BEIJING—Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine hail bear bile as an extraordinary health elixir, and that belief has spawned an industry of farms where caged bears with catheters are milked of their bile for use in medicines and cosmetics.
The practice is coming under international condemnation.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution last month calling on China to end "cruel and uncivilized" bear farming by the 2008 summer Olympic Games.
China responded to the resolution Thursday, saying, in essence, forget it.
"We have introduced painless practices in obtaining bear bile, such as extracting the bile through tubes developed from bear tissue," Wang Wei, deputy director general of wildlife conservation at the State Forestry Administration, said at a news briefing.
Wang said China has made "remarkable improvement" in conditions on bear farms and has cracked down on other questionable wildlife practices, such as thrilling tourists at wildlife theme parks by feeding live animals to ravenous beasts of prey or permitting the skinning alive of furry critters as part of the rapidly expanding fur trade.
China in recent years has reduced the number of bear farms from 480 to 68 as part of a campaign to consolidate the industry and end illegal conduct, Wang said. Existing farms house some 7,000 bears, he added.
But Wang flatly ruled out abolishing all bear farms by 2008, noting that "bear bile is an important Chinese traditional medicine material."
"Bear bile powder has such efficacy that no other medicine can substitute for it. It can wipe out the pain of patients," he said.
He added that 123 kinds of Chinese medicines contain bear bile powder "and many patients rely on that medicine for treatment."
Most of the 68 existing farms raise Asiatic black bears, which are also known as moon bears due to a colored crescent shape on their breasts. There are between 16,000 and 25,000 of the bears left in the high-altitude forests of Asia, and they are protected under international convention. Farming of captive bears is permitted under Chinese law but banned in South Korea and Japan, where bear bile powder is also prized.
A critic of bear farming, Jill Robinson of the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, dismissed Wang's assertion that captive bears don't suffer.
"There is no humane technique of bile extraction in China and never can be," Robinson said. She said many farmers have replaced the rusty metal catheters they once used with clear plastic ones but that "farmers are deceiving the Chinese government" about other tactics, such as keeping bears in tiny cages and harvesting bile from unhealthy bears.
Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, a substance more abundant in bears than in any other mammal. When turned into powder, it can remedy kidney and liver ailments, fever and convulsions. Some believe bear bile powder can rejuvenate brain cells.
Chinese health experts acknowledge that alternative treatments to bear bile exist.
"There are various herbal medicines that can provide similar function," said Dr. Hao Jinda, a researcher at the National Chinese Medicine Research Institute in Beijing.
The European Parliament resolution, adopted Dec. 14 but announced last week, calls on China to set a time limit to end bear farming in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games and launch a campaign to deter consumers of bear bile.
Bear bile is in such a state of supply in China that it's used not only for medicines but also in shampoos, tonics, toothpastes and wine.
Several proponents of the European Parliament resolution said they're horrified by bear farming and will increase pressure on China before the 2008 Olympics.
"If this brutal practice is not outlawed by then, we will be doing all we can to take TV cameras from around the world into these repugnant farms," Neil Parish, a European Parliament member from southwest England, said in a statement before the vote.
Chinese traditional medicine and the nation's age-old dietary practices value a variety of wild animals and sea creatures. Chinese consumers with a taste for shark fin soup, sea cucumbers, deer penises and ground tiger bone have come into conflict with global environmental groups.
Bears are prized not only for bile but also for their paws, which are considered an expensive culinary delicacy. In March 2004, Russian customs agents seized a truck carrying 800 severed bear paws amid a load of antlers, pelts and dried sea cucumbers bound for China.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-BEARS
Need to map