Moon bears are named after the yellow crescent of fur on their chests. They are 1.2 to 1.8 metres tall, with a thick, shaggy coat and big, round ears. They are solitary animals that can be found across Asia, from Pakistan to Japan. On the mainland, hundreds of moon bears - or Asiatic black bears - live in agony on bile farms. They are kept in a small cage for as long as 25 years for bile extraction.
Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is regarded as a cure for many illnesses, including liver and blood disease, digestive problems and cancer. It is even used in anti-wrinkle products. But critics say there are many herbal alternatives that can provide the same effects, if bear bile does what it claims at all.
'No one is going to die for the lack of bear bile. It is not a compulsory component in Chinese medicine. There are 64 herbal alternatives that can provide the same functions. Even if bile is proved to be effective, how the bears are treated is cruel and not in harmony with nature,' says Jill Robinson, founder of Hong Kong-based charity, Animals Asia.
Robinson launched the charity in 1998 after she saw a caged bear while visiting the mainland. 'She was in great pain and I knew she would die,' says Robinson. 'It was one of those moments in life that you will never forget, and which changes the course of your life.'
Since then, she has dedicated herself to rescuing bears from bile farms by raising awareness about the issue, and working with mainland doctors and authorities.
Under the foundation's campaign Moon Bear Rescue, 352 animals have been freed from farms on the mainland and in Vietnam. In addition, 43 mainland farms have been closed down.
The rescued animals are taken to the Moon Bear Rescue Centre near Chengdu in Sichuan province. Robinson says the rehabilitation will take months, as the bears have become defenceless and disabled after being caged and tortured for years.
'Bile extraction is an extremely cruel and painful process for the animals,' says Robinson.
There are different methods of bile extraction. Farmers used to milk bears daily by implanting a metal tube called a catheter into their gall bladder. The procedure is unhygienic and many bears died 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.
'The procedure is still inhumane. The wound is deliberately left open to allow bile to drip and it causes great pain to the bear,' says Robinson. 'Many bears have developed liver cancer from the contaminated bile leaking back to the body. Doctors have also confirmed a few cases where people died from taking contaminated bile.
'I'm not angry about Chinese or any tradition. I'm angry at bear farming and the greed of people who make money out of such a trade. It's about basic respect for all animals, not just bears. Living in a civilised world, we have to reflect on our practices. We need to change.'
Yet, Robinson remains hopeful as she has seen rapid changes, with mainlanders becoming more concerned about animal rights. 'The Chinese public is getting more aware [of the problem] and they don't want bear farming, too,' she adds.
Since 2000, when Animals Asia signed an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to rescue 500 bears from farms in Sichuan, 18 of the 31 provinces or districts on the mainland have stayed bear-farm free. Robinson's long-term goal is to work with the mainland authorities to eliminate bear farming altogether.
'We can all do something to stop bear farming. We can write letters to authorities and inform them of what is happening. We can raise awareness by telling people about the inhuman practice. Bears are endangered animals; they need everyone's help,' she says.
For more details, visit www.animalsasia.org