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14 October 2001 Issue
Rescued From Chinese Bile Farms, Bears Get a 2nd Chance

International Herald Tribune
by Rachel Morarjee (Agence France Presse)
submitted by Dr John Wedderburn - john@aapn.org

CHENGDU, China - One bear was missing a hind leg, two had lost their front paws, one had no toes and all six bears were in terrible pain, crushed into tiny cages barely big enough to contain them. But however bad they looked, these were the lucky ones. The six black Moon bears were rescued this week from a life of agonizing captivity being farmed for their bile, and brought to a sanctuary in southwest China's Sichuan Province in Southwestern China.

Those missing a limb or paw had probably lost them in snares when they were trapped in the wild, said Jill Robinson, founder of the Animals Asia Foundation, which runs the bear rescue centre, near the city of Chengdu.

"When the bears come in, they are very angry." she said. Small wonder: Kept in cages so tiny they have stripe marks from the bars on their fur, the bears are "milked" for their bile. The bile is extracted either through a five to seven inches (13 to 18 centimeters) long catheter crudely inserted into the bear's gallbladder or through a small hole in the gallbladder which is never allowed to heal. Their muscles waste away through lack of use, and many of the emaciated bears have other medical problems such as ulcerated paws, or teeth cut back so close to the bone the nerves are exposed.

Bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat ailments caused by an excess of heat in the body, and because bears had to be hunted and killed to extract it, the bile was for years literally worth more than its weight in gold. But in the 1980s, farmers in China, Korea and Vietnam discovered a way of keeping the bears alive while extracting their bile, and the practice of bear farming exploded.

Moon bears are an endangered species that inhabits the forests of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, both in China's southwest, in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces to the north-east. There are almost 7,000 bears being farmed for bile in China and around 16,000 to 19,000 living in the wild, Ms. Robinson said.

The practice of farming bears for bile was based on "good intentions" she said, as authorities hoped it would stop them being trapped and killed for their precious extract.

However this backfired. Hundreds of farmers rushed into the trade, creating two tiers of the market for bear bile, with some people wanting to pay more for product extracted from wild bears and companies churning out bear bile shampoo and toothpaste in an attempt to mop up the excess from the farms.

Robinson has been campaigning to end bear farming since 1993 and founded Animals Asia in 1998 to help aid the Moon bears. Around this time there was a downturn in the overcrowded market for bear bile, prompting the Chinese government to look for other solutions.

In July 2000, Animals Asia signed an agreement with the authorities in Beijing and Sichuan to free 500 suffering Moon bears from the worst farms in China. The agreement pledged to work towards the final elimination of bear farming, and the government no longer issues new licenses to bear farms.

Animals Asia pays a compensation fee to farmers in exchange for freeing their bears, enabling the farmers to begin a new livelihood. Animals Asia now has 65 bears at its rescue centre and is working to build a reserve where more bears can be released from captivity. After years in tiny cages, the Moon bears no longer have the survival skills to fend for themselves in the wild, as many were born in captivity or taken from their mothers as cubs.

Once the surgery to remove their catheters is complete the bears are placed in larger cages to recover, so they don't break stitches or injure themselves while they recuperate. As the bears put on weight and are restored to health, they also learn to relax in the company of people. Rupert, a bear who has been at the centre nearly a year, leans back in his cage and purses his lips as Robinson feeds him pieces of apple. Soon, he will be moved to a larger pen with other bears where he can go outside and wander in a grassy enclosure, and will eventually live in a natural woodland enclosure which looks like the forests he might have begun his life in.

Animals Asia does not receive government funding, but exists via public contributions gathered through its Internet site: http://www.animalsasia.org/

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