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An Inside Look At China's Raging Battle Over Bear Bile Harvesting

Many Chinese are convinced that the bile produced by a bear's digestion process has strong medicinal benefits. One of the biggest black bear breeding farms is set to be quoted on the stock exchange. But first, they let reporters and animal rights

Chinese bear bile operations wanted to show they provided better conditions than these in Myanmar (Soggydan)
Chinese bear bile operations wanted to show they provided better conditions than these in Myanmar (Soggydan)
Han Yuting and Sun Yue

BEIJING – Are you bullish – or squeamish -- on Chinese black bears? Guizhen Hall, a large black bear breeding farm in Fujian Province in southeast China, is seeking an IPO listing on the A-share Chinese stock exchange. The news has set off widespread criticism, as the bears are bred for their bile, which is used in medicines.

Following an avalanche of media flack, Guizhen Hall opened its door to allow invited Chinese media and animal protection groups to visit the farm. The media tours on both days were conducted by Guizhen staff, who followed a strictly restricted route and allowed no questions. The farm situated in a rural hilly area, currently houses approximately 400 bears and boasts an annual turnover of roughly 100 million RMB ($15.8 million).

The journalists first visited the free activity yard. Surrounded by a tall wall and equipped with ladders, parallel bars and swings, the place is laid out like a bear playground. The next part of the tour was far less amusing, as journalists were shown how Guizhen staff "harvest" the bears for their bile. Visitors wearing simple sterile clothing were allowed in by groups of 10 "in order not to disturb the animals," according to the farm.

The room contains a network of cages. Bears were led from larger, group cages into small individual ones, each containing a basin of food. Once the animal began to eat, the staff of the farm simultaneously used sterile cotton swabs to disinfect the bear's abdomen and insert an 8-centimeter round-headed tube into a fistula, an artificial opening for bile drainage. A cup was soon filled up with the bear's bile, about 150 milliliters in quantity, while the bear seemed to continue eating unconcerned.

The staff pointed out that only bears that are older than 36 months and over 100 kilograms are subject to bile extraction. The drainage is conducted twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. The bears produce the bile secretion only when they are eating, according to the staff.

Throughout the process, which lasts just about one minute, the bears seem to behave calmly – a bit too calmly, some reporters suggested. During the press conference that followed the first day's visit, Guizhen representatives were joined by four experts in the traditional Chinese medicine field, including a researcher of the Strategic Research Department of Ministry of Science and Technology. Their responses were somehow quite unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

Who's a bear?

When asked how they, the medical experts, are sure that those domesticated bears do not suffer from their fistula wound, Zhang Chikwan, Guizhen's director replied: "You are not a bear. How do you know the bear is suffering?" Zhang insisted. "The fistula hole is like the pierced ears of women. Do women feel any pain wearing earrings?"

Sun Quanhui, the Chinese project coordinator from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), was only partly convinced. "Guizhen's willingness to communicate with the public is worthy of recognition. But it's not enough to have a couple of open days to observe, without the participation of real experts," Sun said.

According to the IPO application material, Guizhen intends to raise funds so as to expand its current 400-bear breeding population to 1200 and increase its production of bear bile powder, which sells for about $18 per gram. Quite a number of Chinese people believe bear bile has anti-inflammation and detoxification properties. It is commonly used for liver related disease. But many experts of Chinese medicine claim that its effectiveness is exaggerated, and it can certainly be replaced by other herbs or synthetic drugs.

Currently, it is reported that there are about 12,000 farmed bears in various regions. According to a report by the Asian Animal Foundation, an animal welfare group, the bears suffer lasting effects from the bile harvesting treatment. The Foundation has rescued 277 bears, 181 of which were subject to live bile draining. Of those, 165 showed harmful symptoms such as cholecystitis, hernia, visceral cyst and gallstones. The group says many of the bears also develop liver cancer.

Human society has long bid farewell to following the rules of the jungle and now respects the dignity of other lives too. The existence of "Live bear bile draining" is a holdover from the era of the jungle, and its collection should be banned along with tiger bone and tiger penis, rhino horn, and the musk of the musk ox. One can judge whether or not China is regarded as a civilized country by the way the Chinese authorities deal with such affairs. If Guizhen is to succeed in its IPO, it will encourage even more companies to invest in harming animals and stimulate even more unscrupulous business practices.

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