Story by: David Josef Volodzko, Photos by: Matt Ferguson (inkonpaper.org.uk)
Before over-hunting cut their numbers, Asiatic blacks bears occupied a swath of land from Japan to France, but now their western border barely reaches Iran and they’re in fewer and fewer places east of this. There are now less than 30 in the forests of South Korea, where they’re known as bandalgaseumgom, or “half-moon chest bears” — moon bears for short. This is a reference to the white crescent marks across their chests. Presumably it was this distinction, along with their natural ability to walk on two legs, that made them popular in circus shows of the 19th century. If you’ve ever seen footage of a bear on a tricycle, chances are it was a moon bear.
In the 21st century, they’re exploited for their paws and gallbladder bile. The bile has traditionally been prescribed for such a wide variety of ailments that it’s marketed as a veritable panacea, or more accurately a modern Snake Oil remedy.
Modern studies have found some merit in particular applications. The metabolic byproduct found in the bile is known as ursodeoxycholic acid, or Ursodiol, and has been shown to reduce cholesterol production and temporarily diminish the size of gallstones. Ursodiol is also the only FDA-approved treatment for primary biliary cirrhosis, but its use has not been found to have any effect on the mortality rate of patients. And recently Ursodiol has been found to help prevent heart arrhythmia.
It is hoped that such findings will promote the development of synthetic Urodiol, since poaching will surely drive the species to extinction before meeting the needs of a fraction of the world’s heart attack victims.
How it works
In Korea, it is estimated there are 1,400 bears in captivity for the purpose of bile extraction on around 100 farms. Extraction works like this: A worker will gouge a hole in his belly, allowing the bile from his gallbladder to ooze into a bowl below. They’ll have to repeatedly puncture the pus that forms in order to prevent the wound from healing, thus increasing the risk of infection. Revolting though it sounds, this is the “humane” method. Other clever approaches involve rusty metal catheters that can lead to malignant tumors.
All this happens despite the fact that the moon bear is an endangered species.
In September, SBS reported on an undercover visit to a bear farm in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, where over 50 bears were being raised illegally. The reporter witnessed the milking of bile from a live bear. Draining bile from a live bear is illegal and according to Korean law, bears must be 10 years of age to be legally slaughtered for medicinal purposes.
Following is the English SBS transcript, courtesy of Bear Necessity Korea:
The reporter visited the farm under the guise of an eager customer. The farmer took him inside and fired a sedation dart at one of his bears. The bear began to wander until it collapsed. The farmer emphasized that the bile was “fresh,” and that the milking would occur as quickly as possible.
Using an ultrasound machine, the farmer located the gall bladder and roughly pushed a large syringe into the bear’s body to draw out “dark green bile.” He added that he was “feeling generous,” and told the reporter he would give him extra bile so there would be a total of 120 to 130 cc. One hundred cubic centimeters costs approximately $5,000 in today’s market.
The incident was reported to the police and charges were laid.
Save the bears
One of the organizations working to save these bears is Animals Asia. Founded in 1998, Animals Asia currently has moon bear rescue centers in China and Vietnam. Founder and CEO Jill Robinson, MBE, became involved after visiting a bear farm in 1993. She says her visit that day changed everything. “Witnessing row after row of caged and tortured bears, knowing my own species was responsible for this cruelty, and no one apart from the bear farmers was aware of their plight.”
Animals Asia has had success in China. Robinson photographed a bear farm and published the images. That’s when a Hong Kong-based businessman who saw the images put her in touch with David Chu Yu Lin, honorary advisor to the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing. Thanks to his help, Robinson had the ear of the CWCA, and after two years of negotiations, authorities in China agreed to rescue 500 bears from bile farms. Still, she estimates that 14,000 bears remain in captivity throughout Asia. “Thankfully,” she says, “there is growing outrage in China.”
She believes a tipping point is fast approaching. “Our research also shows that the contaminated bile being extracted from the bodies of such diseased and dying animals is not only compromising the welfare of the bears but now very clearly affecting the health of those who consume this substance,” she said. “Doctors in Vietnam are ‘whistle blowing’ and announcing how patients have died after drinking bile that is clearly containing pus, bacteria, cancer cells, blood, urine and feces.”
As public sentiment turns against these practices, governments are beginning to step forward. The moon bear is already a protected species in China and Japan, but with what success these regulations will meet remains in question, particularly in a market valuing bears at up to $2,000 each.
National Assembly steps in
In Korea, efforts to garner political support have proven difficult, but a recent bill brought forward by the Democratic Labor Party’s Heong Hee-deok seeks to make it illegal to breed moon bears, and support among South Koreans is growing. The timing is crucial too, as the bears’ situation in Korea is dire.
In an interview with the Korea Herald, Heong explained how the current system governing moon bear breeding is dysfunctional. “The Korean government, especially the Ministry of Environment, has operated the work of species restoration,” he said. “But on the other side, the government has permitted farmers to collect gall bladder from bears. It is a contradictory system. Bears are wild animals, not livestock, but there are still many bear livestock farms in Korea.”
The bill, called the Special Law on Bear Farm Management, would lay the groundwork to outlaw bear farming in Korea. But time is quickly running out. If the bill does not pass by February 2012, it will fail. There are still major problems to work out even if the bill was to pass: The issues of farmer compensation and accommodation of the 1,400 bears have to be resolved. There is currently not a sanctuary in Korea that could handle the large number of bears. Animal rights groups fear that if the bill passes as is, it would lead to euthanasia of the bears in Korea or selective rehabilitation with some euthanasia.
According to Kelly Frances, founder of Bear Necessity Korea (bearnecessitykorea.com), fewer then 20 reside in Jirisan Park, where they are monitored by the staff of the Jirisan Restoration Centered. “I believe our last count was 18, and the number fluctuates but never rises above 20.”
Bear Necessity Korea would like to see the creation of a sanctuary comparable to the one run by Animals Asia in Chengdu, China.
“I see the bill as a tentative first step,” Frances told Groove Korea. “Whether or not it passes or fails, it’s a dialogue initiative. Some aspects of the proposed bill are straightforward, such as the proposed ban on breeding, prohibition of further bear sales, regulation of existing farm bears, penal regulations, and a step in the direction of farmer compensation.”
She adds: “Within the next few months, we expect more answers.”
Sympathy for the animals may not be as strong as some would prefer, but self-preservation is an endless source of outrage that’s never so sweetly sparked as when people are told there’s cancer and feces in their medicine.
Buy a beer, save a bear
The Bear Truth (thebeartruth.org) and Bear Necessity (bearnecessitykorea.com) are non-profit organizations fighting to raise awareness about the issue. If you’d like to help, you can contact them via their websites (Bear Necessity accepts online donations via PayPal). Also, drop by Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro in Itaewon 2-dong for their Jirisan Moon Bear IPA.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of Groove Korea. To submit a letter to the editor, e-mail HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity. — Ed.