Crossroads blog | 28 Sep, 2022

The impact of bear farming on wild bear conservation: a decade of collaborative research

In several Asian countries, bears are farmed for their bile, which is an ingredient in traditional medicine. In 2012, nine IUCN Members tabled a motion at the IUCN World Conservation Congress to phase-out bear farms on the grounds that farms may harm bear conservation. The motion triggered intense debate over whether bear farming was having a positive or negative effect on wild bear populations. Ultimately, Members agreed on the need for rigorous research to help clarify this question. A decade of research later, a clearer picture of the bear bile market has begun to emerge, write: Amy Hinsley (University of Oxford), David Garshelis (IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group), Yingjie Qiu (China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine – an IUCN Member organisation), Xiangdong Ruan (Academy of Inventory and Planning, National Forestry and Grassland Administration, People’s Republic of China – an IUCN Member organisation) and Mike Hoffmann (IUCN SSC Steering Committee).

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Asiatic black bear

Photo: David Garshelis

Bear bile is a traditional medicine ingredient used in several Asian countries, dating back over 1,300 years. It is rich in ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which has proven medicinal properties. The illegal trade in bear gallbladders (containing bile) has become a major threat, especially to Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) in China and Southeast Asia. Bear farming, where bile is repeatedly extracted from live, captive animals, was intended to provide a legal supply of bile that would act as a substitute for the bile from poached wild bears. However, farming has faced intense scrutiny, especially for animal welfare reasons, because it has often been poorly managed and regulated, involving husbandry that adversely impacts the animals’ health and precludes captive reproduction.

The motion to phase-out bear farming tabled at the 2012 IUCN Congress in Jeju, Republic of Korea, stemmed from research which suggested that the wide availability of farmed bear bile may have stimulated, rather than reduced, use of wild bear bile. The Chinese Government disputed this research, claiming that farming helped curtail poaching. They also contended that farmed bile was necessary for meeting medical demands, and that bear farms in China were self-sustaining without the need to source cubs from the wild. Bear farming also takes place in Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Viet Nam and Republic of Korea, where farms are mainly not self-sustaining.

Despite strongly divergent opinions, consensus was reached around the need for a rigorous, independent study to try to understand the impact of bear farming on wild bear populations.

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Bear farm, Fujian Province, People's Republic of China

David Garshelis

After days of intense discussion, and despite strongly divergent opinions about whether farming increased or reduced demand for wild bile, consensus was reached around the need for a rigorous, independent study with involvement from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and IUCN Members, to try to understand the impact of bear farming on wild populations. IUCN Members adopted this as Recommendation 139. To ensure that the study stayed scientifically focussed on conservation, the Recommendation purposefully avoided animal welfare issues.

Agreeing on the need for the study proved to be the easy part. For several years afterwards, the parties debated how to make the study happen in a collaborative manner and what was needed to put it beyond reproach. Eventually, at a meeting in 2016 co-hosted by the IUCN China office and the State Forestry Administration (now the National Forest and Grassland Administration, NFGA), delegates from the IUCN SSC, China’s Academy of Inventory and Planning, and the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (CATCM) agreed that each party would lead elements of the work with input from the others.

A partnership was formed, comprising the IUCN SSC (including the Bear Specialist Group), NFGA, CATCM, the University of Oxford and Sun Yat-sen University, among others. The work was divided into three broad topics, aiming to: understand the status of wild bear populations and how they are impacted by the trade in gallbladders; disentangle the market demand for farmed and wild bile, and synthetic versions of the active ingredient UDCA; and detail the ‘supply side of bear farming’ (such as the number of bear farms, the number of bears in farms, and whether those bears are reproducing).

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Representatives of the bear farming analysis team meet in Beijing, November 2019

David Garshelis

IUCN SSC, Oxford University and Sun Yat-sen University led the markets side of the work, with the collaboration of the Academy of Inventory and Planning, NFGA and CATCM. From a research perspective, the complexity of bear markets in China made the work challenging, intriguing and unique. Farmed, wild and synthetic bear bile are all medically effective, but people have varying views on their efficacy and substitutability. The wild product is often considered (but not proven) to be most potent. However, it is expensive, illegal and hard to obtain, whereas farmed bile is relatively cheap and sold legally over the counter in pharmacies in China, as packaged products that are highly regulated. Synthetic UDCA is relatively expensive and sold as packaged products such as tablets.

We began by identifying the major data gaps, which included a lack of recent information on the scale of bear bile consumption in China and data from consumers themselves about what influenced their decisions. We conducted surveys with members of the public and interviews with medical practitioners in four very different Chinese provinces: Jilin, Guangdong, Guangxi and Sichuan. The surveys and interviews aimed to assess the prevalence of consumption, prescription and sale of bear bile products. We then surveyed more than 1,400 consumers of traditional Chinese medicine to investigate what influenced switching between wild, farmed and synthetic products.

Our studies demonstrated that bear bile consumption in China is influenced by complex factors and that characterising all consumers as having the same preferences and behaviours is too simplistic.

Our survey of the public used a specialised questioning technique to overcome people’s reluctance to admit to using bile, even farmed bile, due to confusion about its legality and the stigma associated with highly-publicised animal welfare concerns. Whereas less than 4% of respondents directly admitted to using bear bile products, we estimate an actual use of over 11%. Some groups of people, particularly women and younger people, were less forthright than others in admitting to using bile products. We were unable to estimate the actual use of wild bile, as too few people in our sample (0.4%) reported consuming it. Around a quarter of the traditional medicine doctors interviewed had prescribed bile, while half of pharmacy workers interviewed had suggested it to a customer; indicating that demand still exists and that it is in part sustained by the advice of medical practitioners.

In our consumer survey we uncovered evidence of distinct groups of people having similar preferences that could underpin whether they switch from or to wild bile in various medical situations. These included one group who preferred only legal farmed and synthetic bile products and would be unlikely to use wild bile, another group who disliked synthetic products but would use either farmed or wild bile, and a final group who would prefer to use an alternative to bear bile where possible. Notably, a worsening illness promoted switching between products in all groups, but not in a consistent direction.

Overall, our studies demonstrated that bear bile consumption in China is influenced by complex factors, with the choice to consume wild, farmed or synthetic products influenced by advice from doctors or family members, individual preferences, knowledge or prior experiences with the product. Some findings came as a surprise. For example, factors such as price and availability play a key role in choices that consumers make, meaning that many consumers with an overall preference for wild bile may only consume legal farmed or synthetic products.

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Farmed bile as sold in People's Republic of China

David Garshelis

We have not yet finished all aspects of the study. Field surveys conducted by NFGA assessed how and why wild bear populations changed over the past two decades. Reports on those findings plus work on the supply side are in process. Nonetheless, our market studies have contributed to changing preconceptions around bear bile use in China. Thanks to advances in the questioning techniques used to ask consumers about the products they use, combined with the availability of large national samples via anonymous online platforms, we could go beyond some of the earlier studies into bear bile consumption. We learned that characterising all consumers as having the same preferences and behaviours is too simplistic. In fact, the complexities and disparities in people’s decisions made it impossible to conclude definitively how farmed bile influenced the overall consumption of wild bile.

Our mutual agreement to base conclusions on robust science was key. We urge other IUCN Members to develop these collaborations.

Importantly, our work overcame significant biases (and prejudices), which were apparent on all sides at the beginning. There was simply no short-cutting the lengthy process of trust-building among international collaborators from different sectors and disciplines. Key to this success was our mutual agreement to base conclusions on robust science. We urge other IUCN Members to develop these collaborations to address the most complex conservation questions to ensure that the best possible evidence is used to inform decision-making.

This brings us back to where it all started: the original proponents of the motion in Jeju might well have gained a majority vote for closing bear farms, but saw fit to ask to what end — especially if it alienated a major stakeholder. Instead, compromise led parties down a different route, itself demanding trust, collaboration, and compromise. The outcome has taken time to achieve, and is by no means complete, but we believe has better served conservation in the long run.

As IUCN Members prepare to meet again in Jeju at the inaugural IUCN Leaders Forum, we encourage Members to give these debates the time needed to work collaboratively towards satisfactory outcomes. This is especially vital when the issues are complex, the evidence initially inadequate and there is a strong diversity of views and perspectives.

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