Q. I recently saw the documentary Planet in Peril, and was horrified to learn that in China many species of bears are caged and subjected to painful (often fatal) methods to extract a kind of bile used in traditional Chinese medicines. Does bear bile actually cure certain ailments? And what kind of effect does the bear bile industry have on the species? – Edith, WA


A. Bear bile has been prized in the traditional Chinese medicine community for thousands of years. It's got a reputation as being a sort of wonder drug, and its active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is believed to cure a number of ailments —everything from cardiac illness to impotence—according to the Humane Society of the United States. But as an unhappy consequence, more than 10,000 bears are currently held in captivity on bear bile farms in China today, says the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF). 


The good news is that bear bile can be easily replaced with herbal or synthetic alternatives, according to many Chinese practitioners. AAF U.S. Outreach Coordinator Morgan Lance says that there are more than 54 herbal alternatives to bear bile, and that UDCA can be synthesized from slaughterhouse waste or even created without any animal product at all.


In fact, University of Minnesota researchers are looking into using synthetic UDCA for treating Huntington's Disease, and have confirmed that UDCA can be synthesized without the use of animals. What’s more, the American embassy in China says that these alternatives are cheaper than bear-sourced UDCA, and just as effective.  


Animal rights groups like the AAF are currently working to educate people about these alternatives to help end the practice of bile farming, which has contributed to declines in seven different bear species. Since 2000, the Chinese government has closed more than 40 bear farms, and more than 200 rescued animals currently reside at AAF’s Moon Bear Rescue Center near Chengdu in Sichuan Province. A second rescue center recently opened in Vietnam’s Tam Dao Valley. Let’s hope the good news keeps coming. After all, bears are best.


For more info, check out AAF’s website


Story by Jessica A. Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Bear bile farming
Bear bile is a valued and highly prized substance in the world of traditional Chinese medicine, but at what cost?