A Galling Business

The inhumane exploitation of bears for traditional Asian medicine

As a consultant to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Jill Robinson walked onto her first bear farm 12 years ago. At this facility in southern China, she found each bear standing not on a solid floor but on bars in a cage too small for the animal to take even one step. Although the Asiatic black bear is normally a solitary and clean animal, these cages were crowded together in buildings that could only be described as “filthy,” Robinson reports.

RAISING BILE. Chinese farmers periodically collect bile from this caged bear (left) by reopening the wound in its abdomen (in bare area to the left of animal’s nose here). Gallbladder secretions are caught in dishes below cages, as shown at right. WSPA
CAUGHT ON VIDEO. This frame shows the black-market sale of what are probably bear gallbladders in a shop somewhere in Asia. A bear-protein-detection device (inset), now under development, could help regulators identify such illicit bear products before they can be marketed. WSPA
BILE SELLS. Wine (large red box) and over-the-counter medicines are among products whose labels brag about their bile content. This marketing plays on the health-enhancing reputation of bear bile in much of Asia. Australian Dept. of the Environment and Heritage
BEAR MARKET. These bears were rescued from a Vietnamese farm where their gallbladders had been milked for bile, an ingredient in many traditional Asian medicines. International conservation groups are attempting to enforce a near-global ban on trade in bear parts. World Society for the Protection of Animals
SNARE SITE. The Anchorage-based biologists counting salmon on Chenega Island a few days before they first spotted evidence of bear poaching. Haskell
ISOLATION. Biologist Bill Wilson surveys vista prior to counting salmon on Chenega Island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The gray dots on the water to his left—seagulls—mark the mouth of the river that his team studied, and along which they found snared bears. At this remote site, the poachers weren’t expecting anyone to come across their poaching. Haskell
HOLDING ON. American black bear (Ursus americanus), captured on film in Minnesota. Dave Garshelis/Minn. Dept. Nat. Resources

Worst of all, she says, was the bears’ evident suffering. Many had gnawed at the bars of the cages until their teeth cracked. Some repeatedly banged their heads against the bars, and most had open wounds.

The purpose of these farms was to supply bear bile—a prized ingredient in many traditional Chinese-medicine therapies. In powders, pills, and liquids, it’s used to treat conditions including eyesight problems and what Chinese practitioners call “liver fire.”

Traditional medicine has been driving an active trade in bear bile and gallbladders, which produce it. Sales flourish despite a longstanding, near-global ban administered by the United Nations on international trade in bear parts and products.

In China, wild Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are protected as endangered. However, it’s legal there to sell bile from bears on licensed farms.

Animal-protection groups have estimated that about half of the world’s Asiatic black bears reside in cages on farms, primarily in China, Vietnam, and Korea. Some farms have just one bear; others—especially in China—can have several thousand. Each bear is milked regularly for bile in a painful and physically harmful procedure, or the bear is killed and bile is extracted from its gallbladder.

On subsequent farm visits, Robinson witnessed the staff extracting bile from bears by unplugging metal catheters that had been permanently inserted into their gallbladders. The bile dripped into collection pans beneath the cages. Seeing such “inhumane” animal treatment, Robinson recalls, “changed the course of my life.”

Within 5 years, she had set up the Hong Kong–based Animals Asia Foundation. It operates a 25-acre sanctuary at Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province that currently houses 168 bears rescued from farms that have shut down. Robinson is also working to find places for additional bears expected to become available in the near future.

Vietnam is a major bear-farming nation, despite laws that forbid the practice. Recently, an animal-welfare group negotiated with that country to enforce its laws and phase out bear farms. New technologies are being developed for policing this agreement and the international-trade ban. These tools are expected to come into use within the next year.

In North America, hunters kill American black bears and sell the gallbladders illegally. Although these bears aren’t considered endangered, special agent Allen Hundley of the Fredericksburg, Va., office of the Fish and Wildlife Service notes that any time an unregulated market “puts a price on the head of wildlife,” as it has on bears for their gallbladders, the future of that wildlife is in serious jeopardy.

Bear facts

Estimates remain sketchy, but wild populations of Asiatic black bears seem to have dropped to about 15,000 animals throughout all of Asia, says Dave Eastham of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) in London.

Trafficking in bear parts is largely responsible for this decline, according to the Gland, Switzerland–based World Conservation Union. The group concludes that this species faces “a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term.”

Heavy poaching prompted China, 25 years ago, to move some bears to licensed facilities. The resulting farms were expected to supply all the bile needed to fulfill traditional medicine’s demand—then about 500 kilograms of bile per year—says Eastham.

However, traditional medicine’s bile consumption has now reached 4,000 to 5,000 kg per year worldwide, he reports. China’s farmers manage at least 7,000 bears, and Vietnamese farms harvest bile from an estimated 4,000 bears.

Another 1,800 bears are caged in South Korea, but they aren’t milked for bile. Instead, when they turn 10 years old, they’re killed and their gallbladders harvested, Eastham says. In the wild, Asia’s black bears can survive to nearly 30 years old.

Today, supplies of farmed and poached bear bile exceed demand for bile used in Asian medicine, perhaps by up to 2,000 kg per year, Eastham’s group reports. So, a luxury market in Asia now offers consumer products that brag of their bear-bile content. They run the gamut—from hemorrhoid creams to shampoos to wines.

“Rather than supplying existing bile demand,” Eastham argues, “farming actually increased it.”

The chemical of interest is ursodeoxycholic acid, which has been found only in bear bile. At least a few scientific studies of the compound have supported traditional Chinese medicine’s claim that bile products benefit the liver, according to TRAFFIC North America, a joint program of the World Conservation Union and the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund, which studies international trade in threatened and endangered species.

An April 2002 report by the group TRAFFIC North America cites research finding that ursodeoxycholic acid has some effect against autoimmune hepatitis, viral hepatitis, and other liver diseases. The bile agent also appears to improve immunity and prevent colon cancer, TRAFFIC North America notes.

Although the compound can be synthesized from other sources, many traditional healers still recommend the bear version, Eastham’s group has found.

Prices for bile and gallbladders vary dramatically. Asian smugglers have told U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents that gallbladders can fetch $10,000 apiece. WSPA cites market studies indicating that bile powder can cost as little as 24 cents a gram at bear farms in China but as much to $28 a gram in Taiwan and $250 a gram in Japan, two places where bear bile is illegal.

Cruel and unusual

International animal-protection groups have taken on the issue of farmed bile because of the heavy price that the bears pay. The Animals Asia Foundation has documented that price among the bears that it has rescued.

Most of the animals lack wilderness-survival skills after having spent most or all of their lives in captivity. Moreover, most carry substantial injuries: missing teeth, missing limbs, and severely damaged internal organs.

More than 85 percent of rescued bears suffer abdominal adhesions that bind organs to one another and to the abdominal wall, says Kati Loeffler, the veterinarian at the foundation’s sanctuary in Chengdu. Some 10 percent of bears also have liver tumors.

Shortly after the animals enter the sanctuary, they have their gallbladders surgically removed. “We do this,” Loeffler explains, “because those gallbladders are just a horrible mess.” Nearly all these have polyps, and many contain old, pus-filled abscesses, which are “an indication of long-term trauma and infection,” she says.

These health conditions reflect repeated trauma, such as from nonsterile surgery to insert a catheter or repeatedly piercing the gallbladder to drain bile, Loeffler says. In one such technique, Robinson notes, Chinese farmers stitch the gallbladder to the abdominal wall, pierce it, and then prevent the wound from healing. For each bile extraction, the gallbladder is repunctured—sometimes twice a day, without anesthetic.

These animals are amazingly tough, Loeffler says: “Only a bear could handle such trauma. Any other species would have died.”

Stung, twice

An illegal trade in bears and their parts exists even in the United States. During the past year, federal prosecutions were brought against three hunters in Alaska for killing 10 bears to harvest their gallbladders for sale in Korea. Biologists surveying salmon runs uncovered the kills (see “Snaring Poachers,” below).

But the Alaska haul pales in comparison with the 118 gallbladders—now frozen and in federal custody—that were purchased from a single person as part of an earlier sting. The major undercover program—Special Operation to Uncover Poaching (SOUP)—investigated illegal trafficking in bear parts in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Run cooperatively in the late 1990s by the U.S. Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, SOUP found that bear parts traded in the region came largely from animals taken in Virginia, where bear hunting is legal.

However, because the state prohibits the sale of bear parts, these hunters marketed the animals’ gallbladders and paws—a delicacy used in some Asian soups—to a broker in West Virginia, where trade in bear parts was then legal. That broker, in turn, sold the gallbladders and paws to Asian buyers living in the United States.

The most satisfying aspect of SOUP, Hundley says, was that “we exposed West Virginia as a laundering haven for bear gallbladders that were acquired illegally elsewhere.” Shortly afterward, in 1999, West Virginia closed this loophole by outlawing the sale of paws and organs of even legally killed bears.

Yet that didn’t end the region’s bear poaching, notes Skip Wissinger, a Park Service special agent in the Shenandoah National Park’s Elkton, Va., office. Using information acquired in SOUP, his team and state officers set up a second, more complicated sting operation. Undercover agents opened a sporting-goods store in Elkton. Under the counter, however, they provided bear parts from road kill, previous busts such as SOUP, and a federal forensic lab in Oregon.

For 3 years, each gallbladder sale was recorded on tape. Unlike SOUP, which focused on hunters and wholesalers, this sting—Operation VIPER, for Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources—targeted consumers.

The agents had expected most of the bear parts to be exported. The “surprise,” Wissinger says, was that “well over half of what we sold went to a domestic market” of traditional Chinese- and Korean-medicine distributors, largely along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

Growing sales to U.S. consumers have created a local black market in bear parts that “appears absolutely insatiable,” Wissinger told Science News. “We just couldn’t begin to keep up with what we had been asked to supply.”

From VIPER, hundreds of felony charges were leveled against some 80 defendants for trafficking in bear parts. In the 40 cases that have been settled in Virginia state courts, all the defendants were found guilty, Wissinger says. The other cases are still wending their way through federal courts, where prosecution is more difficult and cases take longer, but where the penalties may be greater.

Still, Wissinger adds that he’s certain that his team’s sting didn’t end the local black market–”though we might have slowed it some.”

Tech support

Although bear farming in Vietnam has been illegal for years, Eastham notes that the government turned a blind eye to most of these mom-and-pop operations, which have only one or two bears apiece. But this year, WSPA—on behalf of its 500 member societies—brokered a deal with Hanoi officials for Vietnam to enforce its laws.

Vietnamese officials will prevent the sale of bile, but will permit farms to keep the bears they now own. The officials plan to implant microchips, whose purchase may be partially subsidized by WSPA, in the shoulders of all bears on farms.

Similar to the identification chips implanted in many pet dogs, these chips would give each bear a unique ID number, record when the tag was implanted, and carry the farm’s address. Monitoring agencies could send people around every 6 months or so to scan bears and generate readouts of their implanted data. This procedure would prevent the farms from replenishing their stock when a bear died.

The government is “being pragmatic” in letting farmers keep their bears for now, Eastham says, since it’s a violation of international law to kill the endangered animals and sanctuaries can’t spring up overnight to absorb several thousand bears. Moreover, the program should finally end Vietnam’s rampant problem with capture of wild bears for farming, he says, since the monitoring agencies would prosecute anyone harboring bears without a chip.

Eastham told Science News that currently, in South Korea, “we’re in negotiations with government officials to see if they won’t go down the same road as Vietnam.”

Last year, Kate Sanders, a herpetologist in Adelaide, Australia, who works with WSPA, came up with the idea for another antipoaching technology. Inspired by snake venom-detection kits, she says, she suggested a tool to enable customs officials and other law-enforcement agents to test for the presence of bear proteins in suspicious materials within just 5 minutes.

Geneticist Rob Ogden of Wildlife DNA Services in Bangor, Wales, is managing the assay’s development. It will employ the dipstick technology typical of pregnancy-test kits. The assay contains antibodies to characteristic proteins found only in bears. These antibodies are attached to a dye. If they contact a bear protein, they will bind and create a telltale blue line.

Ogden says, “We hope to have the kits ready for testing by June 2006.”

Yet another WSPA program is fashioning a decidedly low-tech program aimed at stemming demand for bear bile and gallbladders. Susan Sherwin in the group’s Framingham, Mass., office is working with Eastham to compile a list of plant-based products that some traditional Asian-medicine practitioners prescribe in place of bile. Among the dozens of materials that they’ve turned up so far: aloe vera, ash bark, dandelion, and honeysuckle flowers. The alternatives’ activity depends on chemicals other than ursodeoxycholic acid.

WSPA is currently surveying traditional-medicine practitioners worldwide about the conditions and circumstances under which they prescribe these plant materials. Over the next year, WSPA plans to begin publicizing the results to traditional Asian healers in hopes of encouraging more of them to substitute herbal products for bile.

One thing working in his favor, Eastham notes, is that the plant products all “are a lot cheaper than bile.”


Snaring Poachers: It’s Often the Hard Part

Feds prosecute Alaskan bear poaching

In September 2002, biologists under contract to ExxonMobil Corp. repeatedly visited a small stream on heavily wooded Chenega Island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Their goal: to tally spawning pink salmon. At this time of year, creeks are normally “thick with bears,” which fatten up on those salmon in preparation for winter hibernation, notes Shawn Haskell, now at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His team therefore had anticipated spying the powerful predators at virtually every stream.

Instead, during three successive visits to this island, some 50 miles off the mainland town of Seward, the biologists found snares suspended along bear paths and the nearly intact carcasses of bears missing only their gallbladders and the occasional paw.

State and federal investigators would later find the animals’ gallbladders in coolers aboard a boat anchored just off the island.

Although Alaska permits hunting of its native American black bears, a license permits the taking of only one bear, and a hunter must bring home its coat and skull. When caught at Chenega Island, the boat owner Kwan Su Yi and his two hunting partners had five gallbladders, 11 paws, a bear head—and no fur skins, notes Special Agent Jill Birchell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. Search warrants turned up still more gallbladders in Yi’s home freezer.

Yi admitted to federal investigators that he and his companions intended to smuggle their booty to Korea, where a single gallbladder can fetch $3,500 from purveyors of natural medicines. Despite a host of herbal alternatives, many traditional Asian healers continue to prescribe bear bile, which can be obtained from the gallbladder, to treat a range of health conditions. This market has been driving an active trade in bear products despite a longstanding near-global ban on international trade in bear parts. The vast majority of medicinal bile comes from farmed bears in China and Vietnam. Organs plundered from North American bears supplement this source.

Over a 6-month period ending last March, the three poachers—all Korean immigrants—pled guilty to felony violations of the Lacey Act. This federal law prohibits trade of wildlife that was acquired in violation of local state law and also transported across that state’s border. The law also covers the intention to carry out such trade.

Yi was sentenced this past March to a year in jail, to be followed by 3 years probation. He forfeited his 22-foot boat, a rifle, and a 40-caliber handgun. Over the next 4 years, he cannot apply for a hunting license or possess any bear parts. His brother-in-law, James Ho Moon, who was part of the bear-hunting party, received no jail time but some $1,600 in fines and fees, 3 years probation, and must do 160 hours of community service.

The final participant in the Chenega Island bear plundering incidents was Tae Won Ro. Birchell says that Ro “admitted that it was sort of his idea to get these other two men involved [in the venture], having learned the [snaring] technique from another individual.” With a prior criminal conviction for domestic violence, Ro proved willing to cooperate with Birchell’s team on piecing together various elements of this case.

In the end, he gave evidence that showed that his team had killed 16 bears during five separate trips to the island. Ro’s sentence: 9 months house detention with electronic monitoring to be followed by 3 years probation. He was also assessed roughly $5,000 in fines and fees.

Such convictions are rare, Birchell notes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just 219 agents nationally, which includes managers and supervisory staff, to investigate potential incidents affecting any type of wildlife. Moreover, bears tend to inhabit extremely remote locations. Finally, even when someone is found with bear parts, such as gallbladders, Birchell points out that it’s daunting to prove that they were both acquired illegally and intended for sale across state boundaries.

Indeed, she told Science News, the relative ease with which her team mounted a case against these men reflected their ignorance of the law. “They assumed that they were maybe going to get a ticket for a game violation,” she says. If they had realized that their actions constituted a federal felony, she notes, “they might not have been so forthcoming when we interviewed them.”

Gruesome encounter

In a state as big as Alaska, “it would be very easy to get away with this snaring,” Haskell says. It was just the poachers’ bad luck that they chose to plunder their prey on one of four streams being surveyed every 4 days by wildlife biologists.

Haskell’s group spied the first snared bear some 200 yards inside the tree line on Chenega Island. The bear had a noose of wire around its neck that was cabled to a small, nearby tree.

Respectful of the frightened animal’s power, the biologists shot at the wire anchoring the snare. Suddenly, the bear snapped the frayed wire and bounded away, the noose still tightly cinched around its neck.

When the biologists next returned to the island, they found that the poachers had preceded them. Along the stream they encountered carcasses of snared bears. Each animal had a slit down its abdomen, several cut ribs, a missing gallbladder, and snaring gear still attached to a nearby sapling.

Team leader Bill Wilson, now with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage, recalls one of those visits to Chenega Island, a day dreary with a heavy downpour that dogged their trek. While counting fish, he and his partner, geneticist Matt Cronin, soon came upon one dead bear on its back with a small area of its belly sliced open. Later that day, the pair ran across carcasses of two older cubs, also missing their gallbladders.

Cronin collected tissue samples so that that DNA might later be used to identify any gallbladders found on the black market.

In fact, Birchell notes, such tissue samples helped seal the federal convictions that the bear parts found in Yi’s possession came from the illegally poached Chenega Island animals.

The biologists alerted state troopers about the snares. Those state wildlife officers arrived and confirmed the bear poaching. A few days later, using a seaplane, those state troopers found Yi’s boat anchored near the headwaters of the little salmon stream. Almost immediately, they called in federal officials to help them investigate the extent of the poaching.

No national bear-protection law

The nation’s black bears currently number between 300,000 and 400,000. Of these, roughly one-third roam Alaska’s wooded terrain, notes Adam Roberts of Born Free USA in Washington, D.C.

Protection for these animals varies widely by state. For instance, Idaho, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Wyoming all permit an unrestricted trade in bear gall bladders, he notes, whereas 34 other states prohibit trade, sale, or commercialization of any bear parts. The remaining states—most of which have few wild bears—permit the sale of gall bladders if the organs come from animals harvested outside their borders, Roberts says.

The problem, he notes, is that without DNA to tie a particular gall bladder to a carcass, no one can know for sure in what state it was collected. The only way to arrest the problem, Roberts says, “is to enact a national prohibition on trade in bears.”

About a decade ago, he helped draft legislation to do just that. However, despite having had considerable bipartisan support in the Congress—for instance, it won Senate passage several times—it has yet to pass the House of Representatives.

Roberts hopes to see the bill reintroduced in the next year or two. At present, he says, this legislation is “hibernating.”


Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Humans

From the Nature Index

Paid Content