In a historic move on September 15, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature voted at its World Congress in Jeju, South Korea to phase out bear farming, effectively ending the Asian bear bile industry - which causes the needless suffering of numerous bears each year and contributes to the decline of their population.
"The term 'farming' is a misleading one, as it implies that bears are being bred and that the trade may be sustainable," clarified Chris R. Shepherd, deputy director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, a wildlife trade monitoring organization. "This is absolutely not the case; bears [are being] sourced for the extraction of bile."
Bear bile, a digestive juice produced by the animals' livers, is used in many Asian medicines because it contains an acid believed to have several health benefits. But the process of extracting it involves the pointless torture of bears. Unfortunately, the industry has been thriving in China, South Korea, and Vietnam, despite strong disapproval from environmental and animal welfare advocates there.
But the IUCN's decision, activists declare, will finally put an end to this disturbing practice. "Bears suffer immense cruelty and pain as a result of being kept captive in bear bile industry conditions," said Chris Gee, external affairs manager at the World Society for the Protection of Animals. "The IUCN made the right decision, and millions of WSPA supporters and animal lovers around the world will welcome this exciting news."
"Bear farming" involves the capturing of Asiatic black bear cubs from the wild, where they are transported to facilities that involve placing them in "crush cages" - tight enclosures that render the animal entirely immobile. Living for a decade alone in such conditions typically results in extreme mental distress and muscle atrophy. But these bears can spend up to 30 years in these cages.
During that time, bears often have all their teeth and claws pulled, and are "milked" twice a day via a tube implanted in their abdomen. As the bile is extracted, the bears are believed to undergo excruciating pain, and have been observed chewing their paws open and moaning. After the bears stop producing bile, they are usually killed for their meat.
Witnesses on a bear farm in China observed a strong and troubling example of the torment the bears endure. As a worker punctured the stomach of a bear cub to pump it for bile, its mother heard its scream and broke out of its cage. The workers scattered as the mother bear hugged and eventually strangled the cub before running headfirst into a wall, killing herself.
Asiatic black bears (also called 'moon bears' for the iconic crescent shapes on their chests), have been found to be very intelligent, sociable, and vocal animals, and can be found in the wild everywhere from Iran to Japan. However, estimates show there are about 16,000 or less of them remaining, and the industry is believed to be very much to blame for their continuing decline.
The bile industry continues to stimulate senseless demand: bile has recently been used in products that offer no medicinal qualities, like cough drops, shampoo, and tea, in order to allow bear farmers to maximize their profits and utilize the surplus of bile at their disposal.
As far as medicine usage is concerned, there are herbal alternatives for bear bile, which are cheaper and more effective.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress is a massive event held every four years in which government leaders, business organizations, nonprofit organizations, and UN agencies gather to discuss management of the environment and wildlife in the interest of human, social, and economic development, including the need for good environmental governance.
The vote on bear farming will result in the closure of bear bile facilities across Asia.
In South Korea, environmental minister Yoo Young Sook will be expected to make an official announcement soon regarding the government's plan to phase out bear farms, as well as providing a timetable for the process.
"Taking action to phase out the bear bile industry," said Gee, "is essential to protect existing and future generations of bears from this completely unnecessary and cruel practice that is damaging to nature."