A BRITISH WOMAN recently altered China's 3,000-year-old written language, initiating an unprecedented pairing of Chinese characters for two previously unassociated words: animal welfare. Informing lexicographers, transforming the social conscience and driving government policy, Hong Kong activist Jill Robinson has almost singlehandedly halted bear farming on the mainland: the practice of routinely extracting bile from caged animals' gall bladder for medicinal purposes. Aside from her tenacity and conviction, it has taken seven years of agitation, leaving television's largest documentary-makers fighting over rights to the story. In 1998 Britain's Queen Elizabeth bestowed her with an MBE. Yesterday, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kowloon, mainland authorities and Animals Asia Found-ation (AAF), which Robinson founded, ceremoniously signed an historic agreement to release 500 Asiatic black bears from primitive bear farms, beginning a 'permanent turnaround in the protection of one of the most endangered species on Earth'. 'The world's largest wild animal rescue' began ignobly enough, says Robinson, when, in 1993, she visited some of the mainland's 400-odd bear farms. 'I don't feel proud of that - going around smiling, giving the kids sweets, pretending to be a tourist while taking pictures and ruining their livelihood.' But she was compelled to document the plight of 10,000 Asiatic black bears: scars running the length of their bodies from flesh pressing against the bamboo of cramped cages, catheters dangling from infected, bleeding insertion wounds, bile being painfully extracted twice daily, atrophied bodies weighing up to one-third less than those in the wild. 'I've never seen such misery,' the 42-year-old says of the life led, beginning typically with cubs hunted in the wild, their mothers shot dead. Working as China director of the British-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Robinson's photos exposed the practice for the first time and the world gasped in abhorrence. The investigation revealed that China had plans to increase the number of farmed bears fourfold, to 40,000 by the year 2000 - the government reasoning that breeding and 'tapping' them in captivity would save the wild populations, which were hunted and killed for the whole gall bladder. Robinson, who has lived in Hong Kong for 13 years, found political backing in Legco member David Chu Yu-lin and approached Beijing. 'They were bemused' by her brazenness, she recalls, but ultimately 'defensive of the trade'. Part of traditional Oriental pharmacopoeia for 3,000 years, bile is used to treat fevers, skin burns, sprains, cancer and liver-related illnesses. Bear farming is only a 20-year-old practice, imported from North Korea, and Robinson mounted support for an international campaign, with backing from animal-rights groups and pharmaceutical organisations like the Chinese Association of Preventative Medicine. Within a year she drew up an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association that called for 'the future elimination of bear farming' and agreed to encourage the immediate humane treatment of those bears remaining on farms - all while working to promote cheaper, equally effective herbal alternatives. 'There was too much evidence of the fact that bear farming is an unnecessary act,' Robinson says, modestly acknowledging that the timing was right to address the problem. Herbal alternatives - more than 50 of which have now been scientifically recognised, like Chinese ivy stem, chrysanthemum and dandelion - had been 'discovered' and were gaining support, and in 1992, South Korea banned bear farming following local public outcry. Under pressure, in 1995, the Guangdong State Forestry Admin-istration closed down the worst farm Robinson exposed and allowed IFAW to have custody of nine moon bears, which along with the smaller sun bear, are the two sub-species of the Asiatic black bear. The rescue team were sickened by what they saw. 'I was virtually in tears,' says Dr Gail Cochrane, one of the veterinarians who performed corrective surgery. On removing the catheters she found rust flakes in the gall bladders, cotton swabs in the bears' abdomens and massive abscesses (localised collections of pus formed by tissue disintegration). The process, which should have taken two hours per bear, often took seven, as Cochrane reconstructed abdominal walls with carbon fibre implants. One starving bear was put down, his cage having been so constrictive that it caused severe deformities of the legs and flattened his rib cage to such an extent it had become impossible to swallow food. In December 1996, the remaining eight bears were taken to a newly created bear sanctuary at Panyu in Guangdong province. Initially too traumatised to comprehend the space and freedom, it took several weeks before their weak limbs were strong enough to walk across the half-hectare wooded enclosure, complete with artificial pond. Today, Robinson, who founded AAF in 1998, invites donors of the 'Sponsor-a-Bear' programme to the sanctuary in Panyu, land which was donated by David Chu. On the hour-and-a-half ferry ride up the Pearl River, Molly Leung, a 40-something passport officer with the Australian Consulate General, says, 'Hong and Digger, they're my babies', adding that her office is flush with photos of the two moon bears, with their signature crescent-shaped patch of blonde hair swathed across their chest like a bib. But that day at Panyu, it was Cookie who was due for a yearly check-up. To 'let people get more personally involved with their contribution,' says Boris Chiao, AAF project director, sponsors are encouraged to help - like taking Cookie's temperature, rectally, once he was sedated ('When you go home, don't forget to clean under your fingernails,' Robinson admonished one lucky volunteer) or trimming his claws with hedge- clippers; volunteers even inserted the needle and pushed the plunger for deworming injections. 'The bears' mental state has improved a hundredfold since we found them,' Robinson says, hamming it up by feeding the other bears grapes from her mouth through the cages' bars. Cookie, initially the most nervous, has become the most mischievous, playing tug-of-war with his caretakers for control of the hose when he is being cooled off; the hose now resembles a sprinkler. Chu Chu, scars still visible on his head from banging it on his farming cage - one typical manifestion of neurotic behaviour exhibited by confined animals - is the 'clown', playing 'tag' with himself. Elizabeth has assumed a haughty demeanour, often rebuffing caretakers' attempts to return her at night to her 'den'. 'Honey sandwiches and ice-cream,' Robinson says, 'are the best therapy in the world.' Then, poignantly, she rhetorically asks: 'How does a bear that has spent 13 years confined in a tiny cage and is tortured daily through bile extraction from a tube in his stomach, come to so totally trust the same species that caused him pain?' The thrust of the rescue will be the recovery of 500 bears from Sichuan province - the province most populated with bear farms - who will live out their lives in a sanctuary to be constructed in Xiyang City, 100 kilometres south of Sichuan's capital, Chengdu. Though only one-third of the US$3 million (HK$23.4 million) required to build the site has been raised - all donated by a Hong Kong philanthropist - Robinson still hopes to have it completed within three years. Fortunately, the rescue can begin immediately, as the mainland authorities have provided land near Chengdu that can hold about 20 bears. AAF is planning to pay farmers a yet undetermined amount per bear to dissuade them from selling the animals on the black market, as, aside from gall bladders, claws, teeth and paws are also in demand. But the real legacy of Robinson's efforts should prove to be the impression left on China's populace, especially the young people, who will visit the eight-hectare Sichuan sanctuary on school field trips; the facility will be used to educate visitors on animal welfare and wildlife conservation. Robinson hasn't been immune to the initiative either. 'The bears have changed my life,' she says, adding that their mental and physical resiliency gives hope to the programme. 'If ever an animal has something to teach, then surely these bears have shown us the ultimate lesson in forgiveness.' Meanwhile, in keeping with the 1994 promise, the mainland has reduced the number of farmed bears by 3,000 to 7,000. Yesterday's formal recognition of the agreement that was actually signed a month ago is significant because not only has the commitment been inked for the first time, but it's between AAF and the Sichuan Foresty Department, a government entity, and Beijing-approved. 'It's unprecedented for the Chinese government to sign an official deal with an NGO,' Robinson says. While not a law, the deal identifies the Sichuan rescue centre as a pilot programme for a nationwide initiative to be extended into other provinces within 10 years and finally ban all bear farming within 15 years. 'In 1999, government officials said 'animal welfare' was added to the vocabulary,' she says, illustrating how far her campaigning has come. 'They're beginning to trust our motive', which is paramount because she is still pressing for legislation and ultimately wants to leverage bears to widen the debate on the use of other sentient beings in the lucrative trade of Oriental medicine, like tigers, rhinos and whales. Traditional Oriental medicine provides health care for between a quarter and a half of the world's population and China currently exports about US$600 million yearly. 'You can't comprehend what animals face here,' she says. 'There's not the same level of consciousness [as in the West].' True to form, Robinson dedicated her MBE to one of her 16 dogs and cats, Max, the now deceased canine ambassador who pioneered Hong Kong's 'Dr Dog' programme, in which dogs cheer up the hospitalised. Her devotion has also attracted two of television's largest documentary networks, but she says she can't name names. 'It's almost arrogant to say I'm in discussion with two parties. It's overwhelming.' Robinson knows her advocacy is far from finished. The Asiatic black bear remains an endangered species. China estimates 50,000 exist but international groups put the number much lower, at less than 20,000 moon bears and only a couple of thousand sun bears. Though South Korea has officially ended bear farming, 1,300 bears still remain in cramped quarters, their fate undecided. Robinson is also trying to emancipate some 300 'tapped' bears in Vietnam. 'Compared to China,' she says, 'it's going to be a piece of cake. The past seven years have been the introduction. From this moment on, our work is beginning.' AAF can be contacted at (852) 2791 2225 or at www.animalsasia.org .