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Downright Unbearable

Published 06/01/12
By Tracy Coppola, Born Free USA Program Associate

The following story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Born Free USA’s magazine, Animal Issues Digest.

I will never forget the first time I saw a bear in the wild. I was hiking over a small bridge in Juneau, Alaska, and stopped to marvel at the beauty of the wilderness surrounding me and the water beneath me.

All of a sudden and with very little fanfare, a juvenile black bear ran out of the dense forest and into the water to catch a large fish. From my respectful and safe distance, I quickly took a photo before leaving him to enjoy his meal in peaceful solitude. After all, this was his home and I was just a visitor.

And that is how it should be. At Born Free USA, we believe that, like all wildlife, bears belong in the wild, in their natural habitat, and without human interference. I imagine you feel the same.

But the truth of the matter is, in the United States and beyond, bears — majestic, beautiful and fiercely intelligent animals — are fighting for their lives like never before. All because of their gallbladders.

The Trade in Bear Gallbladders and Bile Derivatives

It’s hard to believe, but bear gallbladders and bile are bought and sold in the United States and throughout the world to use in traditional Asian medicines. This has been going on for centuries. But more recently, bear parts are being used in items such as shampoo, other toiletries and cosmetics. Exposing this trade for what it truly is — a brutal death sentence for bears around the world and a means by which poachers and profiteers can freely profit from their unscrupulous activity — is a core campaign for Born Free USA.

Why the gallbladder? Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is found in the bile of all mammals, but in higher concentrations in bears. It is considered to have certain healing properties, especially where some form of inflammation is concerned (cirrhosis of the liver, headaches, etc.).

UDCA was synthesized by Japanese scientists some 50 years ago, and is readily available without harming bears. Additionally, more than 50 herbal alternatives to the prescription of bear gallbladder or bile in traditional Asian medicine have been identified. One can practice traditional eastern medicine without cruelty to bears. In fact, many accredited traditional Chinese medical colleges and associations have publicly objected to the use of bear organs in medical remedies.

But, shamefully, a worldwide demand for bear gallbladder and bile and the presence of a profit-making industry remain. As long as this demand exists, bear conservation and welfare remains at risk. Everywhere.

The U.S. Trade

The bear gallbladder and bile trade thrives in the United States. Anywhere where bears are present, they are at risk of being poached to supply this trade.

The brutality of bear poaching for gallbladders is horrifying, and cases have been discovered from coast to coast. Bear cubs and adults have been discovered in the woods with their abdomens sliced open, their bodies left to rot. Undercover investigations have discovered a number of traditional Asian medicine shops selling bear bile products and intact gallbladders taken from wild bears. In the Shenandoah Mountains less than two hours from my home, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigation linked several states to a large, global network of illegal bear gallbladder trafficking.

A majority of states prohibit the trade. But shockingly, five states — Idaho, Maine, New York, Vermont and Wyoming — freely allow it, while others allow it if the bear was killed outside the state. Some, as is the case of Hawaii, have an active market but lack specific laws or regulations.

This “patchwork” of state laws is seriously problematic. Imagine being a law enforcement officer trying to enforce an existing state ban, when holding a bear gallbladder from a bear who could have been killed anywhere in the country – including a state where it’s legal. As a result unscrupulous individuals who profit from the bear trade are not deterred.

The International Trade

While American black bears are poached in the wild to supply the gallbladder trade, in China and Southeast Asia endangered Asiatic black bears are “farmed” for their bile. This means they are kept in tiny cages no larger than a telephone booth, often with their teeth and claws removed, while a metal or plastic catheter is inserted into their abdomens in order to extract bile. Grotesque as it sounds, they are constantly “milked” for their bile. If they survive, sometimes the bears can spend more than 30 years in these horrific conditions. It’s truly a living hell for the bears.

China is estimated to have 96 farms containing between 10,000 and 20,000 bears. To this day, Chinese bear farms aggressively market their bear bile products. In fact, and to the horror of conservationists worldwide, just recently China’s largest bear bile farm operator submitted an initial public offering application in order to be listed on the Chinese stock exchange and thus expand the farm from 400 bears to 1,200.

A Better Future?

But there is hope. In recent months, China has experienced a massive public outcry. People are coming out in record numbers to protest and challenge this trade. In direct response, two of the leading e-commerce sites in China already have banned the sale of bear gallbladders.

In China and Vietnam, our friends at Animals Asia Foundation are rescuing bears from bile factories and giving them a live worth living.

And in the United States, Born Free USA is vigorously campaigning to stop the bear gallbladder trade once and for all by targeting key states that have not yet acted to stop the commercialization of bear parts.

Bears everywhere deserve our help. The should be catching fish in a stream – not being sacrificed for human greed.

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