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The unBEARable trade in Bile

The big old cuddly bear. Found in some of the harshest environments known to man (and woman), from the snowy arctic to the jungles of Borneo, the world's 8 bear species are found on nearly every continent. But did you know they're traded around the world for something very unusual? Here's that story.

📸 Simone Sbaraglia

Bears are the goldilocks 3 for conservation - they're keystone, indicator, and umbrella species. Keystone means they're super important for the health of the environment e.g. bears poop out seeds and basically act as natural farmers. Indicator means they can give us an indication of how healthy an environment is, e.g. a decent bear population can tells us that fish and forests are healthy and the ecosystem is in balance. And as we learnt from the last blog post (you didn't read it!?? Do it now!), umbrella species means that by protecting them, you can protect the other species living in their home range - which for all bear species covers around 1/3rd of the earths landmass. No biggie. Basically, what's good for bears is good for us and the planet!

📸 Greg S. Garrett

Like humans and most vertebrates, bears produce a rusty liquid in their livers called bile. Unlike us and other vertebrates, bears have been harvested for their bile for >1,000yrs for traditional chinese medicine (TCM). The Asiatic Black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus), and Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) are the main species threatened by this TCM.

Sun bear bile extraction operation in Mong La, Shan, Myanmar 📸 Soggydan Benenovitch

Now, unlike other TCM products (e.g. rhino horn), bear bile has actually been scientifically proven to help treat several serious illnesses (Dutton, Hepburn & Macdonald, 2011; Feng, Siu, Wang, et al., 2009). HOWEVER, alternatives to treat these do exist, and bile has no proven benefit for other conditions which it's sold for. But because of the high demand for bear bile, over 13,000 bears are held on farms in Asia, with China housing >10,000. Some people argue that farming bears for their bile protects wild bears from being poached for theirs. Nonsense! These farms are encouraging the illegal poaching of bear populations (Livingstone & Shepherd 2014; Williamson, 2007; Kemf et al., 1999). Link to TRAFFIC report here. To extract bear bile often involves repeated invasions to the gallbladder (where the bile is stored) and some bears even live hooked up to a catheter 24/7. Not ideal if you ask me.                                                            📸 Sun bear cub - Eko Prianto/CIFOR

So what's being done to stop this? Several labs and pharmaceutical companies have created synthetic bear bile as an alternative. But despite its identical makeup, synthetic bile is rejected by users more than Katy Hopkins at a Slimfast event. TCM practitioners discourage both synthetic and farmed bile, and emphasise the health benefits of more 'natural' bile taken from wild bears. Consequently, wild bear populations are under huge pressure as people are willing to pay the big bucks for their wild bile.

Now for a little good news! In an effort to close this bile farming and protect wild bears, the Vietnam Administration of Forestry and the non-profit group Animals Asia agreed to rescue ~1,000 bears from farms across Vietnam and place them into sanctuaries; from 2006-2012 farmed bears in Vietnam decreased by ~2,000.

📸 Simone Sbaraglia

In South Korea policies have been made to carry out sterilisations of bears in farms to ensure no new cubs are born. Furthermore, organisations like TRAFFIC and WWF are constantly working towards solutions for the problem. Since 2015, TRAFFIC representatives and Malaysian TCM practitioners meet annually to talk openly about the bear bile trade. In a recent meeting over 50% of these TCM practitioners signed a declaration essentially agreeing to end the use of illegal bear bile. Efforts don't stop there either (wooo).

Spectacled bear 📸 Patricio Robles Gil / Sierra Madre

To advocate the use of alternatives to bear bile, Dr. Yibin Feng from Hong Kong’s School of Chinese Medicine has provided some excellent research comparing the effectiveness of different herbs (e.g. Chinese Goldthread Coptis chinensis) and bear bile to treat liver diseases, with the herbs winning the race with more ease than Usain Bolt after a Maccies 12-nugget meal. For the icing on top of this optimistic cake, World Animal Protection has collaborated with Education for Nature Vietnam and Four Paws to develop a detailed blueprint to put an end to bear bile farming.

So overall, there's still much more work to be done to protect our bears from the illegal wildlife trade, but big steps forward are being made!

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