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.