A Chinese bear bile products manufacturer's attempt to go public again -- following a failed try a year ago -- has provoked fresh uproar on the Internet and incurred strong opposition from animal welfare activists.
Years ago, bile bears were bred in cramped cages, and metal pipes were regularly inserted into their abdomens day and night. [xkb.com.cn]
Earlier this month, Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., which uses extract from bears' gall bladders to make medicine, has appeared on a list of companies seeking an initial public offering (IPO) on the Growth Enterprise Market on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
The list, issued by the China Securities Regulatory Commission, shows that Guizhentang's application is being reviewed. The company made its first attempt in early 2011, but the plan was aborted after the public and animal protection groups fiercely protested over the company's "cruel" business.
A poll launched on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging site, showed that as of Monday morning, 96 percent of more than 12,000 respondents opposed Guizhentang's renewed IPO plan, saying extracting bile from live bears' gall bladders is "too brutal," while 3 percent backed the plan, believing in the "unique effects" of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Bear bile, which has been used in TCM for 3,000 years, is believed to be able to reduce fever, remove toxins and treat liver and eye ailments.
"I'm against Guizhentang's IPO. As far as I know, some researchers have found the use of bear bile can be replaced by other drugs," said Ma Chao, 34, an engineer who works for a U.S.-based Internet company in Beijing.
"Also, fund-raising means more bears will be bred for bile products and that means more harms to the animals," Ma said.
There should be a threshold for companies to be listed on the Growth Enterprise Market, and the business of Guizhentang isn't among the industries that should be supported, according to Jiang Jinsong, an associate professor with the Institute of Science and Technology and Social Research at Tsinghua University.
But not everyone agrees that the company shouldn't go public.
"It's too early for me to judge the company's business now, because it remains unclear how important bear bile really is in TCM and whether natural bear bile can be effectively replaced," said a 25-year-old woman who works for a financial institution in Beijing and who wished to remain anonymous.
For her, the criticism of Guizhentang seems hypocritical. "Speaking of cruelty, I doubt whether people would react the same way if they knew how pigs and other animals used for are killed," she said.
Founded in 2000 and based in eastern Fujian Province, Guizhentang is among the country's largest makers of bear bile, according to the company's website.
Boasting the largest bear breeding base in south China, the company has more than 400 bears on its farm and over 100 cubs are born each year. The funds raised through an IPO would help increase the company's breeding capacity to 1,200 bears, producing 4,000 kilograms of bear bile.
Staff and executives at Guizhentang are currently ignoring interview requests. Last year, after its initial IPO attempt, the company also rejected interview requests and refused to grant access to their interviews and visiting its bear breeding base and workshops.
The practice of extracting bile from live bears began to thrive in China in early 1980s. Bear farming for commercial use remains legal, although calls for terminating the industry from animal welfare advocates and the public have mounted in recent years, citing its cruelty to the animals.
Years ago, bile bears were bred in cramped cages, and metal pipes were regularly inserted into their abdomens day and night. The pipes, used to transfer bile in bears' gall bladders to outside containers, left the animals with permanent wounds and put them at high risk of lethal infections.
In 1997, the Ministry of Forestry (MOF) banned the crude practice in a document and promoted a "painless operation" that abandons the use of inserted pipes. Guizhentang said on its website that it implements the "painless operation," which doesn't harm the bears' health.
But the new method, which builds a channel connecting bears' abdominal walls and gall bladders through surgeries, didn't convince animal advocates, as continually open, non-healing wounds are inevitable.
The current practice is the only legal technique to extract bear bile in China, but this does not mean it brings no pain, said Zhang Xiaohai, external affairs director of Animals Asia Foundation (AAF). The Hong Kong-based group is a non-government organization long dedicated to bear protection.
"When building the channel, people often intentionally move the bear's gall bladder closer to their abdominal walls, thus the extracting operation will be easier," Zhang said, adding that the surgery wound might not heal for years and still could lead to infections.
Last week, the official Weibo account of AAF posted information and photos of several bears that the group rescued from bear farms in 2008. The bile bears, which died later mainly of liver cancer, all experienced the new method of bile extracting.
We found that the teeth of some of the rescued bears were missing and their paws broken, Zhang said.
"That might be because during the long-term bile extraction the bears scratched walls and their heads, or bit things," Zhang said. "We object to any measures adopted to extract bile from live bears, because it's extremely cruel."
Another controversy over bear bile is whether the use of natural bear bile is necessary.
Foreign pharmaceutical companies have produced ursodeoxycholic acid, the active therapeutic substance in bear bile, for decades. The synthetic drug is extensively used to treat gall-stone, hepatocirrhosis and liver cancer worldwide.
In addition, some TCM practitioners have also endorsed some herbal substitutes of bear bile, such as wild chrysanthemum and honeysuckle.
None of the four most important TCM classics in ancient China mention bear bile in prescriptions, meaning the use of bear bile is not necessary but depends on choices, said Liu Zhengcai, a famed TCM expert, in an interview in 2009.
However, other TCM experts argue that the medical value of bear bile cannot be replaced.
The substitutes can replicate parts of natural bear bile's effects but cannot totally replace it, said Ma Kejian, director of the research institute of TCM in southwestern Yunnan Province.
Further, if the breeding of bile bears is prohibited, poaching of wild black bears, which are under state protection, would become rampant, Ma said.
A captive black bear can produce the same amount of bile as 220 wild bears that would be hunted and killed, said Wang Wei, deputy head of the Department of Wildlife and Forest Plants of the MOF at a news conference in 2006, in response to enquiries from foreign media over the bear bile issue.
"China has nearly 20,000 bile bears kept in breeding bases. They support 153 traditional Chinese medicines produced by 183 companies," according to a statement issued by the China association of TCM in December 2011.
The statement also echoed Ma's opinion, saying that natural bear bile cannot be replaced by the synthetic substitute.
"Bear bile has notable power in emergency treatment and treating difficult cases," said the statement.
However, Ma warned that bear bile is not a panacea. "The effects of bear bile should not be exaggerated, or that will distort market demand," he said.