Poaching and illegal trade of bears, driven largely by the demand for bile, used in traditional medicine and folk remedies continues unabated across Asia on a large scale, a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has found.
Bear bile products were found on sale in Traditional Medicine outlets in all but one of the 13 countries/territories surveyed says the report entitled Pills, Powders, Vials & Flakes: The bear bile trade in Asia. The exception is Macao.
Products were most frequently observed in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam, where they were recorded in over half of all outlets surveyed. The most frequently encountered products were whole bear gall bladders and pills—found in half of the outlets surveyed.
TRAFFIC’s research suggests a complex and robust trade in bear products. Several of the countries/territories surveyed were either producers or consumers of bear bile products, while in some cases they acted as both. Mainland China was the most commonly reported place of origin for these products across the region. In Myanmar, internationally sourced gall bladders were reported to come solely from Lao PDR; in Hong Kong, in cases where the source was known, products were reported to have originated in Japan and over half of those offered for sale in the South Korea were from wild sources in Russia.
Domestic trade of bear bile is legal under strict regulation within mainland China and Japan but is illegal in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Regardless of the legality of trade within countries, international trade is not allowed. Asiatic Black Bears (predominant in this trade) and Sun Bears are both listed in Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade in the species, its parts and derivatives.
An analysis of the origin of bear bile products found in these surveys makes it clear that import and export regulations are commonly flouted demonstrating a failure to implement CITES requirements to stop illegal international bear bile trade effectively and protect bears from exploitation.
“Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES which should be the world’s most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead authorof the report and Senior Programme Officerof TRAFFIC SoutheastAsia.
The study found that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam did not have captive breeding programmes, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild.
“The study makes a clear case for authorities to shut down businesses selling illegal bear products and prosecute individuals caught selling, buying, transporting or keeping bears illegally,” said Foley.
“Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” added Foley.
“Even legal bear bile producers are circumventing domestic and international regulations by exporting products internationally,” said Dr Jill Robinson MBE, Founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation, which rescues bears from farms in China and Viet Nam.
“This report, in addition to Animals Asia’s years of research, shows that the bear bile industry is engaging in illegal practices. As pressure mounts on the wild bear population, there are serious questions to be answered on the welfare and pathology of farmed bears, and the risks to human health in those who consume the contaminated bile from such sick and diseased bears,” said Robinson.
The study’s main findings are:
- Bear bile products were observed in traditional medicine outlets in 12 out of 13 Asian countries/territories surveyed
- Bear bile products were available at 50% or more of traditional medicine outlets surveyed in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
- China is the most commonly reported source for bear bile products
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of IUCN and WWF.