Bile is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder, and it is harvested from the Asiatic black bear, brown bear, and sun bear across China, the Korean peninsular, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. In the body, bile aids digestion in the small intestine, but in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is classified as being “cold and bitter”, bear bile is thought to improve eyesight, act as a detoxicating agent, reduce body heat, and can stop spasms such as epilepsy and eclampsia.
Whilst it is true that bear bile does indeed contain ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which can be used to treat primary biliary cirrhosis in humans, this can be produced synthetically, and synthetically produced UDCA can possibly help prevent abnormal heart rhythm in humans as well as foetuses, as well as primary biliary cirrhosis. However, UDCA is produced in all mammals, and there are no studies that prove the claims made of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine: despite containing UDCA, it possesses no medical properties or health benefits. The pharmaceuticals manufactured in modern medicine use a high grade of UDCA suitable for use in drugs, which can be gathered from slaughterhouses or synthesised as bile acids in the laboratory. These methods are far cheaper than bear bile farming, and the drugs are sold under brand names such as Ursofalk, Ursotan, and Ursoforte, and is sold under the generic drug name of ursodiol. There are also many herbal alternatives to bear bile, which are often suggested by Chinese doctors, as they are cheaper and considered to be more effective.
When it reaches the end market, bear bile is found in products such as powders, eye drops, herbal tea, wine, and lozenges. The largest producer of these products is called Gui Zhen Tang (归真堂), which is based in Fujian in the south of China. How the bear bile reaches the end market sparked a controversy for Gui Zhen Tang in 2011, as their farming and harvesting practices – which are common throughout bear bile producing countries – were revealed to the Chinese public to be incredibly cruel. As Gui Zhen Tang hoped to be listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, they had to perform due diligence, and their process of harvesting bile from live bears (活熊取胆) became well known throughout China, sparking an outcry from the general public.
It is worth noting that, whilst poaching and trading in bears is illegal in China, bear farming is not – and nor is the extraction of bile from live bears. It is, however, incredibly cruel. Around 10,000 bears are kept on farms in China, in small cages that they can barely stand up in. Bears are malnourished and poorly treated, living to an average age of just 5 years old (bears can live to 25-35 years). Once the bears reach around 10 years of age, bile productivity usually begins to drop, and so they are slaughtered, and their paws, fur, meat, and gall bladder are sold. Bears kept in such poor conditions suffer from malnutrition, stunted growth, and muscle mass loss, as well as behavioural abnormalities from the severe stress and muscle atrophy they suffer.
At ‘model’ farms, so called because they keep their bears in supposedly better conditions, the bears are kept in cages in which they can stand, and are then moved to ‘crush cages’, often 79 cm x 130 cm x 200 cm in size, in which they can barely move, and are either lying on their front or their backs as the bile is extracted. There are a number of ways in which this is done, each one while the bear is still alive and at time still conscious. On occasion, the whole gall bladder is removed, but more commonly a catheter is inserted through the bear’s abdomen, either on when the bile is to be harvested, or it is placed there permanently in a fistula, which allow the bile to drip out regularly to be collected. The fistula surgery is poorly performed, without proper pain management or antibiotics, and as such the bear is prone to infection, and suffers a great deal both during and after the procedure. Bears are sometimes fitted with box-shaped jackets, which hold in place a permanent catheter, as well as a bag in which to catch the bile. The suffering the animals endure in these bear farms is immense.
The demand for bear bile products has created a great deal of pressure on the Asiatic black bear and Sun bear, both of which are threatened by poaching. The bear bile trade across Asia and the Chinese diaspora is “complex and robust”, report Traffic, with CITES regulations frequently flouted. In their 2011 study, Traffic found that farms in Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar did not have breeding programs, suggesting that they rely on bears poached from the wild. Traffic also question the pathology of the farmed bears, as having been kept in such appalling, unsanitary conditions, bile and other parts would be contaminated.