result, the Chinese government has agreed to release 500 bears to a sanctuary, about half of which have been released to date. Still much needs to be done to protect these magnificent animals from this unnecessary cruelty.

Overview of Bear Farming and the Trade in Bear Bile
Laura E. Tsai (2008)

Bears throughout the world are exploited for their bile, which is considered a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Asiatic black bears in China, South Korea, and Vietnam suffer on bile farms, where they are kept in small cages and painfully "milked" for their bile for the duration of their lives. Wild bears are also targeted, as their bile is considered more potent. As a result, American black bears, whose population is still healthy, are the new target of both legal and illegal hunting and trade of their parts.

The laws regulating bear farming are few. Bear farming is legal in China, where about 7,000 bears suffer on farms. China's Wildlife Protection Law lists Asiatic black bears under Class II protection, allowing for a limited number of permits to kill wild "nuisance" animals each year. The law also encourages domestication, breeding, and utilizing endangered wildlife resources. However, killing wild bears and international trade in bear parts is illegal, although the law is rarely enforced. Many wild bears in China are killed, and an illegal international trade thrives. 

Although bear farming has been illegal in South Korea since 1992, over 1,300 bears remain captive on farms while farmers hope that legal farming will resume. Wild bears over the age of ten can be legally killed for their gallbladders in South Korea. There is also thought to be a black market in bile between South Korea and China. In 2005, the Vietnamese government agreed to slowly phase out bear farming. However, the methods used to extract bile are even more inhumane than those used elsewhere, and over 3,400 bears continue to suffer on farms in Vietnam.

The laws regulating trade in bear gallbladders and bile are inconsistent and difficult to enforce. Asiatic black bears are currently listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and on Appendix I of the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans the trade of Asiatic black bears and their parts. However, American bears are on Appendix II, which allows for some trade. As it is nearly impossible to differentiate between bear species from their gallbladders, Asiatic black bears are often illegally traded internationally. 

For CITES to be effective, international cooperation is essential. Although all of the bear farming nations are signatories to CITES, they have failed to implement the trade controls necessary to enforce the agreement. The CITES Management Authority in China is even trying to implement a system in which bile from farmed Asiatic black bears could be traded internationally. CITES is also limited in that it only address international trade; trade occurring within a country's borders is regulated solely by the individual country.

In the United States, trade in bear parts is regulated by the federal Lacey Act and a patchwork of state laws. The Lacey Act makes is a federal offense to buy, sell, or transport in interstate commerce any wildlife parts which were taken in violation of a federal, state, or foreign law. As written, the Lacey Act should be effective against poachers as well as smugglers. However, the Lacey Act rarely leads to convictions. Without the resources to enforce various laws, few violators are caught. Those that are benefit from widely inconsistent state laws. Some states allow for hunting of bears, some allow for trade, and some states do not regulate bear hunting or trade at all. As such, hunters caught with gallbladders in a no-hunting state can easily claim they are from bears in a state where hunting is permitted. Similarly, smugglers can illegally acquire gallbladders in one state, then transport them to another where trade is legal. 

Penalties for violating hunting or trading laws also vary widely from state-to-state. For example, a trafficker in Colorado may face up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine, while a trafficker in Kentucky may receive only a $100 fine. In such a lucrative business, where gallbladders overseas are worth more than their weight in gold, heftier penalties need to be in place if they are intended to deter future conduct.

Due to the current failure of federal and state laws to combat the bear-parts trade, Congress is currently considering the Bear Protection Act of 2008. If passed, this bill would amend the Lacey Act to further protect bears from becoming victims of illegal hunting and trade of their gallbladders and bile. It would do so by making state laws more consistent, and extending protections to bears affected by the gallbladder trade in the same manner that other wildlife species are currently protected. However, even if passed, the bill would not affect legal hunting of bears. By continuing to allow hunting with few resources to ensure it is done legally, bears are still at risk. 

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