move over panda.

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.

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