move over panda.

Archive for October, 2013

Culture of Cruelty? Attitudes Towards Animals in China

I came across this article today while looking for news articles on the Moon Bear: the article describes an extremely brutal act of violence against two Tibetan mastiffs that happened to stray into the city of Shijiazhuang from an outlying village.


Apparently local by-laws made the dogs presence in the city illegal; mastiffs are considered dangerous by the local population and upon their discovery the two dogs were chased down by a mob of 100 or so individuals, including 40 security guards and 20 police officers. The dogs were shot at repeatedly, had projectiles launched at them and then finally bludgeoned to death with spades. Regardless of the law and the fear that the mastiffs may have evoked this was obviously an excessively cruel reaction on the part of the city’s inhabitants. You can read the full news article here.

How does this relate to the Moon Bear? Reflecting on the article, I couldn’t help but wonder about local attitudes towards animals, more generally. Doing some research, I found an interview with Peter J. Li, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and author of Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation (University of Chicago Press, 2013). An expert on China (and a former Chinese citizen), Peter has a number of insights into the state of animal rights in the country. He points out the obvious disconnect between contemporary Chinese attitudes towards animals/non-human life and Buddhist and Daoist philosophies, two of the most historically predominant religions in Chinese society. Both of these spiritual traditions advocate practices such as vegetarianism and promote compassionate attitudes towards all living creatures. In the following excerpt, Peter explains the shift in attitude in terms of a changing political and economic landscape:


You can read the rest of the interview here. The crux of the matter, at least according to Dr. Li, appears to be an attitude towards animals as economically valuable objects rather than living beings. That being said, I can’t help but feel that seemingly pointless acts of violence and cruelty such as the dog slaying described at the beginning of my post can’t be explained in terms of economics. What value could there possibly have been in ruthlessly killing the two mastiffs? They weren’t consumed as food afterwards and the angry mob of 100 Chinese citizens speaks to a deeper fear or hatred of animals that transcends the desire for sustenance.

[Food] for thought.



Adorable Moon Bear Cubs!

Wildlife SOS Screenshot

Great photo-blog post from Wildlife SOS, an Indian non-profit dedicated to the conservation of India’s wildlife. The two Moon Bear cubs depicted were apparently orphans, rescued by the organization two years ago.

Trade in Bear Parts

Hey lovely readers,

So I’ve been continuing my research, and I found an interesting journal article on the Bear Bile trade. It’s interesting because it’s actually a relatively systematic and extensive study of the trade. The authors are Chris Servheen and Judy Mills. Servheen is a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana; he’s also the Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator at the same institution. Judy Mills was also a faculty member of the University of Montana department of Forestry, although I had a difficult time finding any information about her current position or research activities.

Regardless, it appears that Servheen has done a great deal of research on “trade in bear parts,” an industry which apparently goes above and beyond the Asiatic Black Bear and TCM products, although the authors do acknowledge that bear bile (most commonly from the Moon Bear) is one of the most desirable and trafficked bear products on the market. I am going to give you an overview of the findings of the article, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I did! You can find the whole piece, entitled “The Asian Trade in Bears and Bear Parts: Impacts and Conservation Requirements” here.

According to Servheen and Mills, there has been an increase in the commercial demand for bear products in Asia. They suggest that economic development in countries such as China and South Korea has had an impact on consumers’ desire for luxury items such as “bear paw,” a traditional delicacy dating back as far as 700 years, in addition to bear bile products (1994:161). The increasing wealth in these countries, combined with a culture that has historically placed great value on bear products, has had a very negative effect on wild populations. In Korea, contemporary, strict, laws with regards to hunting bears and trading in bear parts were only put into place when populations were depleted to the point that there were only 10-20 wild bears left in Korean forests (1994:164). To illustrate the intense demand for these products, the authors go on to state that, when one of these bears was killed in 1983, the Korean government auctioned it’s gal bladder for $64,000 US (at 1991 exchange rates) (1994:164). Obviously, despite the decreasing availability of bears in the region (or perhaps as a result of scarcity), the desirability of bear parts has become extremely high.

In terms of TCM, the article speaks to the fact that medical research has actually shown bear bile to be effective in treating several medical problems. The active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has been proven to help address liver ailments and dissolve gallstones, among other benefits (1994:165). That being said UDCA can be (and is) manufactured synthetically in laboratories, and is used in a variety of existing pharmaceuticals. It is not a costly substance and there’s no evidence to suggest that the synthetic compound is less effective than organic UCDA, which is only found in large quantities in the gal bladders of bears (1994:165). Despite this, TCM practitioners are extremely resistant to using synthetic versions of the compound because of the context in which it’s manufactured. As the authors state, “by definition, traditional Asian medicine comes from nature, not a test tube” (1994:166). If anything bile farming, a practice which, ignoring the obvious ethical dilemmas of the practice, was designed to alleviate pressures on the wild bear population, may actually increase demand for these products by stimulating the trade in bear bile and increasing consumer awareness (1994:166).

One of the really interesting things about this article is that the researchers used “fieldwork” methods such as observation and interviews with individuals’ who were actively involved in the trade, including open air merchants, TCM practitioners, restaurant owners, and animal wholesalers. As a student of anthropology, I believe wholeheartedly in the value of “getting one’s hands dirty” and talking with people on the ground, so to speak. While it wasn’t the focus of the article, what is particularly of interest to me are the political and cultural factors driving the trade. The only way to get an understanding of these is to talk to real people who are first-hand participants in the economy of bear products. The article alludes to the fact that growing wealth and burgeoning capitalism have created a market demand for luxury goods, to be conspicuously consumed by the growing upper and upper-middle class. While the article does not address the needs/financial situation of producers (i.e. bile farmers, hunters…) I would hazard a guess that there are few equally lucrative opportunities for the individuals filling these roles.

In any case, this was an interesting start to my research ‘proper’! I am looking forward to finding out more about what is being done (hopefully something… there must be some consumer education programs out there) to change consumer behavior.

Delving into the Literature

Like any good former grad student, I’ve decided to delve into the literature on the bear bile farming industry to find out more about it’s history and the socio-political context that surrounds it. So far I have to say that I’m shocked by how little information is available! It’s appalling that so little has been written, either within the mainstream news media, or within an academic context.

Here are a few important questions that I’m hoping to answer:

1) What is the current legal status of the bear bile farming industry in China? Is the government actively working to end the practice?

2) What is the economic demand for bear bile? How is demand generated and sustained?

3) From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), what are the medicinal benefits of using bear bile products? Have other more sustainable alternatives been found?

Here are some very preliminary findings that I hope to expand upon in successive posts:

1) In the year 2000, the Chinese government signed the China Bear Rescue agreement with Jill Robinson and the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF). The agreement signified the Chinese government’s cooperation with the Foundation on a number of goals. In the short term, the primary goal was to close the worst farms, located in the Sichuan district, and rescue approximately 500 bears. The long term goal was to work towards permanently ending bear bile farming and rehabilitating any remaining bears. You can read more about the agreement here.

This agreement is all fine and good but it sounds like the Chinese government is simply giving the AAF its blessing in continuing the work they’re already doing – it’s unclear how active the government has been in helping to achieve these goals. This is definitely a point that deserves (and will get!) more research.

2) According to an article published in a January 2009 issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine entitled “Bear Bile: dilemma of traditional medicinal use and animal protection,” as of 2005 there were 123 TCM products that included bear bile. Products available in North America fall into 3 main categories: manufactured bile medicines; farmed bile powder; and intact bear gal bladders (for more detail, see the full article here). While these products are illegal in North America, there is still demand for them, and they are made available to North American consumers through the black market. The value of bear bile products has increased significantly: in 1970 one kilo of bear gal bladders cost around $200 dollars US; by 1990 the cost had risen to between $3000 and $5000 dollars US. On the contemporary legal market (in Hong Kong) a kilo of gal bladders costs as much as $30,000-$50,000 dollars US. With prices this high, trade in bear bile products is not going to end any time soon.

3) According to the same article from the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, TCM practitioners have used bear bile products to treat a variety of ailments including but not limited to fever, inflammation, swelling and pain reduction, hemorrhoids, and epilepsy. The alternative medicine industry has acknowledged that bear bile extraction is extremely cruel, and mainstream authorities don’t seem to condone the use of these products. Some research appears to have been done to find alternatives. The main alternatives investigated include bile from animals other than the Asiatic Black Bear (obviously a problematic option), plant derived substances, and synthetic chemical compounds. Apparently the second two options are promising, however more systematic research is required to definitively establish a viable alternative to bear bile.

I am hoping that, with further research of my own, I can find out what exactly is on the market in terms of alternatives to TCM substances containing bear bile, what has been done in terms of consumer education, and what kinds of cultural factors may be motivating consumers to continue using bile products.


Suicide on the Bile Farm

Suicide on the Bile Farm

I had never heard of an animal committing suicide until I heard about the bear bile farming industry. As far as I know, suicide is an extremely uncommon occurrence in the wild. According to this recent article (follow the link – published October 11, 2013), a mother bear on a bile farm killed herself and her cub, strangling the cub and then running into the cage wall headfirst in order to end her own life. If that is not horrifying I don’t know what is.


Getting Graphic…

Getting Graphic...

I was recently criticized for advocating for the end of bile bear farming but not being vegan. Readers, what do you think, am I a hypocrite? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Regardless, when you look at the bear in the image above, it’s hard to make an argument for the preservation of the bile farming industry. The image depicts a “crush cage” which is used to keep the bear permanently immobile, making the bile harvesting process easier.

Remember to visit my indiegogo campaign and donate!! Simply click through the image above – help me (and the Animals Asia Foundation) save these bears and advocate change.


Bear Brain Surgery

*image from National Geographic – article linked below

This is old news, having happened back in April, but since it’s still ‘news’ to me I wanted to share!

This past spring an Asian Black Bear by the name of Champa became the first bear to  undergo brain surgery (in the history of EVER!). Champa, a three year old bear living at a sanctuary operated by the Australian non-profit called Free The Bears, suffered hydrocephalus. As the name of the disease suggests (literally “water in the brain”), individuals with hydrocephalus have excess fluid in their brains. It’s a painful condition that has been described as similar to a chronic, extremely intense migraine.

Usually an animal suffering from this condition would be put down, however the sanctuary, operated in the largely Buddhist country of Laos, decided that this was not an option in consideration of the local values and animal protection laws. Expert veterinary surgeon Romain Pizzi was flown in to carry out the procedure.

From National Geographic:

“To prepare for the operation, Pizzi consulted with pediatric surgeons and studied Asiatic black bear skulls, a replica of a bear brain, and the brains of a hydrocephalic otter and fox. He packed equipment to carry from his home in Edinburgh to Laos, knowing that he would be operating under hot, humid conditions and with unreliable electricity. Since there was no MRI machine at the sanctuary (or anywhere in Laos), he would not be able to confirm the diagnosis of hydrocephalus until surgery began.”

The procedure went smoothly and Champa reported to be a much more social and active bear post-surgery.

Read the full  article, from National Geographic, here