Bear bile, believed to cure fever, liver illnesses and sore eyes, has been harvested in China for more than 1,000 years as an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Because of the continued demand for the product, some impoverished farmers have resorted to raising bears for their bile.
But when illegal farms keep the animals in appalling conditions and extract their bile using cruel and painful methods, the government will clamp down on them, a forestry official said Tuesday.
Cao Qingyao, spokesperson for the State Forestry Administration, made it clear at a press conference in Beijing that the agency stopped granting new licenses for bear farms established for bile extraction in 1993.
"Since then, we have prohibited the capture of wild bears for their bile, which is traditionally believed to have healing powers," he said.
There are still more than 200 legal farms in China, holding around 7,000 bears, according to official figures released in 1999.
The State Forestry Administration, along with four other government departments, issued a joint circular in late December 2004 to outlaw the hunting of endangered wild bears and the cruel treatment of bears on farms, said Cao.
The circular also banned illegal trading in bear bile, he added.
"From 2003, China stopped exporting bear bile products; it did not approve any new bile extracting facilities and prohibited the hunting of wild bears," Cao said.
"There are still a few illegal bear farms around despite attempts by the authorities to stem the practice," he added.
Today, many TCM practitioners say that bear bile can be easily substituted with herbs, as well as a synthetic form of the bile, ursodeoxycholic acid.
Licensed and regulated bear farms were set up across China from 1984. Each bear can be kept, if properly cared for, for about five years. The bile "milked" during that period is equivalent to powdered bile obtained by killing 220 wild bears, Cao said.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency June 15, 2005)