Bear bile is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in a bear’s gallbladder. Some traditional Asian medicine practitioners use it. It is reported that around 12,000 bears are kept and raised in captivity on bear farms in China, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. There is a high demand for bile in those countries, including Malaysia and Japan. 

These creatures are abused for their bile, a valuable element in traditional Chinese medicine, and are exposed to excruciating torment for many years.

The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is the most extensively farmed bear species for bile. In contrast, the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), and other bear species are also utilized. 

Scientists discovered in the early 1900s that bear bile, a fluid generated by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, contains far more ursodeoxycholic acid than that of pigs or cows. Studies have shown that this acid removes gallstones and treats liver disease.

On the other hand, Bear bile is promoted as a remedy for cancer, colds, hangovers, and other disorders, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support its efficacy. According to Animals Asia, bear bile is frequently used in domestic items like toothpaste, acne treatment, tea, and shampoo to expand the market for bear bile beyond traditional medicine.

Background

Three glass bottles containing Beer bile
Three glass bottles containing Beer bile | Image Credit – Flickr

Bear bile was in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, with the first mention in eighth-century medical literature prescribing it for ailments like epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and heart trouble. 

For almost 3,000 years, bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been used to treat various diseases, including fever, gallstones, liver difficulties, heart disease, and irritation of the eyes. Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), the active element in bear bile, is more plentiful in bear bile than in the bile of any other mammal. The liver excretes bile, held in the gallbladder, before being released into the stomach to help digestion. Each year, the average bear passes 2 kg of dry bile powder. 

Although UDCA is helpful, medical practitioners now frequently claim its efficacy has been exaggerated. As a result of the circumstances on bear farms, veterinarians evaluating bile from farmed bears have determined that it is commonly contaminated with pus. 

Additionally, synthetic and natural alternatives are less expensive and more commonly available. Synthetic UDCA is sometimes used instead of surgery to treat gallstones, primary cirrhosis, autoimmune hepatitis, and colon cancer in the West. Many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners treat various problems using fifty-four herbal alternatives, such as sage, rhubarb, or dandelion. 

Cost

Bear
Bear | Image Credit – Mark Basarab

Bile and gallbladders are in high demand in Asian communities worldwide, especially in the European Union and the United States. This demand has resulted in bears being explicitly hunted for this purpose in the United States.

According to reports, the cost of bear bile varies by location; however research discovered that bile costs over US$410 per kilogram in China, an average wild bear gall bladder costs US$33 per gram in Japan, and an entire bear gallbladder costs around US$10,000 in South Korea. Bear farmers have begun making bile-based shampoo, wine, tea, and throat lozenges due to the current bear bile excess.

International Trade

Bear bile extraction
Imprisoned Asian black bear at a bile farm bile | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

A flourishing international criminal trade fuels the demand for bear bile. Bear bile and gallbladders have been trafficked across borders, disguised as chocolate figs, and packaged in coffee to mask their odor. 

Bear gallbladders and paws (both regarded as delicacies) have been discovered in various locations, ranging from an apartment building’s freezer to a grounded airliner on an international journey.

There has also been evidence of increased poaching of American black bears. As the number of Asiatic black bears falls, these bears, which are still common in North America, are increasingly being targeted to supply the demand for bear bile. 

It is believed that 40,000 American black bears are killed lawfully in North America each year, with an equal number likely poached illegally for their gallbladders and paws. Although the number of American black bears is currently stable, rising hunting and habitat degradation could jeopardize the species in the coming years. 

Poachers are also killing cubs and adult bears because the size of a bear’s gallbladder does not rely on the bear’s age. Killing cubs that haven’t reproduced yet could push the species towards extinction. 

Bear farming

Bear farming
Bear farming | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Because of overhunting, the Asiatic black bear was virtually extinct in South Korea as early as 1942. China’s population was likewise fast dwindling. As a result, North Korean researchers devised a method for extracting bile from live bears. By the early 1980s, China had adopted this strategy. 

The Chinese government anticipated that this would meet the demand for bear bile for therapeutic purposes while minimizing the damage to China’s fauna. They also promoted bear husbandry (along with other forms of animal farming) in impoverished areas to spur economic growth. In China alone, about 10,000 Asiatic black bears were kept in captivity on over 400 bear farms by the early 1990s. 

On bile farms, bears are subjected to painful operations and are denied access to their natural habitat. Bears are housed in cages that are 2.5 feet x 4.2 feet x 6.5 feet on most farms, which are too small for these 110 to 260-pound bears to turn around or sit up completely.

Many bears have scars from cages pressing against them, and some have head wounds and damaged teeth from pounding and biting at the bars in a futile attempt to break free.

Even though many farmers could not implement the modifications economically, the Chinese government outlawed catheters for bile extraction in favor of the “free drip” approach in 1996. Catheters are still frequently utilized.

The “free drip” procedure entails operating on the bear’s abdomen to create an open hole through which bile can freely drain. People promoted this procedure as being more humanitarian, yet it has proven to be just as, if not more, inhumane than the catheter method. Bile frequently spills back into the bear’s abdomen, increasing infection and mortality rates. 

Farmers also have a hard time keeping the hole open because the bear’s body attempts to mend itself. This requires more painful surgery and, in many cases, a tiny catheter to mark the spot open permanently. 

Because of the cloudy conditions on most farms, the bears get different diseases, worms, and parasites. The bears’ muscles atrophy due to being confined in such small cages for so long. They are also underweight due to a corn mash or porridge diet, and their teeth and claws are frequently removed to protect the farmers from injury. 

Some bears are reported to commit suicide to escape the unending pain they endure on the farms. As a result of these ailments, the few bears who have been saved cannot stand or walk without effective therapy. 

Although bear farming was supposed to safeguard wild populations from overhunting, it has become evident that it has the opposite impact by increasing demand for bear bile as prices fall. Before establishing bear ranches, China’s annual demand for bear meat was around 500 kg. 

Demand has risen substantially in recent years, reaching approximately 4,000 kilos per year. Furthermore, people who can afford it often prefer bile from wild bears to farmed bile because they believe it is more effective. Finally, wild bears are still used to stock farms illegally. A rescue group discovered that 20% of their bears had lost limbs due to traps. 

For a wild cub, bear farms pay between US$280 and US$400 a month, which is roughly ten times the monthly income of a restaurant server in China. According to estimates, only 12,000 to 18,000 wild Asiatic black bears are left in China; however, this number is impossible to verify because no reliable estimates exist. The Chinese government claims that bile farming does not damage wild bear populations, and wild bears are plentiful.

Methods of Extraction

Bear bile extraction in Vietnam | Video Credit – Animals Asia

The types of methods employed to extract the bile and gall bladder of bear are given below: 

1. Percutaneous biliary drainage

It is a procedure that involves using an ultrasound imager to detect the gallbladder, puncturing it, and extracting the bile.

2. Permanent implantation

A tube is inserted into the gallbladder through the belly for permanent implantation. The bile is routinely extracted twice a day through such implanted tubes, producing 10–20 ml of bile during each extraction.

3. Catheterization 

It is the process of inserting a steel or perspex catheter into the bear’s abdomen and gallbladder.

4. The full-jacket approach 

In this method, people extract the bile using a permanent catheter tube, which is subsequently collected in a plastic bag inside a metal box worn by the bear.

5. Free drip

The free drip procedure entails creating a permanent opening in the bear’s abdomen and gallbladder, known as a fistula, through which bile can freely drain. The wound is susceptible to infection, and bile can seep back into the abdomen, resulting in a high likelihood of mortality. It requires drilling a permanent hole, or fistula, in the bear’s stomach and gallbladder for the free drip approach.

The entire gallbladder is occasionally removed. When wild bears are slaughtered for their bile, this procedure is utilized.

Uses

The bear is a walking drugstore in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For millennia, several parts of the bear, from fat to brain to spinal cord, have been employed. The bile inside the gallbladder is the most prized therapeutic portion of the bear, and it can cost more than narcotics.

Bear bile is not specified as an aphrodisiac in the fundamental doctrines of TCM, despite popular references to bear gall bladders being used to boost sexual potency. 

Treatment of life-threatening tumors, burns, pain, and redness of the eyes, asthma, sinusitis, and general misery are among the medical applications. Bear gall bladder is also employed to treat significant liver problems and liver tonic to prevent liver damage caused by excessive alcohol usage.

The bile’s monetary value is derived from traditional bear bile prescriptions by conventional medicine specialists. Ursodeoxycholic acid is found in bear bile. It’s used to cure hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle aches and pains, sprains, epilepsy, lower fever, enhance eyesight, break down gallstones, function as an anti-inflammatory, and minimize the effects of excessive alcohol intake, and ‘clean’ the liver. Whole gallbladders, raw bile, pills, powder, flakes, and ointment are available. 

1. Medicinal Uses

I) Bile acid in the treatment of Ocular diseases

Treatment of ocular diseases
Treatment of ocular diseases | Image Credit – Flickr

The hydrophilic bile acids UDCA and TUDCA are cytoprotective in several disease models. Their cytoprotective effects are thought to be achieved through direct actions on mitochondrial and ER membranes.

Effects in ocular illness models have only recently begun to be investigated, but they appear promising. However, there have been few reports of mechanistic evidence from visual models. Some of TUDCA’s protective actions may be related to its taurine moiety inhibiting the production of apoptosomes. 

Continuing preclinical testing is being done to determine why hydrophilic bile acids have substantial protective benefits in retinal degeneration, glaucoma, and cataract animals. 

Source: J.H., Nickerson, J.M., Moring, A.G. et al.

II) Bear bile dissolves gall stones and treats liver disease

It was reported that 23 cases of chronic liver illness improved dramatically after being given bovine gallstone (Goou) and bear gall powder (Yutan). Within one month, simultaneous therapy of Goou at 200 mg/day and Yutan at 60 mg/day resulted in significant improvements in liver function and subjective complaints in all patients.

In cases with liver cirrhosis, administration of Goou alone was likewise practical, but concurrent administration of Goou and Yutan was found to be more efficacious than administration of Goou alone. These findings imply that animal crude medications (Goou and Yutan) are effective treatments for chronic liver illnesses that are difficult to treat.

Source: Matsumoto N, Nakashima T, Kashima K. 

III) Bear bile inhibits Hepatocellular Carcinoma

A study proved the underlying mechanisms of bear bile powder (BBP)’s inhibitory effect on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) growth.

In HCC mice, BBP therapy resulted in a substantial decrease in tumor volume and tumor weight but did not affect body weight change. In HCC tumor tissues, BBP also enhanced cell apoptosis, decreased cell proliferation, and reduced intratumoral microvessel density.

BBP works against cancer by inhibiting the STAT3 signaling pathway and influencing various intracellular targets.

Source: Hong-wei Chen, A-ling Shen, Li-ya Liu, Jun Peng & Jian-feng Chu

2. Get Rid of Hangovers

Rice wine is frequently blended with bear bile. Although animal-part infused liquors are extremely frequent in traditional medicine as therapeutic elixirs, it’s unclear what potential health benefits this is thought to provide.

Worse yet, some businesses steep a bear paw in rice liquor and have even been known to steep a whole bear carcass (pictured above). This exceedingly uncommon procedure has no basis in traditional or modern medicine, and it unquestionably tastes foul.

Bear bile has also been utilized as a hangover remedy to control the market further. Fortunately, Chinese experts have countered that ingesting bear bile for a hangover can have extremely hazardous negative consequences for a liver that has already been damaged by excessive alcohol consumption.

3. Toothpaste

Toothpaste made up of bear bile
Toothpaste made up of bear bile | Image Credit – 莎莉 彭

Bear bile has recently been introduced in some Chinese toothpaste brands. Hundreds of other companies recommended by dentists, on the other hand, successfully manufacture toothpaste without causing horrendous brutality to bears.

4. Efficacy

In scientific research, bear bile has been proven to have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and hepatoprotective properties.

Ursodeoxycholic acid is the active substance in bear bile. Ursodeoxycholic acid has anti-inflammatory and protective properties in human gastrointestinal epithelial cells. It has been connected to the modulation of immunoregulatory responses via cytokines, anti-microbial peptides, defensins, and enhanced wound restitution in the colon. Furthermore, the effects of UDCA have been found to have an impact outside of epithelial cells.

Bear bile has also been found in trials to dissolve gallstones in the gallbladder, allowing them to be removed. Because of the controversy surrounding bear farming to get bile, ursodeoxycholic acid is now available in synthetic form.

Alternative sources for ursodeoxycholic acid are being developed and studied due to the controversy surrounding bear ranching to get bile. Scientists in China have been developing synthetic bile products to eliminate the requirement for animal sources of bile. In this way, it is anticipated that we can produce bile in the future without using animal cruelty.

5. As a coronavirus therapy

As a coronavirus therapy
As a coronavirus therapy | Image Credit – Day To Day

The Chinese government has suggested using Tan Re Qing, an injectable containing bear bile, to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases, less than a month after taking steps to permanently ban the trading and eating of live wild animals for food. 

China’s National Health Commission, a government agency in charge of national health policy, published a list of recommended coronavirus therapies, both traditional and Western. 

This recommendation demonstrates what wildlife advocates argue is a contradictory approach to wildlife. COVID-19 has no known cure, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), while some medications, such as pain killers and cough syrup, can help with symptoms.

Legal Protection for Bears

Legal Protection for Bears
Legal Protection for Bears | Image Credit – Pix4free

While bear cultivation is permitted and promoted in China, killing wild bears and the international trade of bear parts is illegal. Many of China’s endangered species are prohibited from being traded by the Wildlife Protection Law passed in 1989.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a convention that provides rules for international wildlife trade. CITES divides species into two categories: Appendix I and Appendix II. Species on the verge of extinction are listed in Appendix I. Only under extraordinary situations is trading in these species or their parts permitted. Since 1979, the Asiatic black bear has been included in Appendix I. Appendix II includes species that aren’t necessarily endangered but whose trade must be regulated to prevent the species from becoming endangered. Because the American black bear is on Appendix II, international trading in American black bear parts is lawful; however, a permit requirement governs it. 

The Pelly Amendment allows the US President to impose trade sanctions on a country that violates or undermines the effectiveness of an international environmental agreement such as CITES. Even if the act is legal in the offending country, the President has the authority to do so.

Rescue Efforts

Save animals rally
Save animals rally | Image Credit – Flickr

Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) has been at the frontline of the campaign to save bears in bear-farming countries since 1993. Over forty bear farms were closed due to their discussions and public awareness initiatives. 

Bears are turned up to sanctuaries because they can no longer live in the wild due to injury and a lack of survival techniques. These bears are sometimes euthanized due to significant damage or disease due to their extended periods in captivity on these dreadful farms. Others can be rehabilitated after months of treatment and, in certain situations, major surgery.

Despite these rescue attempts, thousands more bears suffer on farms, and wild bears are being murdered worldwide. Through billboards and media attention, the AAF and other organizations strive to raise public awareness in Asia about the atrocities of bear farming and the trafficking in bear bile. They’re collaborating with governments and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to lessen the demand for bear bile by promoting herbal alternatives. As these alternatives become more widely available, bear bile’s appeal is beginning to decline. 

Bear farming and the trade of bear bile have resulted in the deaths of thousands of wild bears and the suffering of captive bears on bile farms. We can better protect these bears if states follow through on their international duties under CITES. 

The US should lead the charge in ending this terrible trade, and other bear-farming or bear-trading countries should follow suit. We may accomplish this by enacting new legislation and imposing harsher penalties on poachers and smugglers, making them less likely to engage in this illegal activity. 

More resources should be devoted to enforcing these rules, prosecuting those who break them, and informing the public about the issues. As American bears have become the new target of this burgeoning industry,

While the polls are neither complete nor statistically typical of the entire East Asian market, they suggest that bear gall bladder availability may be stable or decline in some markets.

However, costs have risen dramatically in most nations, and certain exceptions exist. Illegal trading continues to exist. 

Conclusion

Wild bears have been hunted because of the demand for bear bile, and their parts have been illegally traded internationally. Foreign laws do nothing to safeguard bears on bile farms, and neither US nor international laws adequately address the problem of unlawful killing and trade. There is a rising need for further laws, cohesive state law, and international cooperation as bears are exploited on bile farms, and the population of wild bears is declining.

Suraksha Pal is an Industrial Engineer currently pursuing my master’s degree in Renewable Energy Engineering at the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus. She has a keen interest in Renewable Energy and is passionate about sustainable development. She loves to express her views on these subjects through articles and blogs.