Photo credit: Wikipedia/Wroclaw Zoo

A panda may be the poster child for endangered Chinese animal species and the increasing number of Chinese conservation programs, but the Asiatic black bear shares its imperiled fate.   Named “moon bear” for the creamy white crescent that spans its chest, this close relative of the American black bear ranges from Pakistan across the Himalaya into China, north into Korea and the Russian Far East, and across the straits onto Honshu and Shikoku islands of Japan.

Like species worldwide, the moon bear’s population is declining due to loss of its arboreal habitat.  The perceived medicinal value of its body parts also makes it a victim to widespread hunting and to captivity in so-called bear bile farms.

In China, these farms have come increasingly under pressure from conservation organizations and the Chinese people.  This past winter, an undercover film produced and released by Chinese independent filmmakers, The Moon Bear, led to widespread outrage among the Chinese population and calls for an end to this inhumane practice.  Bred in captivity or captured in the wild, the farmed bears are imprisoned in tiny cages and “milked” for their bile by the insertion of metal catheters into their abdomens.

Bear farming is legal in China, although it has been illegal to establish new farms since 2000.  The number of bear bile farms has decreased from 480 in the mid-1990’s to 60 today.  It is feared that the number of farmed bears may actually have increased, however, as some farms have grown larger.  On a more positive note, 19 of mainland China’s 31 provinces and districts have committed within the past five years to prohibiting the opening and operation of bear bile farms and to actively seeking out and closing any farms found to be operating in secret.

Where there is a demand, suppliers will always find a way to provide.  And so the ultimate solution is to discredit bear bile as a potent medicinal substance.   Here again, there is hope on the horizon, as increasing numbers of traditional Chinese medical practitioners are choosing through public pressure and perhaps their own sense of conscience to end the prescription of natural bear bile, as well as products from other endangered species, and to develop substitutes from more sustainable sources.

Participants on NHA’s Wild & Ancient China tour will spend the last day of their itinerary at the Moon Bear Rescue Center outside of Chengdu, where bears liberated from the bile farms are nursed back to health and given new opportunity for the dignified and agreeable existence all creatures seek.