Can synthetic bile finally free the moon bears?
One of the most horrific abuses of animals in China and Vietnam has been the trapping of moon bears and the extraction of their bile on an industrial scale.
Such bear farms, which are poorly regulated and usually unsanitary, keep the bears in small cages under the most terrible conditions. But at least China, as a state-directed policy, has been phasing out those farms, although still too slowly.
One reason is that there are still industrial-scale buyers of bear bile. Mainland manufacturer Kaibao Pharmaceuticals buys an estimated 18 tonnes of powdered bile each year, roughly equivalent to half of the total wholesale supply.
The mind boggles: how many bears have to suffer the painful daily bile extraction to meet that quota?
Fortunately, the company has just announced that its lab has successfully synthesised a full substitute for use in traditional Chinese medicine under a state-subsidised scheme worth US$1.8 million.
Ursodeoxycholic acid, the active ingredient in bear bile, has long been artificially produced. It is, for example, used to treat a type of cirrhosis of the liver.
It appears Kaibao has used poultry bile to mimic the entire chemical makeup of the bear bile.
Animals Asia founder CEO Jill Robinson said this could potentially be a game changer.
"This project has the potential to drastically scale back China's bear bile industry by providing an alternative that traditional medicinal practitioners and patients are happy to use," she said.
"The fact that it is government-funded and sanctioned is hugely important. It shows that both businessmen and policymakers have realised there is no future in bear bile farming and are actively seeking ways to make it obsolete."
No other NGO has done more to help end this horrific animal trade than Animals Asia. It has rescued hundreds of bears and provided them with lifelong care in sanctuaries in China and Vietnam. There are still an estimated 10,000 bears trapped in those farms.
It's unclear whether Kaibao has a timeline or even a deadline to phase out the use of bear bile. But the fact it has produced a full substitute is a bit like Saudi Arabia producing an alternative energy to replace oil.
So let's keep our fingers crossed.