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Bears need not suffer for our health

From Mr M. H. Espley, MRPharmS

This week on the BBC news there was a report concerning the continued supply of products containing bear bile. Andy Fisher, the Metropolitan Police’s wildlife liaison officer, said that this trade is illegal because Asiatic black bears are an endangered species. He showed products that contained bear bile that had been confiscated from Chinese herbalists in the UK.

The Journal carried an article (16 September, 1995, p344) that referred to two Chinese herbalists being prosecuted for selling products from endangered species, eg, rhinoceros, tiger and the Asiatic black bear. It said that further prosecutions would follow in Birmingham and Manchester: 11 in Birmingham and three in Manchester.

In its newsletter (4 September, 2003),the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) said that, in April 2003, a police raid in London uncovered a cache of bear and other animal products. According to Richard Ellis, author of ‘Tiger bone and rhino horn’, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) was synthesised in 1954 from chickens and can be purchased for as little as 16 cents per pill. However, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) prefer to obtain it from bear gall bladders.

While Jill Johnson, the founder of Animals Asia, has rescued about 200 bears from farms in China, there are still about 7,000 more in China and in South Korea, Taiwan, Laos and Vietnam suffering greatly in bear farms. Many die as a result of infections caused by the use of catheters to extract the bile.

This worldwide trade in bear bile, often in any country with a substantial population of Asians, is of considerable concern. In the 1990s the Canadian black bear population was greatly affected by the illegal trade and American black bears and grizzly bears were being killed to fill the needs of TCM.

While it is true that there is a substantial illegal trade in tiger and snow leopard skins, the demand for these animals and also bear bile for use in TCM has had a disastrous affect. A recent survey failed to find any snow leopards in the whole of China.

Richard Ellis, writing in The Times (9 April, 2005), says: “Some clever entrepreneurs have figured out how to obtain bear bile from a living bear — the technique is so awful for the bear that death for the animal might be preferable.” He also says: “It is a terrible anachronism that so many people today rely on largely ineffectual animal related remedies, but the real tragedy is that large numbers of animals have to die to provide these nostrums.”

He could have added that these are highly endangered animals.

Malcolm Espley
Tattenhall, Cheshire

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10020792

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