500 Bears to be Rescued from Chinese Bile Farms

HONG KONG, China, September 5, 2000 (ENS) - Hundreds of Chinese bears confined in cages no larger than their own bodies and milked for their bile for use in traditional Asian medicine will themselves find relief through the efforts of a small Hong Kong organization.

Hong Kong based Animals Asia Foundation has signed an agreement with officials from the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing and the Sichuan Forestry Department to free 500 endangered bears from a lifetime of captivity and suffering on bear farms in China.

The agreement, which has approval from China's Central Government Department on Wildlife Administration, is the strongest message yet to come out of mainland China related to bear farming.

The agreement declares that the groups are united in supporting the manufacture and use of non-endangered herbal and synthetic substitutes to bear bile and, together, would encourage current and potential consumers to refuse the use of any product containing bear bile.

Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation says her group will first close the worst farms in Sichuan province and build a sanctuary for 500 bears. Then they inted to expand this initiative to other provinces in China.


Jill Robinson inspects a bear bile farm in Sichuan, China. (Photo courtesy Animals Asia Foundation)
Eventually Robinson aims to end bear farming and provide care and refuge for all the remaining bears.

"Our decision to rescue these 500 bears has not been taken lightly," Robinson said. "In reality, they are a small percentage of the current number of 6,992 bears held on 247 farms across China. However, they are also animals which have spent up to 22 years behind bars and desperately need help in the form of extensive veterinary care, physiotherapy and integration."

The agreement was formed as a result of a government approved survey of 11 bear farms in Sichuan during August 1999. Animals Asia, the China Wildlife Conservation Association and the Sichuan Forestry Department investigated the best and the worst bear farms operating in the province.

The investigators were shown every aspect of bear farming operations by the officials and farmers including varying methods of cage confinement and surgery, and different techniques of bile extraction.

Robinson said that on the worst farms hundreds of bears were held in tiny cages, some measuring no more than 1.5 by .7 by .7 metres (12 by 2.2 by 2.2 feet). "None of the bears on these farms had free access to water and neither did they enjoy enrichment, exercise, stimulation or a varied diet. Small indents for the feeding tray, directly under the bears' chins forced them to lie on their stomachs whilst eating, so that bile would be easier to extract," she said.

The investigators found that 50 ml (1.7 ounces) of bile was taken twice a day via metal catheters which, in nearly all cases, had caused chronic infection and pain.

"Most of the bears exhibited severe stereotypic behaviour and many displayed head wounds from banging their heads against the bars of the cage in a pathetic attempt at stimulation, or had broken and worn down teeth from biting the cage bars," Robinson said.

Investigators found some bears have claws which have grown over and punctured their pads because they are not worn down as they would be in the wild. Some have scars running three to four feet long along their bodies as a result of literally growing into the cage bars. The catheters themselves are responsible for open wounds and cause chronic infection and pain.


Two bear cages on a farm in Sichuan
"Despite observing bears on farms where some consideration was given to their welfare, we remain united that bear farming is not a viable, ethical or acceptable practice and will continue in our work to close the industry down," Robinson pledged.

The Chinese officials have assured Robinson there is no consideration of changing the official policy, which prohibits the export of bile and the expansion of bear farming. No new bear farm licenses are being issued.

To get the bear bile to market, some farmers dry it themselves, using ordinary toasters in some cases, and sell to customers directly. Other, richer farmers, have their own factories where they process the bile. The poorer farmers will generally sell bile to the richer ones.

The current price is 2,000 yuan renminbi per kilogram ($US241 per 2.2 pounds).

The original farms we visited last year and those with just a small number of bears will be the first to close - these are deemed to be the worst, where the bears are suffering the most.

Animals Asia Foundation has been given access to a temporary rescue centre in Sichuan by the local government, where the rescue will begin at the end of September while the sanctuary itself is being built.

Robinson believes that the farmers will be amenable to the rescue as many are suffering reduced profits because of reduced demand. "We will be offering some level of compensation for two reasons. The first is that, despite the suffering on their farms, we do not feel that the farmers should suffer a loss of livelihood because of our actions and because of something they began in the 1980s which was encouraged by the government as a responsible initiative to help save bears in the wild."

"The second reason we are offering compensation," said Robinson, "is that the potential exists for farmers to sell the parts of their bears onto the black market in order to recoup some funding, if we don't. We do not want to risk the bears being killed in this way, or to risk an increased black market in bear parts."

Conservationists now believe that bear farming has increased, not reduced, the impact to wild bears. It has created two tiers of consumers with the poorer ones buying bile from farms, while the wealthier ones still want the real thing in the form of whole gallbladders from bears caught and killed in the wild. Bear populations throughout the world continue to be reduced as a result.


Robinson holds a bear.
Animals Asia Foundation intends to start with approximately 20 to 40 bears. They will be moved to the rescue centre. There veterinarians will operate on them one by one before each is moved into small, temporary enclosures to begin physiotherapy and integration procedures.

Physiotherapy involves first encouraging the bears to climb up the bars of the larger enclosures to enable movement of limbs which have never been used before. This is achieved using tempting treats such as honey sandwiches or ice cream. Then the bears are encouraged to play with toys, and then gradually introduced to each other so the physiotherapy can be achieved through play wrestling.

Robinson estimates the rescued bears will need months of surgery and physiotherapy and integration before they are ready to be released into the sanctuary.

The veterinary director for Animals Asia, Dr. Gail Cochrane, operated on seven bears rescued earlier now housed in Pan Yu, China which is managed by Animals Asia and funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Robinson began working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 1986 in Hong Kong as Asia representative and exposed bear farming in 1993. In 1998, she established the Animals Asia Foundation.

The rescue, rehabilitation and sanctuary program is expected to cost in excess of US$3 million. It will be funded by the Animals Asia Foundation through donations from the public.

Find out more at: http://www.animalsasia.org