Business of pain turns ugly underground
Most Chinese people know bear bile as an expensive traditional medicine with a thousand-year-old history, but few city dwellers have witnessed the cruel way it is collected as closely as Xiong Junhui .
Xiong, an animal activist based in Guangdong, spent years shooting video at more than 10 underground bile farms in the northeast and Sichuan and talking with traders. She made a documentary based on her trip between 2010 and 2011
'I can only say that every second in my videos, bears were suffering in great pain.' Xiong said. 'It's 100 per cent cruelty.'
The practice of extracting bile from live bears really took off on the mainland in the early 1980s. Bear bile farming for commercial use remains legal and the authorities say it is painless and prevents the killing of bears for their bile.
There are various ways to extract bile. Farmers used to milk bears daily by implanting a metal catheter into their gall bladder. The procedure is unhygienic and many bears die from infections.
It was banned by the central government in 1996 and replaced with a 'humane' method called free-dripping. The new procedure involves making a hole in the abdomen to allow the bile to drip from the bear.
Xiong said the mainland has 97 registered bear farms in 11 provinces, where more than 10,000 black bears are kept for bile extraction. But many villagers in rural areas of Jilin , Sichuan and Yunnan are still involved in underground and illegal bile farming.
'Though the authorities say there are fewer than 100 bear farms on the mainland, the true number is definitely hundreds of times more than the official count,' she said. 'If Gui Zhen Tang is listed successfully, it will encourage and create more illegal and underground bear farms. Each one would be a hell for bears.'
In the videos shot by Xiong and her friends, almost all households of a village in Qingshan township in Jilin kept bears for bile extraction. Many still implanted 12cm to 19cm metal catheters into the bears' gall bladders.
'The villagers start extracting bile when a bear is four or five years old. In the next 10 to 20 years, the bears are wracked with pain in a coffin-sized cage on the farm,' Xiong said.
'Each day, the bears are 'milked' for bile through a crude metal catheter thrust into their abdomen. They eat little and have no free access to water as the traders believe hungry and thirsty bears produce more bile for the medicine trade.'
One villager, San Guoyan, told Xiong in the video: 'There are about 1,000 bears spread across our village. We won't let strangers visit.
'The wound is left open to allow bile to drip. The wounds are easily inflamed and we have to feed the bears drugs, like penicillin, each week to diminish the inflammation ... Contaminated? We don't care whether the bile's contaminated or not. We just care how much bile they drip.
'Some bears can produce 8kg of bile powder a year and some only half a kilogram. It depends on their age and health status. The local government seldom comes to check even though they know most households farm bears. They only go to check those registered farms.'
San said regular consignees collected the bile powder and sold it to tourists or pharmaceutical firms.
Xiong said that although it was illegal to export bear products from China, a black-market trade thrived on the mainland. The major overseas markets for bile are Japan and Korea, but bear parts, bile powder and related items also reach Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States and Canada.
Many Chinese view the bile as a traditional remedy for fever, liver disease and sore eyes. Synthetic and herbal alternatives are available, but people still keep using bear bile products.
'We tried to reach related government departments to show them the videos but none of them were reachable,' Xiong said. 'Bears will keep suffering because the regulations keep protecting this cruel industry.'