Asia is the wild home of five species of bear, including the Sun Bear, Asiatic Black (or Moon) Bear, Sloth Bear, Brown Bear and Giant Panda. All Asian bears are in decline due largely to habitat destruction and the commercial trade in bears and their parts.
Asia’s wild bears are in large demand as pets and for use in gourmet cuisine, and traditional medicine.
Bear paws are considered both a "tonic" food and a gourmet delicacy for the wealthy, with bear meat served openly at restaurants throughout Asia and available through black markets around the world.
Despite synthetically available alternatives, the bile from bear gallbladders is an especially coveted traditional medicine in some Asian countries. This demand is driven by its use as a treatment for conditions as broad as sore throats, haemorrhoids, sprains, bruising, muscle ailments, epilepsy and as a regular tonic to ‘clear’ the liver. As many Asian economies rise, so does the demand for these high value products.
To meet this growing demand, bile extraction facilities (also referred to as ‘bear bile farms’) hold bears in tiny cages and ‘milk’ bile from their gallbladders using ultrasound equipment and large needles or catheters.
TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network, estimate that 14,000 bears are held in farms across China, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Lao PDR and Myanmar.
Investigations have found that very few, if any, of these facilities are capable of breeding bears in captivity, and instead are thought to capture large numbers of wild bears to stock their operations.
In some countries, like China, the practice of bear bile extraction is legal. However, often live bears and bear products are traded across international borders, which is illegal under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Organisations like TRAFFIC, Free the Bears and Animals Asia are working tirelessly to investigate this trade, encourage stronger legislation and enforcement, educate consumers and care for bears that have been rescued from the trade.
To prevent the decline and possible extinction of Asian bear populations, management and education are urgently needed to stop both the supply and demand in the trade of these captivating animals.